Great ground cover
By Kim Stoddart
During the summer months and a hot spell the ground can easily dry out and plants become parched. While the warm weather is lovely, the process of watering repeatedly to ensure your produce is suitably quenched can seem like a bit of a bind. Yet, it is bare soil that actually dries out a lot more quickly than foliage covered ground, so where possible keeping some form of planting in situ saves an awful lot of work. It keeps the sun off the ground and prevents moisture from evaporating away, meaning that you simply don’t have to water as often as you would do otherwise to keep plants happily growing away.
So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the plants best suited for use as ground cover...
As regular readers of these pages will no doubt be aware, I don’t plant blocks of the same produce together, preferring instead to mix and match plants. I therefore wouldn’t have lots of squash growing together in one place, or too close to other higher-maintenance fruit. What I like to do, however, is to make the most of this plant’s sprawling tendencies by enabling the leaves to spread far and wide between my other moisture hungry plants to prevent the soil around them from drying out so quickly.
Any lettuces or pick-and-come-again leaf, such as rocket, make excellent filler plants for any spaces in your vegetable plot. They are very light on the soil and can be planted surrounding nutrient demanding produce, such as tomatoes, chillies or cucumbers, to great effect.
Some herbs like mint and chive can have somewhat thuggish tendencies so I wouldn’t recommend them for use as ground cover on the veg patch at all. Instead, I tend to plant them in more confined quarters to scupper them in their quest for veg patch domination. Good companion herbs include the likes of parsley, basil and fennel, which will complement other produce without trying to take over. Again these can be planted in any available spots to avoid bare ground. Thyme also works well, as does oregano, marjoram and camomile.
This plant is incredibly useful on the veg patch and both the leaves and flowers are delicious in salad. It happily provides effective ground cover and can also be used around your brassicas to good effect as a useful front line of defence against cabbage white caterpillar attack. This is why it is also known as a sacrificial plant as the leaf hungry offspring of this butterfly will munch away on the nasturtium first.
It is also worth mentioning that with the mixed planting system I use, the cabbage white is much less of a problem as they have to really hunt out the brassicas because they aren’t all planted together in one place. As a result, I don’t have to net or indeed worry about any of my plants at all.
This is also a very attractive plant to use for the purpose of ground cover. It adds a welcome splash of vibrant orange among your greens in the process. Like nasturtium, it is also an enthusiastic self-seeder so if you let it have its way, you will never be short of ground cover around your plot for years to come.
Polytunnel growing – feeling hot, hot, hot
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people say: “But don’t polytunnels get too hot in the summer?” as if we have weeks and weeks of blazing sunshine with barely a cloud or indeed a raindrop in the sky. Well, not in the UK we don’t, that’s for sure.
Yes, when the sun is shining your fantastic undercover growing space will indeed heat up quickly, so opening all the doors, vents and any windows is key. During periods of warm weather, it is best to simply leave the polytunnel open overnight to keep everything cool. If you are worried about rabbits getting in, then a gate can easily be constructed from pallets or salvaged materials.
Air flow is very important and your plants will require extra watering, but then during a heat wave so will your produce outside. To minimise time and effort, I’d recommend watering in the morning ideally, or in the cool of the evening when moisture can sink properly into the soil without evaporation from the heat. Additionally, it is best to water for longer to enable a proper deep-down soaking.
Well composted soil is better able to absorb and retain water, so you might also want to mulch around especially hungry plants, such as your Mediterranean fruits. Also ground cover (as outlined above) really helps to stop the soil and plants from drying out.
Wildlife watch – feral cats
While most people with farm cats on their property have chosen to bring them in, strays occasionally just turn up out of the blue. They could be drawn to a smallholding with some nice outbuildings in which to shelter and if you feed them daily they will probably hang around knowing a good thing when they see it.
Many animal charities like the RSPCA and Cat Action Trust offer feral cats for rehousing and they are a good choice, especially for smallholders looking to keep the local rat population at bay. The only downside is that cats also have a tenancy to think that your raised beds on the veg patch have been created just for them… as toilets. And not just yours, but any kitty neighbours will travel far and wide in search of a good spot to defecate. This can cause all manner of problems, but the key to protecting your fruit and veg patch from being a dumping ground is to try and maintain as much year-round planting as possible. They really love scratching away at bare ground, so try and thwart their endeavours as much as you can.
Kim Stoddart teaches a range of resilient grow-your-own courses from her smallholding in beautiful Ceredigion focused around polytunnel growing and climate change gardening. Visit: www. greenrocketcourses.com; tel: 07796 677178.
The entrance to the polytunnel
Pumpkins or squash can be used as ground cover around taller plants, such as peas and beans
Ground cover - calendula
Nasturtium as ground cover
Ground cover - lettuce