Great ground cover

By Kim Stod­dart

Country Smallholding - - Inside This Month -

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...

Pump­kins/squash

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.

Sal­ads

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.

Herbs

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.

Nas­tur­tium

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.

Cal­en­dula

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

Lovely camomile

Ground cover - let­tuce

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