Edible ground covers act as a living mulch to feed and protect your soil. Soil is the key to a happy and healthy garden, so we not only want to care for our soil, but also replenish it. Edible ground covers will spread to protect the soil from the harsh summer sun and also reduce topsoil from washing away during heavy rains. Their roots are often small and fibrous to help hold soil in place and prevent erosion.
Creating a food forest-style garden with multiple layers can help develop a sustainable, low-maintenance, edible garden. The taller trees will provide shade and wind protection. The medium plants can then be a little more delicate and the groundcovers will protect the soil by retaining moisture, replenishing the soil by dropping leaves and providing a diverse habitat for wildlife and beneficial insects to live.
Edible ground covers are an incredible addition to your home garden because they not only look beautiful and lush, but they also provide many benefits to help create a thriving and productive garden.
Diversity is key to creating a thriving and sustainable edible garden. Having diversity in your garden will help improve the soil and allow the plants to have access to enough nutrients and sunlight.
Edible ground covers are also a great way to help reduce weeds, as they smother and reduce the sunlight available.
Mulch is also really important in creating sustainable edible gardens as it protects the soil and breaks it down to add nutrients. Mulch can be a great first step to preparing your gardens before you have established ground covers.
1. Sweet Potato
Sweet potato grows along the ground like a vine and provides a thick, lush ground cover that protects the soil from harsh sunlight and helps retain moisture. Sweet potato plants not only produce edible tubers beneath the soil, but the leaves are also edible. The young leaves can be harvested and used as a substitute for spinach or leafy greens. Sweet Potato leaves are great to add to soups, curries, and stir-fries. They are also delicious sautéed in a pan with garlic and butter, or tamari/soy sauce, garlic and chilli.
Sweet potato is a fantastic edible ground cover because it produces a substantial amount of food. The tubers can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes making them a versatile base crop for your edible garden.
As their leaves fall, they add nutrients back into the soil. They also provide an amazing natural habitat for so many beneficial insects to help aid in natural pest management. Sweet potatoes are also very easy to regrow and propagate.
Nasturtiums and sweet potato overlap to provide an edible ground cover all year round and will usually regrow each year without any effort on your behalf. It is important to note that Nasturtium and Sweet potato are vigorous growers and can smother small plants. If you grow them once they will continue to pop up each year in your garden. So that is something to consider if you have limited space. For urban gardens or small space gardens, it may be better suited to grow them in a container or planter bag.
Nasturtium plants are also entirely edible. The leaves are quite peppery and are great for salads, wraps, pesto and garnishes. The flowers have a mild peppery taste and can be used in salads or as garnishes. They come in a range of vibrant colours.
Nasturtiums produce an abundance of flowers, so they attract pollinators to the garden. The more pollinators we can attract (link to pollinators blog) to our edible gardens the better, as this increases the amount of fruit and vegetables that will be produced.
The nasturtium seed pods are also edible and can be pickled to make delicious capers.
Nasturtiums can attract slugs and snails but this can be a great way to trap and keep them out of your veggie patch. Nasturtiums are often planted as “bug breaks” or traps around vegetable gardens or close to chicken coops.
3. Sweet Violet
Sweet violet is a delicate ground cover that is perfect for shady areas of the garden. As your gardens become more established the number of shady patches in the garden will increase. Sweet violets are very low-lying and dense. They protect the soil and retain moisture.
They have small heart-shaped leaves that make beautiful garnishes. The delicate flowers are edible and the colours range from purple, blue, pale pink and white. The flowers are often used to decorate cakes and in baking.
4. Alpine Strawberry
Growing strawberries as an edible ground cover is always a good idea! Alpine strawberries produce small, sweet strawberries and are tough, drought-tolerant plants. They provide a thick leaf coverage to protect the soil and help reduce erosion.
Alpine strawberries can tolerate both full sun and part shade and are easy to grow.
Alpine strawberries come in various varieties, including a white variety that tastes a little like pineapple. Strawberry leaves can also be dried to use in teas.
Often called Roman chamomile, this variety is a low-lying ground cover that can also be used as a lawn substitute. Chamomile has delicate daisy-like flowers that are predominantly used in teas. Chamomile has calming properties and is used to support sleep and aid in anxiety.
Rosmarinus officinalis 'Prostratus'
Prostrate rosemary varieties are grown along the ground rather than vertically. Rosemary is a hardy, drought-tolerant herb and is great for poor, sandy soil or rocky gardens. Rosemary is a very resilient, low-maintenance plant. The low-lying or hanging varieties can make an excellent ground cover for your less fertile areas of the garden.
Rosemary is used to flavouring many dishes and is a staple culinary herb for the home garden.
Rosemary also has many medicinal properties and is often used in skincare and healing balms and lotions.
Rosemary produces an abundance of flowers that will attract pollinators to your garden.
Thyme is another easy herb to grow that has many culinary and medicinal qualities. There are many different varieties of thyme and many of them grow as a low lying ground cover. Thyme provides a lush ground cover to protect the soil and has a fragrant scent. The delicate Thyme flowers attract beneficial insects and offer a mild fragrant flavour to use as garnishes.
Thyme is a great herb to have in your kitchen garden or close to your house to use regularly in flavouring your home-cooked meals.
Oregano is another great culinary herb that can be used as an edible ground cover. Add Oregano to your pizza sauces, roasts or slow-cooked meals. Oregano is a perennial herb that benefits from regular pruning, so this can be a great opportunity to harvest and dry the leaves to use throughout the year. Oregano can be grown in both full sun and part shade and is a hardy, drought-tolerant plant.
Cranberries are a low lying scrub that can make an excellent fruiting ground cover. It can take a while to get to full fruit production (3-5 years), but then you will have an abundance of small juicy fruits for many years to come. Cranberries like full sun with very moist soil, so are well suited to low lying areas of the garden. Cranberries do need chill hours to fruit, so are suited to locations that receive at least a total of 1 month (1,000 hours) below 7 degrees Celcius.
10. New Zealand Spinach
New Zealand spinach or “Warrigal Greens” is a low lying spinach substitute that makes a productive edible ground cover. New Zealand spinach is easy to grow perennial that is well suited to coastal environments. It grows as a thick ground cover and will protect the soil and retain moisture.
Planting edible ground covers will help productively maximise space to not only grow more food but also attract pollinators, provide habitat to beneficial insects, protect the soil, retain moisture and create a beautiful, lush aesthetic to your home garden.