To a gardener a good ground cover is a lot like a stand out sauce is to a cook—it can go along way toward deflecting attention from any mistakes you made on the main course! Ground covers will wind their way through your other plantings unifying diverse colors and forms. They can provide erosion control, take the place of lawn in areas where lawn will not thrive or is not needed for foot traffic, and cover the feet of plants whose growth habit tends to leave them a bit bare below the knees.
Ground covers come in all shapes and sizes, foliage textures and colors. Many, although not all, have colorful flowers desirable for your garden in their own right. Some are clumping while some spread by underground runners. They could be evergreen or all but disappear in the winter’s cold to come roaring back with the rest of your perennials in the spring. In large scale planting areas you may even opt for masses of closely planted shrubs, such as abelia, juniper or rosemary to fulfill the ground cover function. More and more roses are being bred specifically to stay fairly low and plant en masse with little of the traditional rose care being critical for successful blooming. While we often think of vines as being plants we use to cover trellises or other structures to add vertical interest, many vines do admirably well finding their way on the ground to fill in large areas—ivy and star jasmine are perfect examples of vines used as ground covers.
When choosing plants to act in the ground cover role you must still look at sun/shade, soil and water requirements. This can seem complicated if you are trying to fill an area which may go from sun to shade or have a soggy spot in it. My experience is that whatever you pick will grow to the breadth of its comfort zone and you’ll see soon enough that the uncovered areas need an alternate pick. I have an area in a north facing shade bed filled with Anenome ‘Honore Joubert’, a lovely and fairly invasive perennial which needs afternoon shade in my area. As the bed edges forward and abruptly loses the shade of the house, thus falling into the direct southern sun—-the anemone stops!
A couple of my favorite ground covers have been pictured in previous posts: Geranium ‘Tiny Monster’ and Dianthus ‘Firewitch’. Here are a few more:
Veronica ‘Waterperry Blue’ is a lovely little 4-6″ high trailer which blooms early in the spring. Very polite, tolerant of both sun and shade and and providing a lovely contrast in my garden when planted under pink and red Sunblaze miniature roses.
Mazus repens ‘Alba’ is another little clumper-trailer. This one brightens up my shade bed bordering my back patio. It required a good bit of neatening up early this spring but by May or so it will have filled back in. Yet another spring bloomer with almost chartreuse foliage.
This one is a little more unfamiliar and hard to find. You might find it labeled Phyla nodiflora or Lippia repens. Its claim to fame is the ability to withstand foot traffic and can be a lawn substitute for smaller areas. It can even be mowed and bounce back pretty quickly! The flowers are reputed to appear spring through fall but in my garden I have only spring bloom. I does form a very tight mat of both above ground stems and underground roots and can be hard to eradicate if you find you don’t love it. This photo is of my original 4″ pot purchased 2 seasons ago. It now fills the entire area of the rose bed it is in–about a 10 ft diameter circle boundaried by pool deck and grass.
Hellebores may not be considered traditional ground covers but they are indispensable if you want to fill the areas beneath high branching hardwoods and conifers. They are naturally understory plants, unbothered by root competition and flourish in the forest floor environment created from leaf and needle drop. They are commonly called Lenten Rose or Christmas Rose depending on the species. While they bloom in the fall through late winter, their strong, leathery, dark green foliage persists throughout the year. In masses they make a statement even when not in bloom. Hellebores are prolific reseeders and if left in place will form huge colonies of new seedlings. The only downside I have ever seen was that the seedlings take several years to reach blooming size—this surely accounts for their relative pricey-ness in the retail nursery market. The seedling’s bloom color is not necessarily true to the parent plant and there is much variation from white to cream to pink. The plant pictured is 9 years old and was originally a seedling from the garden of my dear friend, Mary Sims, in Macon, GA. There is intensive breeding going on the the hellebore world and you can find many new named varieties and color variations in specialty plant catalogs.
Also a little non traditional but very effective in large swathes are Daylilies (Hemerocallis.) These clumping beauties provide clear green foliage most of the year (depending on variety and where you live) and offer more color and form variety than almost any other plant group except possibly roses. Go for at least 3 plants of each variety and lay them out blending your colors as you fill your bed. You cannot go wrong! For a feast of offerings try Oakes Daylily Farm in Knoxville, TN. Their catalog is extensive and the many plants I have ordered from them have been in excellent condition with large healthy scapes ready to go in the ground.
My last offering for today takes us back into the more traditional ground cover world. I first saw this plant in action in a lovely sun filled space in one of the gardens on the Gamble Garden tour in Palo Alto, CA and I was instantly a fan. While their weather is more temperate than where I live, the plant was a foot high mound about 3 feet in diameter out in the very hot sun without any protection. It almost glowed! This is Convolvulus mauritanicus ‘Morrocan Blue’ and is commonly called ground morning glory. What a charmer it is. I established it just last spring in a very hot, dry area of my side yard that gets little to no attention and it has really made quite a show as the “skirt” for some lovely, very tall white bearded iris.
There are so many more to share with you I’ll need a “part deux” ground cover post. We have not even talked about the campanulas, lantanas, or verbenas! Until next we garden together…