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GROUNDCOVERS
GROUNDCOVERS
WHY LOOK DOWN?
--- Anne K Moore February 9, 2009 ---
Photos by Anne K Moore ---

Old habits are hard to break.  We spend our childhood learning to walk with eyes forward.  We are taught to meet life head-on, to look them in the eye!  It is now time to look down, to acknowledge those bare spots in the garden, and cover them.

Groundcovers add interest to edges and make great fillers under tall plants.  Marlberry (Ardisia japonica) has glossy mid-green leaves with reddish stems and red berries.  Although a shrub, it only gets about 18 inches tall.  It will take about three years to jump into all of the open spaces in the warm areas, USDA Zones 7-9.

 

If you want to keep intruders out of a section of your garden, place prickly creepers like a carpet rose in the area.  On the other hand, if you want to welcome someone down a garden lane, substitute cushiony and hospitable plants between the stepping-stones.  Any of the fragrant thymes would be a soft choice for a well-drained area.  Use the less fussy dwarf mondo grass (Ophiopogon ‘Nana’) to soften Southern difficult sites.  Use sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) in the North.  Fairy bells, also called bishop’s hat (Epemedium) isn’t used enough in gardens North or South.

 

Soothingly touchable, bright green southern shield ferns (Thelypteris kunthii), located along pathway edges, will fill in shady areas and even take some sun, spreading around season upon season.  They are fair-weather ferns, dying back in winter and reappearing in the spring.  This fern is a native south easterner and can be difficult to find.  Look for it at Master Gardener plant sales.  It is a passalong plant.  Japanese Painted ferns (Athyrium nipponicum) come in rainbow colors and many heights and are readily available.

 

Low groundcovers, like pachysandra, can lead the eye to a grander image.  A statue or fountain placed in the middle or behind this carpet takes on importance.  Or the low growing, creeping plumbago, (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) can stop you for a closer look.  This plant makes a statement.  Deep blue flowers show off amidst bright green leaves on red stems.

 

You will welcome dry, sunny spots, if you have ever grown the ice plant (Delosperma cooperi) with its fleshy leaves and fuchsia-pink daisy flowers.  If fuchsia isn’t to your liking, try the newer ‘Starburst’ ice plant with lavender flowers.  Another dry-soil sun worshiper is the purple and pink sedum ‘Vera Jameson’.

 

What could be more elegant in the shade than variegated Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’)?  In wet shade, try the black and green leaved elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta ‘Illustris’).  It stays put in dry shade but multiplies quickly in wet, even boggy, areas.  It will die back but survives Southern winters in the ground.  It needs digging in colder areas, USDA Zones 6 and lower.

 

Hellebores come in many leaf shapes and flower colors.  Helleborus niger is the Christmas rose with beautiful white flowers.  Helleborus Orientalis is our much-loved Lenten Rose, the one hybridizers have remade into choice flower colors, from almost black to freckled white.  Helleborus foetidus has striking deep green and finely cut foliage.  All are welcome additions to a shady garden.

 

Are some groundcovers invasive?  Not if they are doing what they were born to do, cover up bare dirt and choke out weeds.  If they tend to escape into the wild environment, then they are invasive.  For a list of these noxious plants, go to http://plants.usda.gov/java/noxiousDriver.

 

Where, you might ask, are the liriopes, the ajugas, the hostas, and periwinkles?  Look down.  They are everywhere.

 

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