By Mel Bellar
Every once in a while I have a client say, “Why don’t we just cover that area with a ground cover?” I love the idea, and look, of covering a large and/or difficult area of the landscape with a beautiful monoculture that blocks out the weeds, creates an appealing line and beautiful palette, and doesn’t need to be mowed. If only it were as easy as it sounds, I would do it all the time.
Groundcovers are great for smaller and shadier areas where it is difficult to grow turfgrass. The problem is that they still require preparation of the desired area for planting by removing the grass or weeds and having enough decent soil to establish the new plants. This is more challenging in larger, sunnier locations and is not the imagined low-cost solution. They also take time to establish and require weeding and maintenance during the process; it is not a free lunch. Also, a groundcover that does a flimsy job is worse than no groundcover at all. Those creeping junipers are a prime example of a tepid groundcover; they can look great, but it is hell to keep the weeds out of them. Once the weeds get established you are in for a losing battle.
My favorite and the most useful and effective groundcover is the big root geranium, Geranium macrorrhizum. It is beautiful all season, blooming pinky or purplish in May and then providing a lush light-green dense cover until it snows. In the Spring you rake or blow out the leaves and it is attractive again in no time. It has an amazing fragrance when slightly disturbed; it will waft the scent from a hard wind or rain. I often use it to cover large areas because it is easy to collect sprigs from friends and it is easy to establish. Cheap, fast, beautiful and effective; you can’t ask for more. The only caveat is that it doesn’t love full sun; it will wilt in the heat, and I have had it turn yellow during some hot, dry spells.
Some other groundcovers that I like to use, approximately in my order of preference:
Bugleweed, Ajuga reptans, is a very reliable short option with good coverage; great for the edges of paths or under a tree. I like the basic ajuga with the burgundy leaves, but the chocolate chip variety is appealing; both can take sun or shade. The variegated version is nice, but I find it to be weak.
European ginger, Asarum europium, has a beautiful shiny round leaf and is very low growing. It can be slightly fussy, but once established it spreads via rhizomes and reseeding. It has good coverage and can take shade or sun. It is great to tuck into nooks and crannies. I love the native Canadian ginger with fuzzier light green leaves, but it is more difficult to get started and slower to spread.
Various sedges, Carex, are great to cover a lot of area in a shade garden and to give it a restful natural look but they are also good as accents and filler. I like to use Carex appalachia and Carex flacca “Blue Zinger” but Carex Pennsylvanica, is another choice as replacement for turfgrass in shady areas. It grows naturally in the forest around the Catskills.
Sweet Woodruff is pretty too but doesn’t have a tight cover and in some years it gets a fungus in the summer that browns it out in a spot and then spreads. I also love using our native foamflower, Tiarella cordifolia, with its low form and foamy flowers. However, it is slow to spread and it often gets heaved out of the ground in the winter until it is well established. There are numerous lamiums that make good groundcovers, but the toughest of all of the ground covers is Lamium galeobdolon with common names like yellow archangel, aluminum plant, artillery plant and yellow weasel-snout. It can almost grow in the dark with no water, but don’t place it where it can get into your other plants. I only use it under a tree in dry shade or under an eave where nothing else will grow.
I didn’t mention vinca or pachysandra because I don’t like them. Vinca is invasive here and stuff always grows through it; it takes a long time to cover well and never seems to do the job. Pachysandra feels suburban and I don’t think it is attractive enough to go through the trouble of getting it established when we have all of these other better alternatives.
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes