Not Your Granny’s Groundcovers

Think of groundcovers and what leaps to mind? Pachysandra? Vinca? Ajuga? For years, these were the only groundcover choices for home gardeners. Readily available at nurseries and garden centers, they grew like Topsy, filling in bare patches of soil in a single season. But as interest in gardening has ballooned, gardeners have expanded their vision, clamoring for more interesting plants to carpet their woodland floor or anchor their barren slope. The growers listened and over the years they have cultivated an extensive and varied collection of perennial groundcovers for both sunny and shady locations.

If your garden is blessed with sun at least six hours a day, consider Arctostaphylos uva ursi, or Bearberry, a handsome prostrate plant prized for its lush green foliage and wiry red stems. A combination of Greek, arctos (bear) and staphlye (grape) and Latin, uva (grape) and ursus (bear), this native is covered with tiny white blossoms in spring. But the display it stages in fall and winter really stops the show; as the nights lengthen the leathery leaves turn deep burgundy forming a rich backdrop for masses of bright red berries. Hardy in USDA Zones 2-6 the Bearberry thrives in lean, gritty slightly acidic soil, and once established, can tolerated dry conditions, an ideal candidate for a sunbaked hillside. Look for the cultivar ‘Massachusetts’ an especially prolific bloomer.

Another choice for a sunny dry location, Helianthemum nummularium is evergreen or semi-evergreen in USDA Zones 5-8. Not fussy about soil, the Rock Rose thrives in anything from sand to clay, but take care that the soil is not acidic and be sure that it gets good drainage; no wet feet for the Rock Rose. In late spring through early summer masses of dainty blossoms in vivid colors or muted pastels (depending on the cultivar chosen) almost obscure the fuzzy gray-green foliage, and if you shear back the flowers once they have faded you will be rewarded with a second blast of color in fall. For those interested in the medicinal properties of plants, the Rock Rose has been known to help treat panic, anxiety, and fear. What more can you ask for in a plant?

If you are looking for bright blue flowers you need look no farther than Veronica prostrata, or Creeping Speedwell. This sun-loving veronica, hardy throughout most of the country (USDA Zones 2-9), and evergreen in the more temperate zones, tolerates any soil and water conditions, and even if it dies back in your garden in winter, the spectacular blast of electric blue flowers in the spring compensates for its disappearance in cold weather.

A long time favorite groundcover in Great Britain now gaining popularity in the US Persicaria affinis, Himalayan Fleece Flower, is one of those rare perennials that blooms all summer long, its short spikes of red and pink flowers hovering above a mat of deep green leather-like leaves. This too is a groundcover for full sun (it can also take partial shade) and can tolerate any type of soil and water conditions, although it prefers an average to moist environment. Hardy in USDA Zones 3-9, semi-evergreen in cooler climates, the Fleece Flower is billed as deer resistant. Those who live in deer country know that deer resistant does not mean deer proof, so give it a trial in a small patch before you plunk down a week’s wages.

The same advice applies to the final choice for a groundcover that loves the sun, Lemon Thyme or Thymus citriodorus, and as its common name implies, this plant is highly fragrant; generally deer seem to avoid scented plants. Adaptable in much of the country (USDA Zones 4-10) and evergreen in the deep South, Lemon Thyme likes its soil dry; too much moisture and the roots will rot. Although it is grown primarily for its leaves it is massed with tiny light lilac flowers in July, truly a bonus. Try using some of the leaves as a substitute for lemon zest in cooking.

For gardens bathed in partial or even total shade, the groundcover selection is vast; no need to fall back on pachysandra or ajuga. If you have deep shade you cannot go wrong with the Northeastern native Gaultheria procumbens P1070821
or Wintergreen whose range extends from USDA Zone 3 to 8. Preferring moist soil, Wintergreen is a natural choice for a damp woodland floor and a great alternative to moss. In early summer the plants are covered with tiny waxy white blossoms that morph into bright red berries in the fall, and if you crush its evergreen glossy foliage, and you will know immediately how it got its common name; it is the very same wintergreen that flavors gum and candy.
A second groundcover, a personal favorite, Galium odoratum, or Sweet Woodruff, P1070815
also has fragrant leaves, can tolerate deep shade and moist acidic soil, but that’s where the similarity to Wintergreen ends. The foliage of Sweet Woodruff is made up of whorls of lancet-like leaves that support clusters of dainty white flowers in spring, and the leaves can be dried for potpourris or to flavor May wine. Although it dies back in the winter (USDA Zones 4-8), it emerges in the spring with renewed vigor. If it threatens to take over your woodland garden, just cut back on the water; Sweet Woodruff has an aggressive reputation.
Another groundcover that thrives in deep shade and moist acidic soil is the handsome Canadian Ginger, Asarum canadense P1070817
admired for its matte kidney-shaped leaves that slowly form a thick carpet of green. If you prefer shiny leaves then take a look at its sibling, European Ginger Asarum europaeum. Two strikes against the Gingers; the flowers are nondescript and they are not evergreen. But if these are of no concern then either of the Gingers is a fine choice for an understory plant, a plant to ring a shade tree perhaps, and a groundcover that will tolerate the toxic soil around a black walnut tree, a rarity in the plant world. Hardy to USDA Zones 4-7 neither Ginger is fond of the heat and humidity of Southern summers.
Moving out of the deep shade of woodland gardens into partial shade gardens, one of the longest flowering groundcovers is Plumbago or Ceratostigma plumbaganoides. Putting on a show from July to September, deep blue phlox-like blossoms stand above the shiny green leaves fading only when the nights begin to lengthen. Then the second act begins; the leaves slowly turn a rich bronze adding a splash of color to a winter garden in milder climates (hardy to USDA Zones 5-9). Not fussy about soil but requiring good drainage, Plumbago is slow to leaf out in the spring emerging just as the daffodils are beginning to wither. Plant them together for a seamless transition into late spring.
Long favored in Europe the final choice for a shade-loving groundcover Waldsteinia ternata P1070819
is just now beginning to gain recognition in its home country. Native to the Eastern and Central parts of the US, the Barren Strawberry is adaptable to any type of soil but prefers it on the moist side, and if happy it will reward the gardener by forming a dense mat of shiny wedge-shaped leaves. Mid spring the Barren Strawberry produces a profusion of buttercup yellow flowers followed by small strawberry-like fruits (inedible) in summer. In the fall when the flowers and fruits are memories, the leaves turn purple and may last through a mild winter (hardy to USDA Zones 3-7). Although it is fast growing, the Barren Strawberry is well behaved and not considered invasive.
So if you have a barren spot, a patch of soil that cries out for a carpet of green, forget about the old triumvirate – pachysandra, vinca and ajuga – and plant a more unusual and interesting groundcover to fill in that bare spot. Although this brief discussion describes a few distinctive groundcovers, many more are available commercially, either from local nurseries, garden centers or over the Internet.

Plant Sources:

Digging Dog Nursery
www.diggingdog.com

Advertises a large and diverse selection of perennial plants

High Country Gardens
www.highcountrygardens.com

Specializes in water-wise and native plants

Plant Delights Nursery
www.plantdelights.com

Offers unusual and hard to find plants