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paigect

Can we please talk about groundcover?

17 years ago

I am something of a gardening novice as most of you know - - only been at it about 5 years, 2 of them in earnest. I was wondering about planting groundcover in garden beds here in NE. What does well here without being so invasive as to crowd out other plants? Does one consider the type of plants already in the bed (i.e. shrubs versus perennials) with respect to the aggressive nature of the ground cover? When is it a good idea to plant ground cover versus just mulching under everything?

Thanks for any input!

Comments (42)

  • 17 years ago

    Groundcovers are by nature somewhat aggressive, otherwise they'd just be short perennials. They need to be ... assertive ... to out-compete weeds. So, they need to be used carefully, and you're smart to think it through before you pick one.

    I've battled ivy, pachysandra, and the dreaded vinca; you're right to consider the other plants in the bed because the vining ground covers will eventually start to climb and look really bad even when planted around shrubs.

    In addition to the questions you asked, you also need to carefully consider the conditions where you intend to plant, because a big planting of unhappy groundcover looks a lot worse than a few mis-placed plants, ones that are struggling a bit in too much sun or too much shade.

    Everyone has their own favorites, here are some that I like - which means they've done fairly well for me.

    For shade, you can't go wrong with gingers, aka asarum - I like the European because it's so glossy. It's expensive, but spreads really well when it's happy - I always buy the smallest plants I can find, and they fill in quickly. If the other plants in the bed are tall or leggy enough, hellebores make a fab groundcover, being a serene dark green when the rest of the garden is showing off but blooming in winter when you need it most. I also like Liriope for its grass-like foliage and surprising blue flowers late in the season.

    For sun, I'd go with another winter-blooming plant, heath. It takes a lot of abuse, likes lean soil and doesn't require water. It's also fairly tall - maybe 6 inches, and not everyone likes the way it looks. The short sedums are also really fun - I'm collecting them here and there and can't ever get enough of them.

    >When is it a good idea to plant ground cover versus just mulching under everything?

    The key word is "under" - large expanses of mulch between plants is now accepted in some quarters, but it's really just been popularized by the people who landscape the malls. If you have space between shrubs, I'd almost always go for a groundcover just to keep the theme green and not brown.

  • 17 years ago

    Paige, is this for the area in front of your fence where you want to replace the pachysandra?

    Well, wherever it is for, what are your conditions there? Sun, shade, dry soil, wet, etc.?

    I love, love, love creeping sedum. I have a few types in a hot, dry, lean-soil area and they shine. Then again I have some in a lasagna bed, where the soil is much better, and that planting does well too. I think sun requirements vary for different varieties.

    I also love lamium, but I seem to have a hard time getting it established. Lamium does well in shade, but I think it may brown up in the sun.

    Another favorite of mine - which others find aggressive, but I don't - is sweet woodruff. I absolutely love the foliage on this one, and while I've always seen it promoted as a shade plant, I have a gardening friend who has some in sun and it does well there.

    I'm trying some creeping thyme under some roses, since I like the look of a low groundcover instead of mulch. Too soon to tell how it will work for me.

    I'd stay away from ajuga if you want something in a bed where other perennials should be the star. I've got some unknown/un-named, kind-of-purple-leaved ajuga that is pretty aggressive, but not too much so (yet) for me and for its situation. In a bed where I want less coverage, I'm trying ajuga Torch. It seems to be less aggressive (so far) and has a nice pink flower. But again, be careful of ajuga.

    Like DTD, I like ginger too, but I've found it to be on the expensive side, and I'm cheap, lol, so I haven't tried it yet. I also agree totally with DTD's last paragraph!

    :)
    Dee

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  • 17 years ago

    I'm glad this got started. How can I make vinca work best? I really like it, but definitely don't want a problem on my hands. I've seen some houses in my neighborhood that have slope areas covered with neat looking vinca - just lovely - and these same people have plenty of other plants in their yard as well, so the vinca isn't choking everything out. If I plant some in sun, is that a no-no? Does it pull out easily? Or is it like the dreaded thistle (in my wisdom, I planted some of that in my herb garden, and am paying for it now - I'll be battling it for the next 20 years, I think) where the least little bit left in will sprout new plants?

    I prefer groundcovers to mulch, in fact, I don't actually have any mulch - empty space=room for another plant, to me. But since I haven't planted all my empty spaces yet, I'm at war with the weeds pretty regularly, LOL.

  • 17 years ago

    Thanks for the responses so far, I think we have a great discussion gearing up. I'm on a quick lunch break at home so I don't have much time right now to respond, but I'm intrigued by DTD's rec. of Heath. I will have to look into that. I'm looking at mostly sunny beds at the moment - - my shade beds are either crowded with ferns or I have not yet tackled the removal of the pachysandra. :-) The soil conditions are average for this area - - clay with lots of watering by me!

  • 17 years ago

    paigect,
    I have finally got to the point of thinking about ground covers but one that I love is Erica x Darleyensis (winter or spring heath). 'Kramer's Rote' that blooms bright pink Jan-April is a particular favorite it will tolerate deciduous shade and its needles take on a purple hew in the cold weather. It's h & s is 14x24 so if you are looking for a an economical plant for a large area this may not be the right choice. kt

  • 17 years ago

    Most of my heaths and heathers were bought for very little money from the local conservation district sales - they are about a buck a plant. Katy's right, the foliage on some varieties colors brilliantly in winter. They don't like to be crowded but also will take a fair amount of shade - the Waqoit Heather nursery has them blooming in the woods, quite a sight in very early spring.

  • 17 years ago

    I did love heaths and heathers, then a couple winters back, the cold and snowless conditions killed then all. Some I had growing for 7 years. They work great on the cape.

    I use short sedums in the very sunny areas, woodruff and hostas in the shadier areas. I do have some thyme and a small grey plant called "pussy toes" I purchased at NEWFS.

    My vinca was already here when I moved in as well as lily of the valley. I just pull them out if they get agressive, which they do, especially the lily of the valley.

    Also, consider creeping phlox. After it is done blooming, it stays nice and green and has made a good looking groundcover for me in sunny areas.

  • 17 years ago

    I love groundcovers, personally.

    It's my opinion that by nature (as DTD pointed out) they have to be aggressive. I make a distinction between "aggressive" and "invasive", though. To me, "aggressive" means the plant will readily increase its territory but it won't crowd out its neighbors. It will make a happy livin' under taller neighbors. The plants will co-exist nicely over time.

    I think success with groundcovers depends on selecting the right sort of plant for the available conditions, too. I struggle with plants that like lean, dry-ish soil, and full sun. I simply don't have what they want/need (I love the low Sedums, too). But I know I can't miss with European ginger... it grows EVERYWHERE for me... loves the rich, moist soil, and the shaded areas. Ditto Sweet Woodruff. It wanders everywhere in the gardens, but it's pretty easy to yank out if it oversteps its bounds too much. I adore Epimedium and Lamium, and Ajuga (yes, you read that correctly! a wonderful plant, too much maligned because it was sited improperly in the first place).

    I love Pachysandra and Vinca. But I use them in areas where they can really set up camp; in between shrubs and big, bold perennials who shrug off the "competition". With time, you learn which ones to use and where to use them to best effect.

    The toughest part of using groundcovers is that the choice ones are expensive and it takes time to establish nice, lush, full expanses of them. But it's well worth the wait.

    Great question!

  • 17 years ago

    Another vote for Ajuga. I find it very easy to yank if it starts to wander somewhere other than what you had in mind. The mostly maroon foliage offers a nice contrast and it blooms in the spring. Another one of my favorites is Lamium-long flowering and lots of neat foliage/flower combinations and variegations. One I haven't seen mentioned yet is Chrysogonum-tough, good for dry shade, yellow flowers in early to mid summer. I also have a variegated Vinca that is quite nice-I think the cultivar is 'Illumination'. It's slow to take off but nice for a spot where you need a touch of gold foliage.

    Sue

  • 17 years ago

    Count me in for pro-ajuga camp.
    In a right place, though.
    On one side, not many perennials will be able to grow thru it, but weeds couldn't do either.
    On another side, it will grow in a toughest places, it's evergreen, foliage nice and clean all year around and it's a bloomer.
    I just planted in one area combo of ajuga and carex 'Ice Dance'. I hope there will be a draw between them because planting look stunning as is right now, but when ajuga start to bloom it should be a site to behold.

  • 17 years ago

    What a fun thread - I LOVE groundcovers!

    I weighed in above with some thoughts, but I just have trouble restraining myself when it comes to groundcovers, so here goes...

    Regarding the ajuga, I also like this plant. As a matter of fact, add this to the list of "invasives" that I have trouble growing, lol! I tried Burgundy Glow about 4 times before giving up. I love this plant but couldn't seem to find the right spot for it, and it was just not a happy camper. The Torch I mentioned above is doing better, but again, it's the common purple-leaved stuff that is doing best. I also find that ajuga is not too hard to pull out, and so far I haven't even had to rip any out anyway.

    Creeping phlox, as hostas mentioned, is also a nice groundcover. I had quite a large planting of pink creeping phlox, (maybe 20 feet long by five feet wide) but lost almost all of it last summer in the drought we had. I decided to replace it with creeping sedum, but I still have a large patch of blue creeping phlox. Funny, I thought I was going crazy because I could have sworn the blue always did better than the pink, which doesn't make sense, but then someone else on GW posted the exact same experience with theirs, so I felt better, lol.

    Drippy, I have a friend who has a large planting of vinca, and it is indeed quite easy to pull out. We go through and rip once a season or so, to allow her other groundcovers to co-exist.

    And Sue, one of those other groundcovers my friend has is chrysogonum. How could I forget to mention that? This is a great groundcover. It spreads nicely to fill in, has beautiful yellow flowers, and doesn't seem to need a lot of care. My friend has it in a *very* dry shade bed, although that end of the bed does get a bit of sun, and it is thriving there.

    Sue, I tried the Illumination vinca once when I first started gardening, and it didn't do well (although I still have one tiny little sprig after all these years!). I'm sure its failure to thrive was due to my inexperience, no fault of the plants. It is indeed beautiful, and I've been considering planting it again.

    George, I never would have thought of the carex/ajuga combo. Perhaps I will plant some of the Ice Dance in my bed with ajuga and see how things turn out!

    :)
    Dee

  • 17 years ago

    Just had a chance to skim but didn't see any mention of more herbal plants: Creeping Thyme, Short Oreganos, Corsican Mint. Or perhaps very low growing Dianthus??? None of these are invasive and four or five plants can fill a 15' x 3' area in two years.

    Martie

  • 17 years ago

    I've used white wood aster rather successfully as a ground cover. I transplanted some from a section of my property that is very shady, not quite knowing what it was, but loving the green mat of heart shaped leaves. Knowing it was a native, I had no hesitation to put it to use. The new site was a good bit brighter and sunnier. That's when I figured out what it was, as it then started flowering.

  • 17 years ago

    OK, then add Ceratostigma plumbaginoides as a sun loving groundcover (not evergreen).
    This one is particularly very effective for use in areas with high concentration of spring flowering bulbs. It's a late riser. Bulbs will grow thru its roots with no problem, then when they'll disappear ceratostigma's leaves will cover the place.
    It start blooming in August with true blue flowers and in a fall foliage turns all shades of orange-red-russet making it very attractive.

  • 17 years ago

    Ceratostigma plumb. is sunloving?? Hmm, where did I get the idea that it was a shade plant? I have mine planted in a northwest-facing shade garden! I can't say how it's doing this year as that particular garden has been especially neglected this year, but maybe I should take a peek and perhaps move it...

    :)
    Dee

  • 17 years ago

    Does anyone else think of Tiarella as a ground cover? I've planted both clumping and running types in hopes that they will be weed-smothering ground covers. Apparently they tolerate dry (mine are under shallow-rooted river birches and magnolias), shade and neglect? Foliage is so pretty, as are blooms. Any thots?
    ML

  • 17 years ago

    Dee, CP will live and probably bloom in part shade aspect, but you'll not have a foliage show in a fall.
    If you are planning to move it, wait untill you finish planting your bulbs (I assume you will, LOL) and then plant it over the bulbs.
    It has a shallow roots and transplants easily.

  • 17 years ago

    My tiarella's petered out after a few years. Maybe they were not in the best spot. Heucherella's are doing fine though. Although I don't think they bloomed much this year.

    Speaking of pachysandra, I have been keeping my eye out for pachysandra procumbens. I think it might be a native as opposed to the more common Japanese terminalis. Sounds interesting and less aggressive. Taller flowers too I think.

    I am also trying out Galax this year and Paxistima camby, the latter is going very slowly, but I think I am going to love it if it gets going. Very tiny foliage. Nice textural effect.

    I have high hopes for a short Carex, 'Treasure Island'. I planted one plant (separated into about about a dozen single tiny plantlets) last year and this year every one of those plantlets is ready to be divided again. THe area should be stunning in a couple of years. The leaves have a lot of white in it.

  • 17 years ago

    I grow Ceratostigma plumbagoides only in part sun(since that's basically the highest level of sun I have) and it not only blooms beautifully but gets the fall color. It also takes dry soil without even blinking.

    After my visit to North Hill garden today I have a new appreciation for extensive groundcover use. When you have 7 acres of cultivated garden you have to use them or else be overrun with weeds or broke from buying mulch. Some of the more popular choices in this southern VT garden were Epimediums, European ginger, wood asters, and a ground cover Astilbe that is blooming now.

    Sue

  • 17 years ago

    I also vote for thyme and corsican mint; the latter is not anything like the invasive tall mints, and actually likes a lot of shade and water. I have it here and there in dark corners, and when it's happy, its effect is a lot like really lush moss - you just want to reach out and touch it. Smells just like mint, too.

    My favorite thymes are the very short, glossy ones - most of the low-growers seem to have a lot of browning foliage through much of the season, though, compared to common thyme, which is always healthy-looking. I guess my favorite right now is a minute, mat-forming variegated type whose name escapes me - I've got my fingers crossed that it will survive winter again this year.

    I also love dianthus, especially the ones with silvery foliage. Similar effect to snow in summer, but a little less rambunctous.

    Saponaria (soapwort) is good too, very clean medium green foliage all season and lots of flowers in late spring. Tunica saxifraga is a lovely low-growing plant for sun that self-sows a bit - it's got wonderful feathery foliage in a light, bright green, and flowers in summer when you may need some extra color. I don't know why it's not more widely used.

    Great thread, so glad you brought it up, Paige.

  • 17 years ago

    Sue, I had a different experience with CP and had to relocate it to more sunnier position, though mine was in part-SHADE and yours is in a part-SUN.
    Re: Astilbe as a groundcover.
    Astilbe chinensis 'Pumila' considered to be a classic groundcover all other dwarf astilbes compared to. It takes much more drier conditions than other astilbes (all A.chinensis are less thursty than A.arendsii or A.simplicifolia) and even suitable to grow on a slopes. Foliage is 3-5" tall. Blooms in late July here. Spreading faster than any other astilbes I grow.
    Another great dwarf astilbe is A. simplicifolia 'Sprite', which is slightly taller than Pumila, but leaves are darker and flowers more bright pink. It's a latest astilbe to bloom in my garden, early to mid August. Also good spreader.

  • 17 years ago

    Thanks for the further info on the CP. George, I have a few astilbe Sprite, but I never thought of using astilbes as groundcover.

    DTD, is Silver Posie the variegated thyme you have? I've seen this one in the catalogs and it really catches my eye, although I haven't tried it yet. I am the biggest sucker in the world for a variegated leaf.

    After reading this thread, I've got some googling to do!
    :)
    Dee

    Here is a link that might be useful: variegated thyme Silver Posie

  • 17 years ago

    That's a gorgeous thyme, dee! I haven't had too much luck with the taller variegated ones, right now my favorite is a tiny one, I can't seem to get a good photo of it.

    Here's a corsican mint playing nicely with Lady's Mantle, another good groundcover for shade. I'm hoping to fill in the whole area below a stone wall with this combination.

    {{gwi:1088801}}

  • 17 years ago

    Ooh, DTD, you're right - that Silver Posie is kind of tall. Funny, I guess I never paid attention to the height description, lol! I just assumed it was lower-growing.

    I like your combo with the corsican mint and ladies mantle. Looks like a nice stone wall too. Some day I too shall have a stone wall! (Or so I keep telling myself, lol!)

    :)
    Dee

  • 17 years ago

    Under sun lovers, I have pinks, campanula portensclagiana, geraniums, a short variegated veronica, myosotis (in front of spring bloomers), ceratostigma (in front of fall bloomers) and artemesia in the dry garden. In the shade, I have epimediums, alchemilla and fern-leaved bleeding heart. It wasn't meant as a groundcover but looks great under shrubs.

    Hedy

  • 17 years ago

    I have noticed that weeds can easily work their way into thyme. It doesn't seem as tough as I would like it to be for a groundcover. I have one area where a neglected weedy area is seriously encroaching into the nice stepping-stone/thyme area (that I eventually want to extend to replace the neglected weedy area). Even in a well cultivated area, some crabgrass managed to get into some thyme. I wonder if it depends which thyme?

    I also love this thread. I have a good sized semi-cultivated woodland area that I seriously need to get some aggressive groundcovers going, but I am having such a hard time deciding what to use. I read a phrase on another thread that totally applies: "analysis paralysis". I've been at it for 2 years now with this area. I think this thread will finally help.

  • 17 years ago

    LOL, Wendy, if you're like me, this thread will make it worse, because you'll realize there are even more wonderful groundcovers than you thought there were!

    I'm in the same boat as you - a shade/woodland area where I want groundcovers but don't know which one(s). Agh, decisions, decisions!

    :)
    Dee

  • 17 years ago

    This has been so helpful for me. I've been reading this post faithfully as it went along and researching each of the plants mentioned. The beds I have in mind right now are the beds around my patio, which are in full sun, but I want to plant around the shrubs which will eventually afford part shade. I've come up with a list of favorites which hopefully aren't too aggressive:

    Cerastigma plumbaginoides, Saponario x lempergii, Oregano vulgare 'Aureum', Corsican mint and creeping thyme. I know I will use the latter three, because I love the idea of using herbs as groundcover. I actually already have some creeping thyme under a knockout rose and it's a great combination.

    Thanks, and please keep it coming!

  • 17 years ago

    Wendy hit the nail on the head when it comes to using Thyme as groundcover. Some of them are really mat-forming (Wooly comes immediately to mind) and others have a more open disposition. The more open ones don't provide the same shade and so weeds are more prone to grow through the plants but are usually really easy to control.

    In my experience Corsican Mint needs to be planted around something that will keep the ground temps up -- rocks, stepping stones, etc., and will also like a bit of high shade. I grew it successfully in Z5 using this approach.

    Knowing there will be dissenters, and this is a good thing, I will always vote for Galium odoratum if it has some shade to keep it under control. The fragrance of the May bloom in and of itself makes it a keeper.

    Tried out three different low, matting Dianthus this year and am in love with Dianthus glacialis. Talk about easy!!

    Martie

  • 17 years ago

    I have a lot of varieties of dianthus and have only one complaint about it. Some years, it blooms its fool head off and then dies back horribly. I've had this happen with all the varieties I grow. I think my new favorite is Dianthus gratianopolitanus Tiny Rubies - very low growing and compact, making it a good groundcover in sun.

  • 17 years ago

    Another new groundcover I am trying this year is Cornus canadensis.. bunchberry. Hard to tell first year, but I think it is going to do well.

  • 17 years ago

    Here is another one to think of, bearberry or Arctostaphylos uva-ursi 'Massachusetts'.
    Not well known, but sometimes available in spring in HD.
    Need poor dry soil. Ideal for slopes and steep hills. Also could work under maples and oaks. Impossible to transplant, will die within hours, though roots relatively well from cuttings in a sand based mix. I killed it 3 times before I realize that it simply can't live in a mulched beds and/or clay soils.

  • 17 years ago

    ENOUGH already!

    I thought that I'd find maybe 1 or 2 new good ideas for ground cover for me to look into but there are TOO MANY POSSIBILITIES listed here! LOL!

    Please - no one list anything new and DEFINITELY do not post pictures of beautiful thriving plants....

  • 17 years ago

    With apologies to fgirl:

    Tiny Rubies not only form a great ground cover but smell like heaven. I have one of those little vase lapel pins and the flowers are a perfect pick-me-up all day long.

    'Ruby Gem' (which for some reason can't be Googled) is on the same idea but a deep, true red. Didn't know you were a Dianthus lover, DtD!! 'Siskin Clock' is my new fav Dianthus -- long blooming but not matting foliage enough to be considered a ground cover. Well??? Maybe in a small spot.


    My way of choosing which of four Dianthus will become the point of intersecting paths in the Main bed.



    I've gotten into the habit of dividing Dianthus yearly whether they need it or not. They seem to like being hacked apart.

    Martie

  • 17 years ago

    How about a vote for Geranium x cantabrigiense 'Biokovo'?

    I've had a patch that is 3 x 6 ft (from 3 plants) growing happily in my rock garden for years. It has white/pinkish flowers in early spring (for a month), a nice smell and interesting leaves and in fall the leaves turn red. It can take a lot of shade and is not overly invasive.

    Here is a link that might be useful: Geranium x cantabrigiense 'Biokovo'

  • 17 years ago

    I second some hardy Geraniums as ground covers. Biokova is good, and G. macrorrhizum is excellent also. I love it growing among the hostas.

  • 17 years ago

    Although a lot of the plants mentioned come under the heading of groundcover (covers the ground), to me the definition of groundcover means plant it and let it go with no maintenance. Plants like geraniums, dianthus, bleeding heart, and other similar ones mentioned require some maintenance. After the first blooms of geraniums if the foliage is ratty, I cut it down to generate fresh growth. I think of that type of plant as "front of the border" or "edger". If I had a large swath of "groundcover" on a bank for example, I would not want the huge job of deadheading it, let alone, cutting it back. Full fledged "groundcover" should not require deadheading. Well, on 2nd thought, I do deadhead my ajuga, only because it is in a small well contained patch between the patio and garage door and is very visible.

    I have a hill covered with wintercreeper amongs trees and shrubs. It is pretty large. zero maintenance is the only realistic possibility (unless one can hire gardeners to do huge tasks!! LOL).

    I guess the type of groundcover to use is affected by the amount of ground it needs to cover.

    I thought of another "groundcover" that is actually a shrub. Russian Cypress. Microbiota decussata. A nice alternative to junipers, the classic groundcover, but unlike junipers, RC can take some shade. not green in winter... bronze/grey. I have a few scattered about and they add nice texture to mixed beds. Not really appropriate for exclusively perennial beds. I think they can get as wide as 8' or so. Mine are about 4' wide after 3 years.

  • 17 years ago

    "...but unlike junipers, RC can take some shade.."

    I grow Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star' in far from the full sun conditions, they prosper and stay blue year around.
    Another juniper, J.procumbens 'Nana' also doing extremely well in part shade aspect. Both need a good drainage and not to be overwatered. That's all they need. No maintanance whatsoever.

    BTW, 'Blue Star' in combination with yellow/gold Lycimachia numullaria (Creeping Jenny) look very good.

  • 17 years ago

    I have had lots of winter kill on Blue Star, but I do like it. I kept having to chop away so much dead material, there was not much left. I tossed the remains in the woods and the next time I went back there, it had somehow survived and was a beacon of blue! I never planted it.

  • 17 years ago

    The 5 groundcovers I trust to share their space:
    Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)
    Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
    Bunchberry (Cornus canadenis)
    Wandflower (Galax aphylla)
    Wild ginger
    Partidgeberry and wintergreen are really good between perennials because they grow so low. (I've got the partridgeberry growing between my lilies--love the look.) The others are a bit taller, so they'd be better between shrubs.
    Vinca, ajuga, and pachysandra will most likely crowd out your flowers, so I wouldn't use those in perennial beds. I don't personally use those three-- partly because they're everywhere, and I'd like to look at something different.

  • 17 years ago

    Wendy, that's right, combination of wind with winter sun could do a lot of damage to juvenile 'Blue Star'.
    However, as they got more established and use to location, they overgrow this and only current year growth could be succeptible to winter burns.
    Of course, my winter and yours vary greatly.

  • 16 years ago

    Certainly a timely post considering how many folks are considering replacing their lawns with ground covers. Great Info..thanks kt