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Midwest Gardening: Graceful Groundcovers

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Look beyond traditional groundcover choices and you’ll discover that many hardy plants fill the role. The unexpected makes a garden more interesting.

silvery fern foliage

By Marty Ross

I always thought groundcovers were simply low-growing, ground-hugging plants, like ivy. But look around at gardens in your neighborhood: Groundcovers can be short or tall, and they don’t have to be evergreen.

Blue-flower vinca is a traditional Midwest groundcover.

Vinca and ivy are traditional evergreen groundcovers in Midwest gardens, but don’t stop there. Daylilies can be groundcovers, and hostas can do the job too. In the Midwest there are many hardy, hardworking plants that will fill in the bare spots and cover the ground gracefully.

Melanie Cavender is a garden designer in Kansas City with a personal garden that shows off her well-developed eye for design. She has strong opinions about groundcovers. In some cases you really don’t need them, she says.

“I like crowded, spilling-over cottage gardens, but I like to keep the ground clean,” Cavender says. Instead of letting groundcovers grow unchecked, she chooses carefully and keeps them from spreading into places where she doesn’t want them to be.

English ivy leaves are elegant and distinctive—up to a point.

I like vinca as a groundcover, but it’s one of the plants Cavender says has the potential to become a “trash catcher,” and I understand why. Sometimes vinca romps through a garden instead of treading lightly, and autumn leaves and twigs have to be raked, very gently, from the foliage. It also needs occasional clipping.

I feel the same way about English ivy: It looks distinguished and old-fashioned until it starts climbing trees.

Cavender loves candytuft (Iberis umbellata) for its white spring flowers and dense evergreen foliage. She likes sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) in woodland settings, and she grows golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) too. “But it really can get out of control and sometimes looks messy,” she says.

Lamb’s ear is a hardy, handsome and well-behaved groundcover.

In my garden Japanese painted fern, lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), hellebores, and bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Ingwersen’s Variety’) all are hardy, handsome, drought-tolerant, well-behaved groundcovers that do not need pampering. It’s great to have so many choices. What are your favorites?

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