By Scott Calhoun
In the Southwest we are not known for completely covering the ground with plants. If we covered every square foot of our gardens with leafy plants, we would use a lot more water than we do.
However, it is also true that we use too much rock mulch and not enough plants. A fully realized desert garden comprises trees, shrubs, cacti, succulents, perennials, and yes, groundcovers. We may not have as many groundcover species to choose from as gardeners in some other climates, but we do have some solid choices. Below are a few that are reliable hot-weather bloomers:
You see lantana everywhere, in public landscapes, resorts, home gardens, and even in medians. Sometimes a plant gets popular because it really is a good plant. That is the case with lantana. Not all species are groundcovers, but several are such as ‘Gold Mound’ lantana, in the photo above. Lantana groundcovers flower nonstop from spring through fall and attract lots of butterflies—especially small, fritillary types. In winter lantana freezes to the ground in cold locations, but it comes roaring back when warm weather arrives. It does need regular watering for reliable blooming. If you want purple rather than yellow, try purple lantana (Lantana montvidensis).
With similar-shape flowers as lantana, verbena also attracts butterflies. The variety shown here, sandpaper verbena (Glandularia rigida), has stiff stems and will get about 2 ft high by 4 ft wide. The more delicate-looking moss or rock verbena (Glandularia pulchella), also sold by the name Verbena tenuisecta, is lower growing and a good choice for a plant that cascades over planters. As lantana, verbena blooms spring through fall.
When you see a groundcover in the median strips of a parking lot, you can bet it’s pretty durable. That is the case with sundrops (Calylophus hartwegii var. fendleri), a primrose family plant I see in the parking strips at my local Lowe’s. It stays a nice, compact 1 ft high by 2 ft wide. Sphinx moths visit its sunny-yellow, cup-shape blooms.
As the photo illustrates, groundcovers are great with succulents. Here moss verbena spills out of a planter in front of cylindrical slipper plants. The verbena provides a soft, cushionlike effect compared with the strong, vertical element of the slipper plant. Groundcovers also are handsome adjacent to agave species.
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