By Irene Virag
As those of us who nurture the good earth know, gardening is a pursuit that, by its very planning, as well as practice, covers a lot of ground.
Especially when we come to the subject for today—groundcovers.
Essentially, groundcovers are outdoor rugs—they mass together, hide bare ugly spots, keep out weeds, and look good while they’re doing it. They define borders, make thick mats around trees, and accent garden features. Their ranks include vines and low-growing shrubs. They’re good news for erosion-prone slopes and, in general they’re low-maintenance.
And they should spread nicely. But what they should not be is invasive. Or to put it another way, I wouldn’t suggest lesser celandine.
I would suggest a gallery of plants that not only hug the ground but are beautiful in their own right.
I’ll start with one of my all-time favorites—Mazus reptans.
If you haven’t met this tiny herbaceous creeper, you really should. It has deciduous, bright-green serrated leaves and baby blossoms. I like the white-flower variety, but it also sparkles in pink and blue. Mazus does best in moist, organic soil and thrives in full sun or partial shade. And it gets bonus points for standing up to foot traffic. I use it as a pretty path along my foundation plantings, where it has settled between the paving stones in one section and runs free in another.
Or go low with Sedum Angelina and get year-round color.
It has golden, needlelike foliage in spring and summer, and starry, yellow flowers that grow about 6 in tall in summer. The foliage turns amber and burgundy in the fall. Angelina performs nicely in sunny spots, and cascades if you grow it in containers. Deer don’t get down to it, and rabbits let it be. I grow it along the Belgian-block border of my driveway, where it glistens among roses and azaleas.
It’s no surprise that liriope also is known as lilyturf. It’s related to lily-of-the-valley, also a groundcover. But don’t be deceived by lily-of-the-valley’s dainty flowers and sweet perfume. It’s as invasive as they come. Liriope, however, is much better behaved.
Named after the woodland nymph who was the mother of Narcissus, liriope has no narcissistic tendencies, as far as I know, although it’s very handsome indeed. Thick but graceful clumps of evergreen foliage appear comfortable beneath trees. The flowers resemble grape hyacinths and are followed by little glossy, black berries. My liriope grows beneath a weeping Japanese maple in a shade garden outside my library window, and I can see it as I write.
Like varieties of Campbell’s soups, cold cereals or frozen yogurt flavors, the list of suitable groundcovers goes on and on. For instance there’s creeping phlox, a perennial sun worshiper that does its thing in spring with pink, lavender, white, or rose flowers.
And Vinca minor, also known as periwinkle. It’s an evergreen creeper, whose shoots root when they hit the ground. Give it space and look for blue, pink, or white flowers. Or check out European wild ginger, a perennial that features heart-shape, dark-green leaves and mixes well with other shade lovers.
And don’t forget about Ajuga reptans, which does best in moderate shade. I tried it last season to fill in bare spots along a new pathway. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but its deep-purple foliage and blue-purple flowers have crept up on me.
There also are perennial mainstays such as lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), with fuzzy, silver-gray leaves, and purple and pink flower spikes.
Masses of other perennials, including hostas, lady’s mantle, Heuchera, and Tiarella, can do the trick even though they’re not ground huggers. Or consider Flower Carpet or Drift roses. Flower Carpet roses grow to just under 3 ft tall, and Drift roses stay at about 1½ ft. Both are tough cookies: They’re winter hardy and disease resistant.
And you might think about spicing up pathway borders and empty spaces with herbs. Creeping thyme, for instance, or my number one pick: oregano.
I grow the perennial herb on either side of the arbor at the entrance to my front-yard garden, Its scent and soft greenery make it a winner on the ground, as well as in pasta.
So if bare spots populate your garden, don’t be afraid to take cover. Groundcover, that is.
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