^iARC^ By definition, a groundcover is a low-growing plant that naturally forms a colony or mat, making a living carpet in your garden. Groundcovers can be real problem-solvers, growing where nothing else will (including lawn grass) and sprucing up otherwise undistinguished or difficult-to-landscape areas. Height is generally under a foot or so, but more important to you is whether the plant can do the job you ask: provide good-looking coverage of its appointed spot.
In any event, the more you know about groundcovers, the more you may be sold on them. They're some of the most useful, easy-to-care-for plants you can have.
Gardeners can deal with various types of groundcovers — almost a staggering variety — so a good way to start is to make your choice based on growing conditions already present in your yard. You still may have to make a few improvements prior to planting, such as cutting back encroaching or overhanging branches or making soil amendments, but the idea is to match the plant to the site. That way, the groundcover can prosper, and you can congratulate yourself on your gardening savvy.
Here's a sampling of the various groundcover forms and functions that may be available in your area:
Enjoying flowering groundcoVers
Like other perennial plants, many groundcovers bloom — some just for a week or two, some on and off for many weeks. A low-growing but flower-studded display adds a lot of charm to a garden. Just make sure the color fits in with its surroundings.
Oh, yes: Be patient — let the groundcover get established for a year or two before expecting a good flower display. Favorite flowering groundcovers include cheddar pink, candytuft, potentilla, plumbago, Aaron's beard, creeping phlox, lily-of-the-valley, and periwinkle.
Good growing conditions (especially fertile soil and ample sunshine) and consistent water inspire the best flowering performance.
A lot of garden color flows from nature's bounty of green, and sophisticated garden designs often rely on green's infinite variety — from rich mint green to apple green to chartreuse and every shade in between. Mix and match various greens within a groundcover display, and you can enjoy a rich tapestry:
1 Variegated leaves: Particularly in shade, leaves that are dappled, spotted, striped, or rimmed in white or gold really stand out and add welcome sparkle. Try lamium or wintercreeper.
i Purple, red, or burgundy leaves: These colors have the effect of anchoring and giving solidity to groundcover displays because they look rich and substantial. Try heuchera or ajuga.
1 Fall color: Like trees and shrubs, some groundcovers have good-looking foliage when the weather starts to turn cold. Try bearberry, cotoneaster, lowbush blueberry, or sedum flowers.
Reaching out: How the groundcover spreads
A good groundcover is one that gets right to work, growing ever-outward and filling its assigned area. The right growing conditions, including decent soil and adequate water, certainly help this process along. But take a closer look at the groundcover you're considering. Its means of spreading is worth knowing so you can encourage it (and should it become too eager or rampant in time, so you can manage it or rein it in). The following sections tell you a bit about how groundcovers reach out.
A groundcover that expands outward from the crown sends out stems that get ever-longer over time, but you can trace one all the way back to the center of the original plant. Such groundcovers may need to be anchored or pegged in place at intervals to keep them where you want them or to guide them (see "Keeping groundcovers in shape: Pruning and pegging," later in this chapter). Examples of plants that branch out from the crown include creeping thyme, cotoneaster, and periwinkle.
If the groundcover sends out roots along the stem or at nodes, as the plant stems travel along the ground, new roots may drop down opportunistically into the soil at intervals. These new roots generate a new young plant. You can separate these young plants from the originating stem and even move them if you want; just be sure to treat them as gently and indulgently as any seedling. Of course, this ability can become a liability over time as the plant makes inroads into places where you didn't want it to go; in such a case, cutting back the advancing edge, especially early in the growing season, is often necessary. Examples of plants that shoot out new roots include ivy, winter-creeper, and pachysandra.
If a groundcover flowers and seeds follow by season's end, the plant's natural inclination is to drop them in the vicinity. This practice means a new crop of seedlings by next spring — and thus you have a self-seeding groundcover. Assuming you can count on this ability, you can get away with planting fewer individuals at the outset. Examples of plants that usually propagate by seed include epimedium and bearberry.
For a more natural look, setting groundcover seedlings out in neat rows makes your display look more like a crop or vegetable-garden plan than the carpet you seek. For best results, stagger the rows and make sure all plants are equidistant from one another in all directions. Instead of a large square or rectangle, grow groundcovers in a natural-looking swath.
Spacing out: Considering the room the groundcover takes up
Because the size definition of a groundcover is pretty loose, you're free to choose whatever appeals to you. But of course, the plant should fit whatever you want to get out of the site. Mature-plant dimensions are, or should be, on the plant tag or container or included in a catalog's plant description. Otherwise, you can certainly look it up in a reference book or online. A word of caution: Different cultivars of the same type of plant are not always created equal. For instance, although some cotoneasters lay low and sprawl, others are practically bushes.
Here are your size options and what they can do for you:
1 Taller groundcovers: Ground-covering plants that grow up to 1 foot or more in height have the advantage of creating a barrier. Pedestrians, kids on bikes, and pets are less apt to pass through. So use such plants at property lines, in an unfenced front yard, or even to landscape a curb strip. Examples include candytuft, creeping juniper, potentilla, bear-berry, plumbago, hypericum, and some varieties of liriope.
1 Intermediate groundcovers: These groundcovers are of moderate height, say, 8 to 12 inches high at most. These plants are ideal for creating low-maintenance sweeps and swathes, in shade or out in the open. You can place taller plants, including perennials and shrubs, beyond or among them — effectively, intermediate groundcovers simply set the stage. Examples include some varieties of liriope, epimedium, lily-of-the-valley, creeping phlox, and candytuft.
1 Low-growing groundcovers: True carpeters, under 6" high or even less, are better in broader, more irregular-shaped settings such as under shade trees, in a side yard, or flanking a walkway or entrance area. They can create a transition from hard surfaces to garden. When established, some withstand foot traffic, some do not. Examples include creeping thyme, cheddar pink, sedums and sempervivums, ajuga, and sweet woodruff.
In terms of spreading, knowing the ultimate reach of a single plant is worthwhile simply so you know how many you need to plant. The goal is for them to mix and interlink and overlap so that, ultimately, you can't distinguish individual plants. If you overplant, you can yank out surplus plants. If you underplant, on purpose or not, fill in the open areas with weed-suppressing mulch until the plants reach their mature size and inhibit invading weeds on their own.
You can buy fewer plants and space them a foot or more apart and wait for them to fill in whatever way they will (which, depending on the plant, its growth rate, and the hospitality of the site, can take one or more seasons). If you're impatient or in a hurry, you can get more plants and space them closely so the carpet fills in well in the first year.
Some groundcovers are well-adapted to challenging growing conditions. So rather than struggle to change or improve that troublesome spot in your yard, why not turn it over to a groundcover that's likely to thrive? Here's what to look for in the site you have in mind:
i In the shade: The quality of life in shady areas varies: Soil may be thin or poor or it may be organically rich; the area may have some sun; tree roots may hog all the water and nutrients; or the area may be naturally damp. So choose your groundcover also based on what kind of growing conditions are available in addition to the reduced light. Try ajuga, European wild ginger, ivy, lily-of-the-valley, pachysandra, periwinkle, or sweet woodruff. Make sure the area is cleared of competing weeds and the soil is organically rich.
i In dry soil: Sandy or gravelly soil may be your lot, or hot sun may bake the ground even if it isn't poor-quality. Hot sun and periods of drought may be factors. Luckily, some plants stand up to such difficulties in style. Try sedum and sempervivums, pussytoes, potentilla, or bearberry. Make sure the area is cleared of competing weeds and that you water the young plants until they're established, at which time they'll be drought-tolerant i In poor soil: Ground that's perpetually infertile (and that would be a nuisance or too much work to improve) can still host certain groundcovers. These plants hail from poor-soil areas in the wild and adapt to similar conditions in a garden setting. Try creeping thyme, sempervivums, winter-creeper, or pachysandra. Clear the area of obstructing and competing weeds first, and water the young plants regularly until they're established.
i On a slope: Notoriously difficult to landscape, a slope allows water to run over and through it, no doubt carrying away both valuable moisture and nutrients that may have otherwise sustained some plants. Don't despair. A few groundcovers don't mind life on a slope; these stalwarts grab on and stay, beautifying the area even as they prevent future erosion. Try juniper, periwinkle, bearberry, or cotoneaster. Either terrace the slope or erect some soil berms to help the plants retain water while they're getting established.
When planting a groundcover on a slope that already has existing vegetation, don't dig up the whole slope. Just do individual planting holes. When the newcomers start to spread, gradually yank out adjoining plants to make way for them.
For additional color, you can interplant spring-blooming bulbs in with an evergreen groundcover. The groundcover will hide wilting leaves as the bulb display fades. See Chapter 8 for more info on bulbs.
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