Extension Educator, Horticulture
Groundcovers are living carpets that can energize a yard and clear many landscape hurdles. They fill in shady areas where grass refuses to grow. They act as living mulch. Once they are established groundcovers can inhibit weed growth; hold soil against erosion; reduce lawn mowing; and reduce landscape maintenance. Areas that are difficult to mow may be good candidates for groundcovers. They can unify various landscape beds. Groundcovers also protect tree trunks from weed whip wounds and lawn mower lesions.
Just about any plant planted in a mass can be considered a groundcover. Typically we think of groundcovers as plants that are able to spread quickly and form a dense cover. They can be annual or perennial. They may be evergreen, form woody stems, or die to the ground each year.
As with any plant selection it is important to match the plant to your needs and the site conditions. Some groundcovers, such as bishop's weed, spread very quickly but perhaps that is exactly what you want. Remember the quick spreaders may move into your lawn, across the sidewalk, and over your house.
For extra landscape pizzazz perennial groundcovers can be interplanted with spring or summer flowering bulbs of daffodils, tulips, or alliums. Here are just a few front-runner groundcovers.
Bugleweed, Ajuga reptans, has low-growing, charming leaves held in snug rosettes. It spreads by above-ground stolons and prefers moist, well-drained soils in heavy shade to full sun. Protect bugleweed from winter winds. It is a perennial but it tends to die out when plants are over-crowded. Periodic dividing will help. However, there are usually enough plants with a longer expiration date remaining to repopulate a bare area. There are many different cultivars. Leaves may be green, maroon, bronze, or variegated.
Bugleweed flowers are showoffs as they dance well above the leaves. Flowers are generally blue, but also come in white and pink. Bugleweed is lovely planted under flowering dogwoods since they bloom about the same time in spring.
Canada Wild Ginger, Asarum canadense, has heart shaped leaves and forms a mass up to six inches tall. Wild Ginger is a native plant excellent for partial to deep shade. European Ginger has a glossier leaf.
Another shade-loving perennial groundcover is sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum. Its delicate mat of bright green leaves are covered with charming, small white flowers in late spring. It prefers moist, well-drained soils in medium to deep shade. It does spread but it is not aggressive as it forms nice skirts around other plants. It is often sold as an herb.
One groundcover that I have been very happy with in shady to part shade areas is dead nettle, Lamium spp. Ok, I admit it suffers from having a very poor common name, but I think it has to try even harder to be a good plant performer to overcome a name like - deadnettle. They are tough adaptable plants with many selections of leaf and flower colors. Leaves are often variegated with some degree of silver which can light up a dark shady spot. Mine flowered all summer and the foliage stayed nice well through December.
Plumbago, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, makes an excellent groundcover for sunny dry areas. Its deep blue flowers appear well into fall when the leaves turn an engaging burgundy color. At 10 to 12 inches tall it's a nice size for many areas. Plumbago spreads but not aggressively. As a perennial it has few insect and disease problems.
Consider using daylily, hosta, obedient plant, sedum, or 'Flower Carpet' rose as a groundcover. Click herefor more information.
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