Fan Flower

60727Only a few flowers are true blue. A few more are nearly blue, but slightly blushed with lavender. Of the latter group, fan flower, Scaevola albida, which is usually more lavender than blue, can be quite convincingly blue if conditions are just so. The semi-circular flowers (which are actually wide bilateral flowers) are most abundant in spring and summer, but can bloom sporadically all year.

The finely textured evergreen foliage is dense enough to function as light duty groundcover. Mature plants eventually get about four feet wide without getting deeper than a foot, and more typically stay less than half a foot deep. Outer stems pressed into the soil with their tips up should root and grow into new plants. Fan flower prefers regular but moderate watering. Shade inhibits bloom.

Fan flower only became available in the middle of the 1980’s. How appropriate for flowers of such distinctive style and color! The original common type is still the most reliable. Newer cultivars are not quite as resilient, and might not be as vigorous either. However, they are worth growing for their bigger and bolder flowers, and because they cascade better from pots or raised planters.

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Creeping Saint John’s Wort

90717This is not the dreaded aggressively invasive Saint John’s wort that has naturalized in other regions. Nonetheless, creeping Saint John’s wort, Hypericum calycinum, does precisely as the name implies. It creeps, and has naturalized to a less aggressive degree in many spots near the coast. Its vigor is an advantage to many landscapes, but might eventually displease adjacent neighbors.

Creeping Saint John’s wort is a somewhat rustic perennial ground cover that does not need much water once established. It naturalizes in coastal climates because it gets all the water it needs from annual rainfall there. Although evergreen, it looks best if mown as winter ends. It happens to be susceptible to rust, and mowing removes much of the old foliage the the fungus overwinters in.

One to two inch wide bright yellow flowers, with five petals and prominent stamens, start to bloom in June and continue into September. By that time, the paired leaves might be getting tired if not watered, or infested with rust, but should stay presentable until mowing at the end of winter. Crowded plants might get three feet high. Otherwise, growth does not get much more than a foot deep.

Garden Verbena

60629It is fair to say that garden verbena, Verbena X hybrida, is a reliable warm season annual. It gets planted in spring to spread out and bloom through summer with bright pink, red, purple or almost blue, or softer pastel pink or pale white. It is commonly replaced with cool season annuals by late autumn. However, garden verbena is actually a short term perennial that can survive winter to bloom for a few years.

Perhaps individual plants do not last long enough to be practical as permanent ground cover. Yet, if mulched just so, the thin branches can root where they touch the ground, and then grow into new plants to replace the original plants before they die out. Stems do not spread or cascade much more than a foot from where they are rooted. Nor do they stand more than six inches deep.

Artificial Turf Has Real Advantages

p90512.jpgLawn is the carpeting for our outdoor spaces. Like pavement or decking, it makes the space in or gardens useful for more than growing other plants. Since it is designed to share its space with us, we give it more ground space than any other type of plant. For what it contributes, most of us do not mind giving lawn all the water and attention that it requires. It really seems indispensable.

Realistically though, most of us are lazy; and we really should be using less water in our gardens. Perhaps it would be more polite to say that we should more selectively prioritize the expenditure of limited resources and effort. Lawns that do not get much use are probably not worth all the work and water. There are easier ways of managing extra space than covering it with turf grass lawn.

Whether we like it or not, artificial turf is very undemanding, and requires no water. It is a bit too uniform and perfectly colored to convince those who bother to notice that it is not real turf, but it is still more convincing than old fashioned artificial turf. It is durable enough for children and dogs, as long as no one tries to dig in it. It does well where dark shade prevents real grass from growing.

The cost of artificial turf is an important consideration. It is relatively expensive for those who maintain their own lawns. However, artificial turf that last for many years is less expensive than paying gardeners to mow for just two or three years. The perfect uniformity of color and texture that might be unappealingly unnatural for horticultural purists is so worth the extra expense to perfectionists.

Installation of artificial turf in a new landscape is relatively easy, since irrigation can be installed only for adjacent plants that require it. Replacement of real lawn with artificial turf in an established landscape is much more challenging, or in rare situations, impractical. Trees and adjacent plants that are reliant on lawn irrigation will need to be watered (somewhat) where the original lawn was.

It seems silly and contrary to water conservation to water artificial turf, but it is sometimes necessary until roots of established plants adapt and migrate to other sources of water. This can take a few years for trees that are surrounded only by lawn. Irrigation need not be as frequent as it was to sustain turf grass, but should be sufficient to sustain any other plants while they figure things out.

Vines Are Naturally Social Climbers

70906thumbIf more of us knew how vines compete in the wild, fewer of us would grow them in our home gardens. Understory plants that are satisfied with the sunlight that reaches them through a higher forest canopy are the most passive. Taller trees compete for sunnier exposure above. Vines are the most aggressive as they climb and overwhelm trees to get the best exposure on top of everything.

English and Algerian ivies happens to be among the more efficient of aggressive vines. While young, juvenile growth creeps along the ground searching for victims. Once it encounters something to climb, the stems develop aerial roots so that they can climb vertically. Once the climbing stems reach the top of the support, they develop shrubby adult growth that blooms and produces seed.

In home gardens, ivy is a popular and practical groundcover. However, if allowed to climb as a vine, it can root into walls and ruin paint. Even if the vines are removed, the unsightly aerial roots remain. The shrubby adult growth can overwhelm and even shade out and kill the trees or shrubbery that originally supported it. If it climbs onto a roof, it can accumulate debris and promote rot.

Creeping fig is even nastier. Its network of clinging vines grafts together as it grows, and then strangles the supportive trees as they continue to grow within the constrictive network of grafted stems. Yet, it and Boston ivy work nicely and harmlessly on concrete freeway sound-walls where their aggressive behavior is a major advantage, and their clinging aerial roots are not a problem.

Wisteria and red trumpet vine are considerably better behaved, but even they will crush lattice and anything else they wrap around. If they get into trees, they quickly grow out of reach. They may seem to be more appealing than the trees that they climb are, but can strangle and kill substantial limbs. Even without aerial roots, red trumpet vine clings with holdfast discs that damage paint.

Even though many vines are practical for home gardens, their personalities need to be considered. Star jasmine and honeysuckle can either grow as groundcover or as climbing vines. They can get big, but are not often destructive. Potato vine works nicely on fences, but gets aggressive in trees. Carolina jessamine, lilac vine and mandevilla are some of the more complaisant of vines.

Iceplant

60413Bright pink bloom that can be profuse enough to obscure the succulent foliage below is nothing new for iceplant. Some bloom bright purplish pink. Others are reddish pink. A few are softer pink or white. What is unexpected is iceplant that blooms bright yellow, orange or gold, like Lampranthus aureus does. (Freeway or beach iceplant that blooms soft yellow or pink is not a true iceplant.)

Lampranthus arueus neither spreads as far nor cascades quite as well as other types of iceplant, but if planted a bit closer together, it can cover quite a bit of ground. It gets about a foot deep, or a bit deeper if crowded by other plants. It is very easy to grow from cuttings stuck wherever new plants are wanted. The inch and a half wide flowers are slightly wider than those of other iceplant.

All iceplant are quite undemanding. Although they bloom better and stay greener with occasional watering, they do not need much water. They should only be fertilized if they get wimpy. After the spectacular primary bloom phase early in spring, too much fertilizer might inhibit sporadic bloom later in summer. Unfortunately, the healthiest iceplant may not bloom again after spring bloom.

Mirror Plant

90227Classic but simple mirror plant, Coprosma X kirkii, was a utilitarian shrubby ground cover for many years before all the colorful modern cultivars that are so popular now were invented. Individual plants can cover quite a bit of ground without getting any deeper than two feet. It is particularly useful in coastal landscapes, because it is so resilient to wind and exposure, as well as sandy soil.

Modern cultivars are remarkably variable. Some are variegated with white, yellow or bronze, either as foliar margins or blotches. Others are very dark purplish bronze. One cultivar is dark bronze with pink foliar margins. Most of these modern cultivars have nicely rounded and undulate leaves, although some have narrow leaves that are comparable to those of the now rare original cultivar.

The more colorful modern cultivars do not grow quite as large or as efficiently as the original, so are not quite as practical as ground cover on large areas. However, they should work just as well for smaller areas, and are even better in conjunction with other plants. Some types of mirror plant are shrubbier. Yet, others cascade nicely from terraces and big planters, and over retaining walls.

African Daisy

81212It seems like not so long ago when the only African daisy that was commonly available was the trailing African daisy that makes such a nice relaxed ground cover for small spaces. The simple white flowers have navy blue centers, and are occasionally joined by mutant light purple flowers. The cultivar that blooms only in light purple was not as popular. Things have certainly changed!

African daisies, Osteospermum, have been bred and hybridized so extensively that most of the modern cultivars are not categorized by specie, so are known by their cultivar names. Most are likely related to Osteospermum ecklonis, which was the first of the shrubby specie to become popular. Although often grown as cool season annuals, African daisies are short term perennials.

Flowers can be various pastel hues of purple, pink, orange, yellow or white. Bloom can be profuse in random phases, and sporadic bloom is almost continuous between early spring and late autumn. It is only postponed by the coolest winter weather and the warmest summer weather. Mature plants can get a bit more than two feet high and wide. They want full sun and regular watering.

Creeping Myoporum

80912The familiar sandalwood, Myoporum laetum, that is such a resilient small tree or big shrub in windy coastal climates, might make the wrong impression for the less familiar creeping myoporum, Myoporum parvifolium. Creeping myporum does not get much more than a foot high unless it climbs over stones or other obstacles, and it might stay less than six inches deep in exposed spots.

The evergreen foliage is dense enough to prevent most weeds from getting through. The tiny and narrow leaves are only about half an inch or an inch long, perhaps a bit longer. Clustered white starry flowers that begin to bloom late in spring continue to bloom through summer. Although tiny, and neither profuse nor remarkably showy, they are a nice accent to the rich green of the foliage.

Creeping myporum prefers full sun and occasional watering. It rots easily if watered too much. Its other weakness is that it does not tolerate traffic well. Creeping myoporum is a low growing shrub with woody stems that can break if trampled on. Individual plants can get ten feet wide if they get the chance. They are typically planted much closer together so that they cover the ground faster.

Groundcover Is Carpeting For Landscapes

80912thumbIf shade trees are the ceilings, and hedges and shrubbery are the walls, then turf and other groundcover plants are the floors of some of our outdoor living spaces. Except for turf grasses, most groundcovers are not as useful as hardscapes like pavement and decking, but they perform other functions in areas that do not get such use. Groundcovers inhibit weeds, erosion, dust and mud.

Turf grasses used for lawn are of course the most popular groundcovers, and are a separate topic from other groundcover plants that grow over unused or lightly used ground. Because they need not tolerate traffic, these other groundcover plants need not be as resilient, or as flat as turf grasses are. They can be perennials, vines or low sprawling shrubbery. Most, but not all are evergreen.

Groundcover plants work something like mulch, although most want to be watered. They inhibit weed growth by occupying the space that weeds want. Many hold soil together with their roots. They may seem like they would compete with other plants, but groundcover plants insulate the soil, which makes it more comfortable for other plants. Many retain more moisture than they utilize.

Gazanias and iceplants are two of the most popular perennial groundcovers. They tend to replace their own growth regularly as old stems decompose below new growth that spreads over the top. They therefore do not get very deep. Some gazanias eventually develop bald spots. When they get trimmed around the edges, the scraps can be plugged back into bald spots as cuttings.

Cultivars of myoporum, cotoneaster, ceanothus, rosemary, juniper and other low and sprawling shrubbery that make good groundcover must not be confused with cultivars that grow as upright shrubbery or even trees. There is a big difference between creeping myoporum that stays less than a foot deep, and shrubby myoporum that can get almost thirty feet tall! Also, vines used as groundcover, like ivy and honeysuckle, should be maintained as such, and not allowed to climb trees, shrubbery and other landscape features, like vines naturally want to do.