Covering New Ground Or Old With Groundcover

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Mock strawberry covers shallowly but densely.

As the simple name implies, ‘groundcover’ covers the ground. Groundcover plants stay lower than shrubbery, and function something like mulch. They insulate shallow roots of other plants, inhibit weeds, and some groundcovers inhibit erosion. Besides all their utilitarian functions, they provide appealing foliage, and some bloom nicely.

Lawn is probably the most common groundcover, and is also the most useful; but that is an entirely different and involved topic! Other groundcover plants are spreading perennials, plants with sprawling stems, or vines grown without support. Most are evergreen, since defoliated plants do not cover much of anything too well.

Gazanias and iceplants are popular perennial groundcovers. Their old stems tend to die out and decompose as efficiently as new stems pile up over them, which is why they do not get too deep. Gazanias can eventually get bald spots that need to be patched with new plants, or ‘plugged.’

(The debris from pruning the edges of easily rooted perennial groundcovers can be processed into cuttings known as ‘plugs’, which can go directly into bald spots. Plugs can be taken from dense spots if no edging is necessary. They should be watered regularly, or plugged in autumn to take advantage of rain while roots develop.)

Groundcover forms of ceanothus (wild lilac), juniper and contoneaster are really shrubs that extend their stems more horizontally than vertically. Honeysuckle and both Algerian and English ivies are vines that spread over the ground until they find something to climb. Their stems root into the ground wherever they need to.

Since most groundcover plants are naturally understory plants that grow below larger plants, many tolerate considerable shade. Periwinkle and the ivies are remarkably happy in partial shade. However, vines, particularly the ivies, will climb walls and trees for more sunlight if they get the chance.

Many of the perennial groundcovers and some of the vines are neater if mown or cut low annually. Periwinkle does not need to be mown, but can get rather unkempt before new growth overwhelms the old through winter. Mowing eliminates the old stems, and makes the new growth fluffier. Dwarf periwinkle stays too low to mow.

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.

Periwinkle

70503Like so many of the easiest to grow plants, periwinkle, Vinca major, is too easy to grow. It has become an invasive exotic (nonnative) weed in many moist riparian environments. It can get rather weedy in home gardens as well. This can be an advantage if it happens to fill in for bald spots in areas of other ground cover. It is a disadvantage if it overwhelms or competes with other plants.

It is hard to believe that such a seemingly innocent plant with sporadic but delightful light blue flowers amongst rich green foliage has such unpleasant potential. The radial flowers are about an inch or maybe two wide, and bloom almost all year except for winter. The simple evergreen leaves are likewise an inch or two long. The wiry stems stand a foot or two high before flopping over.

Once stems lay down, they develop roots where they touch the ground, and form new plants that repeat the process of producing upright stems that flop over. Without confinement, there is no limit to the trouble they can get into. Fortunately, it is not a fast process. Cultivars with white or purple flowers, or variegated foliage are more complaisant. Periwinkle is neater if mown as winter ends.

Get The Lowdown On Groundcover

1Lawns composed of turf grasses are the most functional, but also the most demanding forms of groundcover. That is old news. There are so many other less demanding low growing plants that that can cover the ground in areas that are not used like lawns are. Sometimes they work nicely just to control weeds. Sometimes they help to control erosion on otherwise unlandscaped hillsides.

Like all other plants in the garden, groundcover plants must be appealing. There is no point in growing plants that look no better than the bare soil they are intended to obscure, or the weeds they are intended to control. Some provide good foliage. Some bloom nicely. Many do both. Although not as resilient to wear as turf grasses, some groundcover plants tolerate some degree of traffic.

There are of course all sorts of groundcover. Only a few want as much water as lawns need. Some need no watering at all once established. Some are low growing shrubbery like sprawling forms of ceanothus, coyote brush, cotoneaster, coprosma and juniper. Others are vines like honeysuckle and ivy. Some of the best are creeping low perennials like iceplant, gazania and African daisy.

Low growing shrubberies may not be practical for confined spaces. When they run out of room to grow laterally, they tend to pile up on themselves, and some types can eventually get quite deep. Some types look silly if pruned around the edges for containment. Vines however need to be pruned around the edges, as well as out of trees and shrubbery. Some vines eventually get deep too.

Sprawling perennial groundcovers are the lowest and tidiest of groundcovers. They might not be as practical as shrubbery or vines for large areas, but are more often the better options for tight spaces. They do not mind getting pruned around the edges, and generally do not need any other pruning, although some look better if mown annually. Periwinkle and Saint John’s wort can get deep enough to get sloppy. Many other perennial groundcovers stay low enough to barely get disheveled by light trampling.2