Cover Up!

What’s low and no mow? Groundcovers! This term encompasses a wide range of low-growing plants that do double duty. Not only do they provide beauty to the fronts of borders, they also work to control erosion, discourage weeds, help retain moisture and regulate soil temperatures by covering bare soil.   

Low growing but highly decorative groundcovers are great choice for brightening shady areas along walkways or in the front of beds. One such plant is variegated Japanese Spurge, aka Pachysandra ‘Silver Edge’, which forms a mat of bright green leaves edged with creamy white in moist locations. Another variegated ground cover sure to brighten dark spots are Lamium such as ‘Anne Greenaway’ and ‘White Nancy’.  These spread quickly so keep them in check unless you want to cover large areas. 

Finding plants for dry shade can be tricky, but Lamium, Liriope, Epimedium, or Vinca will solve that problem. Keep in mind that even these plants will need supplemental watering in their first year or during droughts.

Wild Strawberries like Fragaria vesca and F. chiloensis offer fast spreading native cover that also bear small fruit, which are edible for humans and birds alike. Another great native is Oxalis oregana, or the Redwood Sorrel, which forms charming lush 3” tall semi-evergreen mats of clovers, each with 3 heart- shaped leaves and dainty nodding white flowers. This native is going to want a moist shady spot where it can slowly spread.

A native ground cover that shares a species name but wants entirely differently growing conditions is Sedum oregana.  This Sedum has tiny succulent leaves reaching 3-6 inches in height, and wants full sun and well draining soil. In the summertime it blooms with little yellow flowers that are a magnet for bees and butterflies. There are many other Sedum species and cultivars, all perfect for sunny areas with well-draining soil.  While many ground cover Sedums stay on the petite side, others get a bit taller. One midrange sedum which maxes out at 10” is the alpine Sedum anacampseros, or Evergreen Orpine, which has blueish gray-green button shaped foliage. This one is more clumping rather than spreading.

 Glaucous sedums and Sempervivum offer great contrast next to chartreuse Sedums like ‘Lime Twister’ and ‘Lemon Ball’. The bright yellow-green sedums make stunning color combinations with other drought tolerant groundcovers like red Sempervivums ‘Jungle Shadows’ and ‘Royal Ruby’, or with Delospermas like ‘Jewel of Desert Ruby’ or ‘Firespinner’ which feature orange red jewel-like flowers. Another great companion for yellow Sedum is Lithodora ‘Grace Ward’, which forms a mat of dark green succulent leaves with beautiful cobalt blue flowers in the summertime.

Some groundcovers will be equally happy in sun or part shade. One such ground cover is Lonicera crassifolia, Evergreen Creeping Honeysuckle. Growing 6” tall, it has tiny button-shaped foliage which spreads to form a dense evergreen mat. It has small pale butter yellow blooms, but don’t bother bending over, these Honeysuckle are not fragrant. Another versatile ground cover is Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens‘, aka Black Mondo Grass which grows to about 10” tall. This evergreen grass-like perennial boasts purple/black strappy foliage with stalks of purple-white blooms in the summertime. Ophiopogon ‘nanus’ is a low grower at 4” tall, and is perfect for someone looking for a no-mow lawn substitute for part shade. Beautiful in an Asian-inspired setting! Although lovely, it is not meant to be stepped on. Color-wise, Black Mondo Grass makes an amazing pairing with Lysimachia ‘Aurea’, a low spreading ground cover with bright golden semi-evergreen foliage.

Want a steppable? Corsican Mint, Mentha requienii, tolerates moderate foot traffic well, releasing a fresh minty fragrance. Growing less than an inch tall, this plant likes full to part sun and is perfect for filling the spaces between pavers. Woolly Thyme, Red Thyme, and Blue Star Creeper (Isotoma fluviatilis) are other steppable choices for sunny spots, forming a dense carpet of foliage. Herniaria glabra aka Green Carpet is aptly named, with its tiny leaves forming a nearly indestructible flat ground cover.

A FALL SOLUTION … Protect your vacant summer vegetable bed by planting a cover crop, aka Green Manure. Sow seeds of short season annuals in early fall to provide plant cover for bare soil. Common cover crops include Crimson Clover, Common Buckwheat, and Hairy Vetch. Not only do they help suppress weeds and prevent erosion/compaction, these plants are cut down and worked into the soil in spring to improve soil texture and add nutrients back to the soil.

Did you know 80% of root growth occurs in the late summer and fall? A strong root system is the foundation of successful ground cover planting. Fall is the perfect time to get groundcovers established to ensure a quick start in the spring! 

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