Groundcover, the good, bad and ugly

Groundcover is an integral part of most gardens.  Groundcover is self explanatory, basically plants that cover the bare ground, usually between larger (taller) plants.  The use of groundcover in gardens helps to minimize the appearance of weeds, which is always beneficial.  There are thousands of varieties out there, some good, some not so good (in my opinion) and some downright ugly!  Let me help you decipher some of my favourites and others that I encounter on a daily basis in my gardening business.

The best:

My favourite groundcover includes sweet woodruffe and lamium for part sun to shady areas as well as sedums and stonecrops for hot, sunny spots. Each perky stem of sweet woodruffe sports six shiny green leaves and tiny white flowers in spring.  Even after flowering this groundcover remains attractive all summer long.  Sweet woodruffe requires no deadheading either, which is an added bonus.

Lamium’s flowers are flashier, either pale pink or lavender in colour.  Its variegated foliage (green and white) also remains attractive all season.  Deadheading after blooming will create a second bloom time too.

groundcover
pearl pink lamium

I guess that’s what I like most about these two groundcovers; even when not in bloom they look great.  Although both spread, they do so in small clumps, but are not invasive.  Both are shallow rooted, so easy to remove from areas you don’t want them.  I use both of these as edging plants in my gardens as well. I have also used lamium in shady hanging baskets as it trails nicely as it grows.

For hot, sunny and dry spots in the garden, including tucked between or cascading over rocks, or even in containers, you can’t beat sedums or stonecrops.  Both come in a wide variety of bloom colours.  I especially love the dragon’s blood (red) stonecrop and the cute rosettes of hen and chicks.

Others:

Violets make a successful groundcover as well, but they can be invasive…

groundcover
wild violets

Some of the not so nice (looking) groundcover that crops up uninvited in gardens are clover and mosses. Clover is cute looking too, some people actually confuse sweet woodruffe with clover leaves.  However, clover is much weedier and invasive.  I don’t mind clover in my lawns, but pull it out of my gardens.  Some people encourage moss to grow between their stonework patios and walkways, not a look I am fond of.

The only time groundcover in your gardens does not work well is if you prefer mulch between your plants.  Not that you can’t have both, the problem is that most groundcover is low growing so the mulch can overpower and even smother it.  For this reason, I don’t usually recommend both mulch and groundcover in the same garden.

As I was snapping pictures of these varieties of groundcover the other day, I spied a garter snake peaking out at me from the cover of a hosta.  As a kid I used to think they were called gardener snakes, most likely because I saw them mostly in gardens.   I probably (unintentionally) disturbed this cutie’s sun bask.  By the time I focused on him, he was off, slithering away down the stone path to safety…

Drought tolerant perennials

Drought tolerant perennials are popular these days, especially with those of you in the midst of a heatwave as we are here in Ontario. 

Irrigation Systems

Even if you have an irrigation system, these hardy perennials should be a staple in your garden to avoid wasting your money on plants and water.  Just be sure to place the hoses or plants (whichever you install last) strategically.  For example, ornamental grasses do not appreciate wet feet.  In fact, the quickest way to kill them off is to overwater them.

Read the Labels or Research to Find Drought Tolerant Plants

One way to determine if plants (annuals or perennials) are drought resistant is to read the labels at the nurseries or stores where you purchase your plants. Some (larger) nurseries even have separate drought-tolerant sections to make your search easier. I have discovered asking nursery staff which plants are suitable is hit and miss.

Another, more proactive, plan is to research drought-resistant plants hardy to your garden zone before you head out the door to shop for plants.

Here are a few of my favourite outstanding perennials that I rely on in my gardens for hot summer color:

  • lavender
  • Russian sage
  • ornamental grasses
  • tickseed
  • stonecrop and sedum, available in multiple colors, great for hot borders
  • daisies

If you haven’t already, consider adding some to your gardens. Just be sure to wait until the heatwave is over to do so!

Confessions of a Plant Snob

Ok, I will admit it, I am a snob, a plant snob that is!  Some plants I find just too common and boring.  For example, “Look at that beautiful hosta!” said no one ever.  Or spirea either for that matter, unless you are talking one of the bridal wreath variety, then you may just hear or think that, but only if it is pruned correctly.

An Aversion to Hostas if You’re a Plant Snob

I appear to have developed an aversion to hostas, probably because people have overused them in their gardens.  The only time I enjoy them is in the very early spring when their green spikes are one of the first signs of new growth to emerge from the soil as it thaws out here in the Ottawa area.  In the summer they get eaten by slugs and earwigs, and in the fall they turn mushy and slimy…

A Plant Snob’s Alternatives to Hostas

So, what perennials do I prefer to hostas for the edges of my gardens?  Here are my choices:

Perennial Geraniums

For shady areas, I like perennial geraniums.  They are one of the first perennials to green up in the spring, require no maintenance whatsoever, and maintain their neat, non-sprawling (most varieties) mounded shape.  They do spread throughout the garden, but are very shallow-rooted, so easy to remove from places you do not want them to spread to.  These geraniums are great for planting under trees, even evergreen trees where nothing else will thrive.

In fact, I planted lots of these versatile plants as ground cover under the evergreens we limbed up at the hospice I volunteer at. They look beautiful!

plant snob

Lamium

Another good choice for an edging plant in shady areas is lamium.  Its variegated leaves, reblooming pale flowers, and tidy habit make it one of my favourites..

lamium (with daylilies)

Heucheras

For part shade to part sun locations in the garden, I am loving heucheras these days.  Some varieties tolerate more sun than others, so be sure to read the tags. 

Heucheras come in a variety of colors from palest green to bright chartreuse to orangy-brown to reddish-brown to deep wine red.  Leaf shapes vary too from smooth and rounded, to almost maple-leaf-like, to curly, lettuce-leaf-like. 

They look good all summer, need no fall cleanup or protection, and survive our cold winters with no problem.  A simple tug to remove any crispy leaves in the spring and they are good to go.

By the way, heuchera is pronounced with a hard c.  I will never forget that after I was chastised for mispronouncing it by a 93-year-old client. 

Sedum or Stonecrop

My first choice for full sun edging or container plants are those in the sedum or stonecrop families.  As succulents, sedums and stonecrops are all drought-tolerant, thriving in hot, dry areas, especially next to stone walkways where not much else will grow.

They too come in a variety of colors and shapes, in fact, look especially nice (I think) when varieties are mixed together randomly.

plant snob
stonecrop

So, next season think outside of your comfort zone, and become a plant snob by replacing those boring hostas with a little more pizazz!

Experiment with perennial succulents for containers in full sun garden locations

This year I am experimenting with perennial succulents in my urns that are located in full sun.  I had two coco liners filled with soil left from last summer’s hanging baskets.  I turned them upside down over my cast iron urns, tucking the fiber into the edge of the urns to make them fit and to prevent soil and water from leaking out.  I then cut slits in the fiber and tucked slips of succulents (sedum and stonecrop) into the slits.  For the top, I used a large sermpervivum rosette (the hen part of the hen and chicks succulent plant).   I am hoping the succulent slips will cascade over the sides of the urns as they grow.  I will rotate the urns occasionally as the sedums grow towards the sun, so they will cascade evenly around the perimeter of the urns.

Perennial succulents are an excellent choice for a hot, dry location in your garden.  There are many varieties to choose from; sedums and stonecrop are two of my favourites.  Choose a variation in color for a spectacular display. Once established succulents require very little water, and in fact too much water will cause them to rot.  These urns of mine sit in front of my garage with a hot, dry, full sun, southern exposure. Over the years I have not had much luck with any other plants growing there.  They all start off well, but quickly lose their appeal as they get leggy and dry out.  Hopefully the succulents will do the trick to keep my urns looking great all summer.

I also use succulents such as sedum and stonecrop as groundcovers in hot, dry, full sun locations in my garden.  They make beautiful edging plants in the perennial garden.