Ground covers, an essential component in garden design, add another dimension and range of color and texture to landscapes. These low growing plants blanket the ground and cover the soil. Think of them as a live, growing mulch. Some ground covers can take heavy foot traffic, while others cannot. Some varieties are perfect for growing between stepping stones, while others prefer plenty of space and do not fare as well in tight conditions. And while some ground covers thrive in broiling summer sun, others are happier and healthier shaded under tall trees. Fortunately for gardeners, a perfect ground cover is available for almost every area in the garden.
Turf grasses, such as St. Augustine, centipede, and zoysia, are the ultimate ground covers. However, turf grass is not always best for certain areas in the garden. One of the most common questions relating to ground covers is what to plant in shady areas under trees or large shrubs where turf grass will not grow. One option is to make the shady area a naturalized space and cover it with pine straw or mulch. This is adequate, but the mulch or pine straw will need to be replaced every season to keep the garden tidy. You can also plant a hearty ground cover that can withstand shady conditions and survive competing with tree roots. The tree uses much rainwater or water from an irrigation system, so consider this when making your choice.
Hostas provide excellent ground cover. Even though hostas are not frequently considered for this purpose, they are wonderful for a shady area where turf grass will not grow.
Literally hundreds of hostas are available. It really comes down to personal preference. ‘Sum and Substance’ have large, chartreuse colored leaves that will light up a shady bed. Beautiful, variegated varieties such as ‘The Patriot’ will also lighten the shady area with the bright white and green variegation of their leaves. Other varieties to consider are ‘Blue Standard,’ ‘Blue Angel,’ ‘Stained Glass,’ and ‘Francee.’ Each of these varieties thrives in our area and is relatively carefree. One tip to remember when choosing hostas as ground cover is to plant lots of them. The bed needs to be full to make an impact. Try using all one variety, but a combination is also appealing.
The garden bed needs to be prepared by double digging. First you dig or till the area. Be careful not to damage nearby tree or shrubbery roots. Rake out any debris or rocks. Then go back over the entire bed and dig it a little deeper. Add lots of organic matter, such as compost or Erth Food. Make sure the bed is level and that water does not puddle in any particular place. Plant all of the hostas.
Use hardwood mulch instead of pine straw in this application. The bed will need irrigation during the first few seasons of growth. Once established, it may require less water. Remember to trench edge the bed or add metal edging or a brick border to define the garden bed. One last tip about hostas: prune the blossoms from the plants in the summer when they bloom. The bed will look much neater. For some reason, the blooms are a distraction and take away from the beauty of the foliage.
Ivy is also an appropriate ground cover for a shady spot in the garden. The subject of planting ivy is divided into two distinct camps: those who love it and those who abhor it. I am a proponent of ivy as a ground cover; however, it must be maintained and maintained frequently.
You also need to choose the right variety. Larger leafed varieties, such as ‘Algerian Ivy,’ are a wonderful option. You must also select from a dark green or a variegated variety. Variegated is ideal for containers, but it rarely thrives when selected for a ground cover, making the darker green a better option.
Ivy should be planted in the same manner as hosta. Hardwood mulch is easier to install around the planted ivy as opposed to pine straw. Once the ivy is established, little if any mulch will be needed. Ivy does not do well if it is planted where it will get hot afternoon sun, so make sure that it is planted completely in the shade. Once established, it must be maintained. Make sure that it does not grow up into the trees or shrubbery, and prune it to keep it in its assigned space. After a few years, if the bed of ivy looks untidy, try cutting it back to the ground with a sharp string trimmer or lawn mower and letting the leaves grow back fresh. This good maintenance practice works well in late winter, such as February and early March. As a result, the garden will be rewarded with a beautiful, lush ivy bed by late spring.
Ferns are another option for ground cover in a shady spot. Autumn fern and holly fern seem to be the most popular in the Midlands. They can be planted in a monochromatic scheme using just one variety, or they can be planted together. Ferns can be difficult to establish, and, once again, preparation of the planting bed is extremely important. Ferns also need to be in areas where a surplus of organic matter has been added to the soil, such as composted leaves, Erth Food, or mushroom compost. The bed needs to be tilled and double dug so that the soil is light and airy. Fern beds require regular irrigation, and holly ferns can be damaged by extreme cold and wind. They do, however, respond well to hard pruning. The entire plant can be cut to the ground in late February and will re-grow by summer.
Many suitable plants are available for sunnier areas. One of the most successful ground covers in Zone 8 is Asiatic jasmine, which is a tough, dark green vine that thrives in sun and can withstand high summer temperatures. Asiatic jasmine provides a wonderful dark contrast to other plants, such as boxwood, azalea, and even turf grass, that can be pruned into a hedge once it is established.
Carefully prepare the bed before planting, and make sure it is tilled and free of any debris. Plant one Asiatic jasmine for every square foot of garden space. The 4 inch cups acclimate better and are less expensive than the 1 gallon plants. The saying goes that jasmine creeps the first year, walks the second year, and runs the third year. Stay on top of weeding the bed during the first few growing seasons. The weeds thrive in newly exposed soil and compost, just like the jasmine will. After the Asiatic jasmine is established, the weeds won’t stand a chance.
Creeping thyme, an edible herb, grows between stepping stones or in a gravel path as an attractive ground cover. Thyme can also withstand light foot traffic. Thyme can be finicky, but given optimum growing conditions it will thrive. Thyme loves sun but needs adequate drainage. If the soil is too “heavy,” add clean play sand and vermiculite. Once established, thyme can survive weeks without much rain or irrigation.
Lysimachia, or creeping jenny, is another for planting between stepping stones. Lysimachia is a chartreuse ground cover that can take some sun exposure but prefers afternoon shade. It requires more water that thyme but is easier to establish. The contrast of its chartreuse leaves when planted between bluestone or brick is particularly striking.
Mondo grass and dwarf mondo grass are also popular for ground cover. However, when a large swath of mondo or dwarf mondo is planted, frequently the growth of the entire area is never consistent. Part of the area will thrive, yet another part will struggle. Just as turf grasses need to be lush and healthy to enhance the beauty of the garden, ground covers should also be lush and healthy to achieve the desired effect. For this reason, many do not consider mondo or dwarf mondo to be the best for ground covers.
Other ground covers to consider are ajuga, liriope, pachasandra, sedum, juniper, and vinca. Visit local nurseries to become familiar with the different varieties. Take a stroll or drive around the neighborhood. Visit the Botanical Garden at Riverbanks Zoo or the Historic Gardens at the Hampton-Preston Mansion. Pay attention to how many ground covers are visible. Study your own landscape to decide if a particular area would benefit from a ground cover installation. Remember to choose the right plant for the right spot, and your choice will be the right one.
Gardening Chores for the November Gardener
November is usually when the Columbia area experiences its first frost so it is a busy month for the gardener.
• After perennials have been hit by the first hard frost, cut them to the ground to neaten the appearance of the garden. Mulch perennials with pine straw or hardwood mulch to protect the plants for the rest of the fall and winter.
• Dig up any spent annuals and add to the compost pile. Add pansies, violas, and snapdragons for color during the remaining fall, winter, and early spring.
• November is the best time to plant large shrubs and trees.
• Continue to divide any perennials, such as rudbeckia, iris, and daylilies that have become crowded.
• Prune any dead limbs from trees and shrubs.
• Check outdoor lighting fixtures to make sure leaves are clear of the bulbs to allow for full illumination.
• Replace any outdoor lighting bulbs that have burned out.
• Prune fig ivy one last time before spring growth.
• Dig and store caladium or dahlia bulbs for next spring’s planting.
• Begin forcing paper white bulbs for holiday bloom.
• Cut back on irrigation.
• Rake leaves from grass and planting beds. Add to the compost bin for use next spring.
• Overseed existing lawn with annual rye grass for a green lawn all winter.
• Maintain garden tools. Sharpen blades and oil any metal parts of mechanical tools.
• Enjoy the last few evenings in the garden before it becomes too cold.
• Take outdoor cushions in for the winter.
• Keep fountains and birdbaths clean for the birds.
• Stock up on birdseed for the bird feeders.
• Add a fire pit.
• Evaluate the garden to determine if an area would benefit from ground cover.
• Redefine all garden bed lines. Re-dig trench edges if necessary. It is easier to do it now when it is cool that in the warm spring and summer.
What’s in Bloom?
Abelia, canna lily, chrysanthemum, cassia, rose, tea olive, sasanqua, violas, pansies, and snapdragons.