Nancy Brachey

Lots to choose from in good ground covers

I’m continuing a topic begun last week on the importance of using ground covers in parts of your lawn where grass is difficult, if not impossible, to grow well. Once you’ve finished defining the area and preparing the soil, the fun begins.

That fun is selecting and setting out the right plants for your space. Most of the time, these spaces are in the shade of trees, a situation that ranks among the most important factors in making your choices. Fortunately, many good ground covers work well in shade to part shade.

As you start to think about selecting ground covers, here are some principles to keep in mind:

• Beware the rapid ramblers. Certain plants such as English ivy and the big periwinkle named Vinca major are very difficult to keep contained. They grow rampantly, rapidly filling the space and sailing on into your shrub beds and even up the trees. This means maintenance. Think many, many times before you set out English ivy. Vinca major spreads rapidly underground, and may be worthy for covering a bank, where its rampant nature won’t cause more problems than it solves. The periwinkle blue blooms are pretty in early spring.

• Get to know plants suited for large spaces. Some ground covers will fill a large space, say 10 feet by 10 feet or more, without getting out of control. Vinca minor, the small periwinkle, is tame enough to use as a ground cover for even a medium-sized space.

The evergreen leaves are much smaller than Vinca major, the height stays low, about 6 inches, and it doesn’t spread rampantly, usually just 3 or 4 feet.

Pachysandra is quite beautiful, but grows slowly, and requires cool shade and average moisture.

Variegated monkey grass resembles the common liriope, but is more attractive, neater and interesting for its green leaves with white stripes. It will take sun or shade and its rapid growth means you can dig and divide your plants to expand your collection. It grows about 8 inches tall. It also makes an outstanding edger for a shrub bed or flowerbed.

If a shorter plant is desired, consider mondo grass. This looks like liriope, but the very dark evergreen leaves are shorter and narrower. A thickly planted array of mondo grass works in any area, sun or shade, large or small.

• Look for the beautiful as well as the useful. There’s a practical need to cover ground that is bare or has poor grass, but don’t overlook the potential for real beauty in these spaces. Certainly the Lenten rose ranks among the best perennials and brings long-lasting bloom from late winter until well into spring. They are very easy to grow, even in the most demanding circumstances, such as under the canopy of a large tree. They don’t require close planting – about 12 inches apart will be fine. Plus, they produce seedlings that will rapidly expand your collection. The appearance of a bed of Lenten roses is neat, and because the foliage is evergreen, it looks good all year. Plants benefit from annual removal of old foliage in late winter, just ahead of the new flowers and foliage.

A second outstanding choice is ajuga. It comes in many forms and color combinations, well-suited for shade to part-shade. It grows 5 or 6 inches tall and stays tidy. Ajuga grows rapidly but not rampantly, so you can keep it within boundaries. It blooms in spring, but the foliage is the reason to plant ajuga.

For a sunny spot, creeping phlox, which is often called thrift, makes a lovely, low mat of leaves topped with blue, pink or white flowers in early spring. This is an easy plant, even for areas that are on the dry side, and it can help reduce erosion on a bank.