A PASSION FOR PLANTS: June 2008
by Nancy Schramm
Covering the Ground
If I told you there was something you could do in your garden to save water, time, money, and be good for the environment, would you be interested? The icing on the cake is that it looks good! No, I'm not talking about some hi-tech irrigation timer (but that's a great idea, too!). Let's get back to some garden basics and consider the benefits of planting groundcover. A well-established, appropriate groundcover can practically eliminate weeds. (Which is reason enough for ME to be interested)
Additional benefits include reducing evaporation and erosion. If you are brave enough to eliminate your lawn in favor of one or more groundcovers, your dependence on expensive water and chemicals can plummet. The erosion control provided by groundcovers has far-reaching benefits. Soil that is eroded by wind and rain finds its way into storm drains and nearby creeks, adding pollutants to the run-off all the way to the ocean. Substituting groundcovers for lawn increases the diversity of our landscape, providing food and habitat for birds and beneficial insects. Best of all, there is an amazing variety of plants that make wonderful groundcovers, truly something suitable for any situation.
Let's start by looking at some of the flattest groundcovers. There are many varieties of creeping thyme (Thymus praecox articus) with light or dark green or wooly gray leaves, and flowers that range from white to very dark pink. You can create an attractive watercolor effect by planting several different varieties and letting them grow into each other.
T. herba-barona (caraway-scented thyme) is a very quick groundcover for the impatient among us, and if you walk on it occasionally, you can keep it quite flat. Herniaria glabra is another flat, green, fine textured groundcover that will take some foot traffic. Dymondia margaretae is another amazingly tough "flattie." The long narrow leaves are dark gray green on top, the edges roll up, exposing the white under-side, making them look variegated. The small yellow daisy flowers are cheerful, but infrequent. It's a great plant to establish in a parking strip (a difficult area at best) where I've seen it grown with great success, completely eliminating weeds.
Some slightly taller groundcovers include Veronica pectinata with small gray, scalloped leaves. This one sends up small spikes of dark blue flowers in the spring. Also worth mentioning for their flowers: Helianthemum nummularium (Sunrose) with many different colored flowers available; Nepeta racemosa "Walker's Low" which produces violet-blue flowers for half the year; and Phlox subulata (moss pink) with needle-like leaves and vivid flowers in shades of pink through lavender blue, and white.
The mondo grasses (Ophiopogon japonicus) can range from 3-8" tall (and more) and will grow under trees in shade that many other plants won't tolerate. Many produce lavender flowers followed by little blue berries. Origanum vulgare "Aureum" (an ornamental oregano) is taller, with golden yellow foliage and pink bracts (which look like flowers). It is bright and cheerful, and much tougher than it looks.
There are many evergreen hardy geraniums, which make easy groundcovers. For instance, Geranium x cantabrigiense grows 6-8" tall, with deeply lobed, dark green leaves. Many color selections are available and these plants bloom freely late spring and early summer.
In some situations, a taller groundcover is desirable, and there are two natives I'd like to recommend. Arctostaphylos "Carmel Sur" is one of the many manzanitas that cover the ground. It grows about 1' tall, with gray-green foliage and pink flowers, and can fairly quickly spread to about 10' across.
Ceanothus "Yankee Point" (California lilac) is another great native, growing 2-3' tall and 8-10' wide. The glossy dark green leaves are an excellent accent for the medium blue flowers.
Rubus pentalobus isn't native to California, but fits in our taller group at about 1' tall. The evergreen leaves are an attractive glossy dark green, lobed, ruffled, and textured. Small white flowers are followed by salmon colored berries, and some varieties will provide winter color. Rubus will make a dense cover in sun or light shade.
Ornamental grasses have become popular with landscapers in recent years, and rightly so. Many forms are now available that are hardy, non-invasive, and attractive. Carex texensis, (sedge) is native to the southwest and grows 4-6" tall. It can be used very successfully as a lawn substitute for small areas, is medium green, and has a fine texture. C. pansa is a slightly taller sedge native to California. It is dark green and will take some foot traffic. Autumn moor grass (Sesleria autumnalis) is one last low-maintenance, tough, grass-like groundcover. The foliage is lime green, 10-15" tall. This one gives you a bonus of attractive tan flower spikes that stand another 6" taller in late summer and fall. Gilroy Groundcover Nursery (408) 848-3722 is a local source.
I'll see you at the Morgan Hill Farmer's Market!
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