Take Cover

Take Cover

In residential landscapes from Northern Virginia to Southern California, a type of groundcover is gaining in popularity, while at the same time keeping a low profile.

Ground-softening creepers, some no taller than indoor carpeting, are gaining in popularity among gardeners who prize their beauty and toughness.

While pachysandra, hosta and ivy grow a foot tall or higher, other types of groundcovers grow no more than an inch. These low-growing plants generally are classified as perennials and succulents. Some varieties withstand a reasonable amount of foot traffic.

Some of the most popular are the various types of thyme – woolly thyme, elfin thyme. Most have tiny little leaves that lend themselves to creeping along in little crevices.

Hence, they are frequently planted between stone pavers for visual appeal.

For a flagstone patio or pathway, if you plant them in between the stones, they soften the edges and provide for a more organic look – there’s something green growing and creeping between the stones.

Low-growing groundcovers are also used instead of mulch or soil around trees and shrubs, and in some cases instead of lawn.

As mulch replacement, “It adds an additional layer and some depth, and some texture and richness, beneath your shrubs. By definition, groundcover forms a community and grows into a solid mass, so it creates a sense of continuity – everything looks more unified and tied together,” says Bob Hursthouse, president, Hursthouse Landscape Architects & Contractors, which services the Chicago and its suburbs.

Perhaps its most useful characteristic is weed suppression. “When you get a really thick mat of groundcover, the weeds can’t grow through it,” says Kevin McGowen, operations manager, Kaknes Landscape Supply, Naperville, Illinois.

The company recently expanded its line of creeping thyme from two to seven varieties due to its popularity, he adds.

Other popular varieties are blue star creeper, sedums, veronicas and mosses.

“Groundcovers have really come to the forefront in consumers’ eyes as problem-solving plants. A homeowner can use them to keep weeds out and moisture in, reducing their need for fertilizers and weed killers,” says Frances White, founder and CEO, Under a Foot Plant Company, Salem, Oregon.

White created a line of groundcovers called Stepables that are robust enough to function as a surface for walking. “Consider these to be your Berber carpeting for the outdoors,” she says.

The plants are designed to withstand light, moderate or heavy foot traffic. Stepping on them “induces lateral growth and keeps plants tight to the ground,” White says.

While many agree that this groundcover brand and others like it are “virtually unbothered” by foot traffic, McGowen says the plants are sensitive to trauma. “But the truth is, no plant really likes to be stepped on,” he says.

Certain types of low-growing groundcover suffer more than others. “Some sedums have more succulent leaves, and if you step on them you kind of crush them,” White says. “It’s better to plant those off to the side.”

Choose groundcover that is appropriate for your region’s climate and soil conditions, and for the amount of available sunlight. “If you plant a full-sun plant in a shady area, you will get a very thin, spindly plant,” White says. “If you plant a shady plant in full sun, it will burn down to nothing.”

If you don’t have automatic sprinklers, choose a plant that’s not particularly thirsty. “Most of us who water by hand forget a lot or get busy and don’t always get out there on really hot days,” White says.

However, you shouldn’t water too frequently, either. Over watering and poor drainage are the most common groundcover killers, White says.

Stepables should not be covered for any length of time under leaves or debris, she adds, or they will turn yellow.

Low-growing groundcover is not a suitable option for certain applications. Taller varieties are preferable for a large area that is difficult to maintain, such as a slope or hillside. “Planting a super-steep hillside with ivy makes a lot more sense than wooly thyme,” White says. “If there’s an area where you want to plant it once and forget about it, general ground covers like ivy, hypericum and periwinkle do their finest work.”


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