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Groundbreaking ground covers

Rick Ray in his garden in Marple Township, where ground covers galore grow on 2 1/2 acres.
Rick Ray in his garden in Marple Township, where ground covers galore grow on 2 1/2 acres.

Tired of those boring creepers? Just about any plant can play the part - even roses, or lavender. And now is planting time.

Posted: November 12, 2010

For at least a half-century, three ground covers have dominated the American home landscape: English ivy, pachysandra, and vinca minor, or periwinkle.

They grow fast. They need little care. And, truth be told, they're not bad-looking.

But by their very ubiquity, the Big Three are about as boring as a landscape can get. And they reveal something about us as gardeners that, while understandable, is pretty pathetic:

We don't have much imagination and we'd like to avoid anything requiring work, if possible. Some would say that about Americans and gardening in general, but it's especially true when the topic is ground covers.

What other element of the American garden has so little variety? In some parts of the Philadelphia region, you'll find entire front lawns covered in a winglike weave of ivy, pachysandra, or vinca.

Not at Chris Espinosa's house. A fine arts graduate of Rutgers University, he makes a living as an animator and graphic designer. He's got an artist's eye, in other words, and it shows in his plant choices, including ground covers.

In the backyard of his Cherry Hill tract home, on a patch of ground about 25 feet by 50 feet, Espinosa has planted hardy bananas and bamboo. He has built a hot tub, a pool with a deck, and a pond with, no kidding, a sandy beach.

For ground covers, Espinosa likes drought-tolerant sedums, such as Sedum rupestre 'Angelina,' which comes up bright green in spring, with a jaunty yellow flower in summer. "The way it spreads, you accidentally step on it and a piece goes flying, it lands and roots," Espinosa says. "I'm, like, wow! That's really neat."

He also has 'Catlin's Giant,' a purple-bronze ajuga, which some shy away from for its aggressive spread, and he's thinking of planting a rosemary ground cover around the hot tub. "I thought that would be kind of cool, to reach down from the tub to grab something and get rosemary," Espinosa muses.

There's a cool grab, all right; so's a cold beer, for that matter. But there's no reason rosemary, or thyme or creeping oregano, or any number of other herbs, couldn't be used this way, according to Barbara W. Ellis, author of Covering Ground: Unexpected Ideas for Landscaping With Colorful, Low-Maintenance Ground Covers, from Storey Press.

"Unfortunately, I think for many gardeners, a ground cover is a plant you throw down because you don't know what to do with the site," she says.

Ellis, who incidentally is allergic to English ivy, has other ideas. In fact, if she goes to a garden center to look for ground covers, she skips the ground cover section because it's typically dominated by the Big Three.

Instead, she'll root around the perennials for plants that range from 1 inch to 2 feet tall - herbs and sedums; plumbago; clematis, planted so it scrambles on the ground; dianthus ('Fire Witch' is a favorite); low-growing spirea; daylilies, such as 'Happy Returns,' and - here's a surprise - lavender.

"Ground covers can be really exciting and an area covered by these plants can be fabulous," says Ellis, who lives in Chestertown, on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Ground covers can also be useful - for stormwater drainage, to control weeds and soil erosion, and to cover hard-to-grow places, such as a spot where tree roots are at or near the surface, a slope too steep to mow, or a densely shaded or super-dry corner of the garden.

Far from an afterthought, ground covers also can "create a desirable aesthetic," says Rick J. Lewandowski, director of the Mount Cuba Center in Greenville, Del., which studies and promotes the region's native plants.

Ground covers can be a unifying element, if planted throughout the garden. "They connect different parts of your garden through texture, color, and form, and they guide the eye through the landscape," Lewandowski says.

In that sense, turf grass - lawn - is the quintessential ground cover. "It does much the same thing, when it's planted properly," Lewandowski notes, "but this works best on larger properties. For small city gardens, a dramatic ground cover is a delightful alternative to grass."

What about native ground covers? They're usually a bit, or missing, player in these discussions.

Lewandowski argues that they can be every inch as interesting and beautiful as nonnatives. An added benefit: Natives are more valuable to indigenous insects and pollinators.

Lewandowski has more than a dozen favorite native ground covers, but his Big Three are Allegheny pachysandra, the seldom-used alternative to Japanese pachysandra; wild ginger (Asarum canadense), and ferns, such as 'Lady in Red' and Christmas.

"They spread nicely. They're gorgeous," says Lewandowski, who also recommends partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), a creeping herb with fragrant white flowers and red berries; yellow-blossomed barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides); 'Gro-low' fragrant sumac, dwarf crested iris, and wintergreen.

Native and other unusual ground covers are increasingly available at garden centers; if not there, then online. All can be planted now.

Better yet, stop by Liz Ball and Rick Ray's place in Marple Township, along Delaware County's Crum Creek. They're growing ground covers galore, in and around extensive gardens on 21/2 acres.

Before an impromptu tour of those gardens, Ray cautions that English ivy, pachysandra, and vinca aren't the only turbocharged ground covers out there. Gardeners need to distinguish between passive and aggressive or active ground covers, just as they would, or should, with bamboo.

Like bamboo, liriope, a dense, grasslike ground cover also called lilyturf, has two forms, clumping (Liriope muscari) and running (Liriope spicata). The former grows reasonably fast; the latter, sometimes unreasonably.

Ray also points out that in modern times, the concept of ground cover has evolved into something quite narrow.

"The Eastern deciduous forest at one time was a ground cover in that trees covered the ground," he says, noting that "a squirrel could go from pine tree to pine tree, without touching the ground, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi.

"The size of a ground cover is limited only by your imagination," says Ray, who taught ornamental horticulture for two decades at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown and is now on the staff of the Barnes Foundation's Arboretum School in Merion.

Consider bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora), an eye-grabbing shrub that's wide and tall, as a ground cover. How about 'Golden Fleece' goldenrod or deutzia, Flower Carpet roses, or climbing hydrangea that climbs across the yard?

"These are all great ground covers," Ray says.

Ball, author of Month-by-Month Gardening in Pennsylvania and other gardening books, puts it simply: "Almost any plant can be a ground cover. It doesn't have to be creepy, crawly, or low-growing."

Ball likes the idea of natives for ground covers and other uses. And she'd like more garden centers to label and promote them.

So which ground cover does Ball promote? A rather unusual one: moss, which works especially well under trees. "Just look in the woods," she says.

Most people don't. Too bad.

Kevin Zaleski, chief executive officer of Classy Groundcovers in Blairsville, Ga., which has been selling ground covers to growers for more than 50 years, reports that English ivy, pachysandra, and vinca have been his best-sellers, "by a wide margin, from Day 1," for more than half a century.

Still, creative growers are ordering things like 'Black Scallop' ajuga, dwarf junipers, and daylilies to sell as ground covers. "These are popular with people who want the ease and fast-growing nature but a different look," says Zaleski, whose own favorite ground cover is a shocker.

He likes astilbe.

"It's pretty rare to come across as a ground cover," he concedes. But with those feathery plumes of white, pink, purple, and red, astilbe can produce a ground-hugging cloud in dark shade.

"I love the foliage and flowers and it's maintenance-free. A lot of people are tired of hostas and long to have something unusual," Zaleski says.

Talk about unusual.

Ray and Ball recently filled in their in-ground pool, with an eye toward converting the space into a dining terrace ringed by gardens. And what did they use to cover the old pool?

The most common ground cover of all - grass.


Read garden writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at

gardening


Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

See GROUND COVERS on F3

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