Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
March, 2006
Regional Report

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The wonderfully fuzzy, silvery leaves of lamb's ears make an attractive low-maintenance ground cover.

Run for Cover

Among my winter's reading have been two magazine articles on ground covers. This may not seem the most exciting subject, but both offered a perspective that caught my attention. Although the term ground covers may bring to mind a boring sea of pachysandra or ivy, they do provide gardeners with a low-maintenance landscaping alternative that prevents soil erosion, suppresses weed growth, and provides an attractive background to other plantings.

The Research Approach
As reported in the February 15, 2006, issue of American Nurseryman magazine, researchers in a joint study at Cornell University in Ithaca and Riverhead, New York; and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, Ohio, were looking for ground covers suited to the northeast and central United States. Their criteria were: plants that were easy to establish and maintain, tolerant of environmental extremes, able to effectively suppress weeds and resist insects and diseases as well as browsing deer. Over a five-year period, they evaluated a large number of herbaceous perennial ground covers in full sun in field and roadside environments.

As might be expected, the most successful ground covers were the ones that quickly established and maintained a dense foliar canopy. It's important to remember that some weeding is needed, at least the first year, even with the best ground covers. The following are their top choices for low-maintenance landscapes:

1. Alchemilla mollis 'Thriller' - Grows 8 to 16 inches tall and 12 inches wide; velvety green leaves and chartreuse flowers in spring.

2. Aster ericoides 'Schneegitter' - A garden form of a native aster growing 4 to 8 inches tall with mounds of white flowers in late summer and fall.

3. Dianthus deltoides 'Brilliant' - Evergreen foliage growing 8 inches tall and 16 inches wide with deep rose-colored flowers.
4. Heuchera 'Chocolate Veil' - Forms a dense canopy of chocolate-colored leaves. (My question is, "How do other heucheras compare and was this one significantly better?")

5. Laurentia fluviatilis - Commonly called blue star creeper, this is a ground-hugger with blue flowers all summer.

6. Mazus reptans - Another ground-hugger with blue flowers in late spring; can be invasive.
7. Nepeta x faassenii 'Walker's Low' - Growing 12 to 20 inches tall and 16 inches wide, this catmint bears long-blooming blue flowers. Needs to be cut down in spring and sheared back midsummer for repeat bloom.
8. Persicaria affinis - Grows 5 to 8 inches tall with pink flowers. The invasive nature of the persicarias makes me nervous to use them.
9. Phlox subulata 'Emerald Blue' - A garden form of the native creeping phlox, it has blue-violet flowers in spring. Cut back to 3 inches in spring to encourage new growth.
10. Potentilla neumanniana 'Nana' - Growing 3 to 4 inches tall, this dwarf cinquefoil has shiny leaflets and yellow flowers.
11. Rhus aromatica 'Gro-Low' - A garden form of the native fragrant sumac, this woody plant grows to 20 inches tall and 6 to 7 feet wide. The glossy green leaves turn orange-red in autumn.
12. Sedum acre 'Gold Moss' - Another ground-hugger with green to blue-green, succulent foliage and yellow, star-shaped flowers in summer.
13. Solidago phacelata - A native goldenrod growing 6 to 12 inches tall with yellow flowers in late summer and fall. It is both drought and salt tolerant. 'Golden Fleece' is a cultivar.
14. Stachys byzantina - The wonderfully fuzzy leaves of lamb's ears grow to 12 inches tall. The cultivar 'Silver Carpet' does not bloom.
15. Thymus serpyllum --Creeping thyme is a ground-hugging, drought-tolerant form, bearing pink flowers.

A More Personal View
In the 2006 issue of Horticulture, Joe Eck writes of American native ground covers for shady conditions. Among his favorites are Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens), wandflower (Galax urceolata), bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), and Canby's paxistima (Paxistima canbyi).

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