Every garden has spaces beneath the plants where the earth can be seen. These areas attract weeds, and they lose water to the air, drying out your plants faster. They also look boring, but in many gardens there can be large spaces where tall plants aren’t suitable. You can deal with these spaces by using mulches, but a much better way – and one that creates a whole extra layer of green in your garden – is to use groundcover plants. Since these areas can be shady, and sometimes dry, there is a small traditional group of plants that have been used for many years – so much so that they can be found in just about every garden, in some part of it or other. They do they job, giving a green cover to the ground, and sometimes adding a seasonal flowering, but plants like Periwinkle, Bugleweed (Ajuga) or Japanese spurge (Pachysandra) can become invasive, spreading into lawns or over paving, they can be too low-growing, and they are seen so often we start to look for alternatives.
Shrubs as Groundcover
A different approach is to look among the many different kinds of shrubs to do the job of these traditional groundcovers. Shrubs are much less likely to be invasive, they can be significantly more colorful and interesting, and still do the basic job of covering larger areas with something low-growing. This doesn’t mean that we should give up completely on grassy or perennial groundcovers – not at all. There are many interesting and useful plants, like sedges, ornamental grasses or mondo grass (Liriope) that make great fillers for blank spots in your yard. Shrubs, though, give us a chance to have taller cover where we need it, and they create a different and valuable look.
How to Pick Groundcover Shrubs
So what makes a shrub suitable for groundcover? First of all it needs to be relatively low growing, perhaps between 8 inches and a couple of feet tall – 12 to 18 inches is pretty idea. Very important too is to be wide-spreading. To cover an area with most shrubs that are 12 inches tall would mean planting them about 9 inches apart – that gets expensive for all but the smallest area. No, what we want are shrubs that grow a foot tall, but spread at least 3 or 4 feet wide, with low, dense branching. That way we need far fewer plants to grow a dense cover over a larger space. Perhaps the ideal would be to have them evergreen, and there are plenty that are. Let’s not overlook, though, deciduous shrubs for this purpose. Given that your garden might be covered with snow for a good part of the winter it doesn’t really matter – you won’t be out relaxing, so the scene doesn’t have to be perfect.
It would be nice to have flowers, at least for a few weeks, but colorful foliage is great too. Most important of all, these shrubs need to be tolerant of difficult conditions – either hot and dry places, or shady spots, since those are the places we most often want groundcover for. We also want plants that grow vigorously; usually stay pest-free; and need minimal attention.
Some Shrubs for Groundcover
Let’s look at some ideas that fit this profile, and that can liven up your garden and cover those blank spaces at the same time:
Low Scape Mound® Aronia (Aronia melanocarpa ‘UCONNAM165’) – let’s start with something relatively knew, that you might not have heard of yet. Burdened with the unattractive common name of ‘black chokeberry’, Aronia is a very tough and reliable native shrub known for its lovely white spring blooms and its great fall colors. Most of them are tall, but this one, created by breeders at the University of Connecticut, is only about 18 inches, but spreads outwards at least 3 feet across. A few will give a great cover across the front of shrub beds or along a walkway, and it grows just about anywhere in the country, from zone 3 to zone 9. It does need some sun, but it is tolerant of wet soil, so its great for those wet, low-lying areas that attract coarse weeds and often look terrible. It grows well in regular soils too.
Massachusetts Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi ‘Massachusetts’). If zone 3 is still not good for you, or you want a very attractive groundcover that is great for evergreen cover in rocky and dry places in cold zones, look no further than this plant – another native plant and another university introduction – this time from the University of Oregon. Typically about 6 inches tall, but spreading in a few years to be 6 feet across, or even more, it has neat evergreen leaves, pretty pink spring flowers, showy red berries, and red winter foliage. You could hardly ask for more and it actually prefers poor, sandy soils and rocky ground.
Distylium – You don’t get much from the unassuming name of this truly new group of plants that you probably have never heard of. Suitable for the hottest areas, from zone 6 or 7 south, these evergreen shrubs have been causing a stir. They are chiefly foliage plants, grown for their small, glossy leaves that are often blue-green, and especially valuable for their indestructible, trouble-free nature. Literally, and totally, ‘pest free’, and super-easy to grow, three names stand out:
Vintage Jade Distylium – its attractive layered branches, couple with glossy oval leaves, makes this a natural for edging large beds with something neat that doesn’t need much if any trimming. Two to three feet tall and a full 6 feet across, it’s utterly pest-free and reliable evergreen with a unique blue-green tone to the foliage.
Cinnamon Girl™ Distylium – found as a ‘mystery plant’ in a shipment from China, we can thank the well-known Michael Dirr, from the University of Georgia, for this great little plant. Hardly more than a couple of feet wide, but up to 6 feet across, you can trim it lower easily, and have a solid bed of green that always looks good in sun or moderate shade – a great replacement for difficult-to-grow boxwoods. The plum-purple new growth adds an intriguing touch of color.
Coppertone™ Distylium – of similar dimensions, the added bonus with this variety is the colorful new leaves, that pass through red, copper, bronze and purple tones as they mature. You will get this effect in spring, of course, but also after each trimming, so you can easily keep your plants both neat and colorful at the same time.
Junipers – back in more familiar territory for most gardeners, for a long time it’s been hard to beat junipers as ground cover for sun, and it still is. Hot, dry slopes are often problem areas, with soil washing down in storms, and the sun baking them dry. A great solution, that will create a wonderful cascade of blue-green waves down any slope, across rocks or over wall, is the Blue Chip Juniper – a form of Juniperus horizontalis. Reaching 5-feet wide, and even more in time, a planting spaced 3-feet apart will soon form a wonderful carpet that literally ‘no maintenance. It stays dense and weed-resistant, and looks great every day of the year – unbeatable. For a touch of gold in a similar plant, check out Daub’s Frosted Juniper, a low-growing form of the classic Pfitzer juniper that sparkles in the sun and never, never scorches.
This is just a sample of shrubs that can be used for ground cover – and add sparkle, color and variety to your garden, while filling those nasty boring places with beauty.