The best way to raise your garden to a new level is to get rid of all those patches of bare earth. Not only do they encourage weeds, but they lose more water than covered soil will – and that’s important these days. Adding that extra layer brings incredible richness, creating that lush, full look you see in all the best gardens. Call it ‘ground cover’, or whatever you like, but covering the soil with suitable plants is definitely the way to go.
When it comes to choosing, it’s amazing how so many people choose the same old plants – periwinkle, ajuga, or Japanese spurge. Not that there is anything wrong with those plants – they are great, especially in colder areas, where choices are limited. But if you live in a warmer area – I am thinking zone 7, although the plant I have in mind can be grown in zones 5 and 6 too – then let’s be more adventurous, and more attractive too.
Liriope, a Fabulous Ground Cover for Shade
Some people call it lilyturf, and some call it monkey grass, but Liriope is such a nice name, so let’s call it that. Pronounced luh-RYE-oh-pee, she was a Greek goddess, and I am sure she would have loved walking through a carpet of the plants named after her. These plants are very easy to grow, they grow in shade, even drier shade, and they form a wonderful dense carpet of foliage – and they flower too. From zone 7 this plant is evergreen, and really, it looks terrific, with just the right balance between natural and formal. It fits into any kind of garden at all – including yours.
As gardens grow, trees and shrubs get bigger, and the shady areas beneath them become bigger too. Your garden can end up looking bare and dry if you don’t deal with those bare spaces. That’s were Liriope comes in – nothing beat it. You will turn that bare, dusty earth into a carpet of deep green, grass-like leaves, year round. It isn’t a true grass, and you shouldn’t walk on it, but it doesn’t need mowing, either.
What Does Liriope Look Like?
Liriope is a small group of plants that comes from Asia, and there is really only one that is grown in American gardens. It’s a species called Liriope muscari, and there are several varieties that are useful for slightly different purposes. It forms clumps of leaves, which in a few years become dense and solid, which are like grass, but broader, and deep green. The grow up and then arch over a little, and they look great year-round. Some varieties grow as much as 2 feet tall, which is great for larger beds and under bigger shrubs, where it looks rich and really fills out the spaces.
For a brighter look, choose Variegated Liriope, which has leaves striped in green and yellow. The leaves are evergreen from zone 7, and will have some winter damage in zones 5 and 6, but the plants will be fine, and grow back fast. Not only does Liriope stay evergreen all year round, it has great flowers, that usually come in late summer and fall, just when there isn’t much color in the garden. The blue flowers are small, but carried in spikes, which look a bit like the spring bulb grape hyacinth, which of course is Muscari, which is why this plant is called Liriope muscari. In some varieties these can be hidden among the leaves, but the best ones have flowers on longer stems, that are carried at the top of the leaves, and make a much more attractive showing. They sneak up on you – then one day you realize the plants are in full bloom. That blue-purple color of the flowers is great, and it looks stunning when the first red leaves start to fall – plant it under a lovely Japanese maple perhaps.
Caring for Liriope
One reason this plant is perhaps not as popular as it should be is that it does take a couple of years to really fill out. Now you know, you will be patient – it’s worth the wait for a solid ground cover that isn’t invasive, and even hides a lot of the leaves that fall. Space plants 15 to 18 inches each way for a solid cover in 2 or 3 years, but even at 2-foot spacing it will spread and fill in about 4 years. It grows at its best in acidic soils, but that isn’t a big deal, so if you have soil that is slightly alkaline, it will be just fine.
Liriope will grow in full sun – it needs a bit more water there – in partial shade and in full shade. Light full shade is probably best, and only very dark, gloomy corners beneath evergreens will give problems. Add organic material like compost to the bed when planting, and mulch around the plants with more. Water at least weekly the first year, but after a couple you will find it is drought resistant. It grows well in the heat and humidity of zone 9 too.
Maintenance is something you might need to do every couple of years. Watch the growth cycle of your plants – it varies with location. Sometime in spring or early summer you will see new tufts of foliage growing up – make a note of when this happens. After a while your planting could get a bit untidy looking, with dead leaves, although often that doesn’t show for years. If it does, plant to mow it – yep, set the mower at its highest and fire it up – and mow it a couple of weeks before those new shoots are due to appear. You can leave the chopped debris as mulch. Once the new leaves sprout it will be lush and fabulous in a few weeks. Nothing more is needed – the old flower spikes and berries just disappear among the leaves.
Varieties of Liriope
There are not many varieties of this plant, and some are very, very similar-looking. So most of them will give you the ‘Liriope look’. These three are definitely the best:
‘Big Blue’ – this is the largest and most vigorous variety, with leaves that can be 24 inches long in good conditions. It’s ideal for filling large areas under big trees, where it can really stand out. The glossy leaves are light green when new in spring, maturing to a rich, deep and warm green color. The flowers are carried well above the foliage, and they are a good lavender-blue color. Black berries often follow, lasting well through winter.
‘Royal Purple’ – this variety has outstanding dark purple foliage, giving a really unique look. It’s not as tall as others, standing about a foot above the ground. The dark look is perfect in brighter areas. The flowers are deep lavender-blue, followed by black berries.
‘Variegata’ – unique among Liriope, the Variegated Lilyturf has dark green, inch-wide leaves, with a creamy stripe along each edge, and more stripes in the central zone. It gives a very bright look to a bed. Not quite as vigorous as other varieties, it does take a little longer to get dense cover, but the result is spectacular. Best grown with some sun, or the leaves will go greenish in summer. It has the usual fall blue flowers and winter black berries.