When I think of ground covers, I usually think of herbaceous plants, such as vinca, pachysandra and wild ginger, to name a few. If you are looking to cover a large area and wish to use something different than the old standby ground covers, you may want to consider using woody plants. In our display gardens in Burlington’s Intervale, we have a ground cover garden on a small, relatively steep bank. The garden features low-growing evergreen and deciduous shrubs that display a nice assortment of flowers, foliage and fruit.
Though this was only the garden’s second season, already things are starting to creep and fill the space. I’m sure by next year this area will be a mosaic of greens, whites, pinks, and reds. There are several plants in this garden that are worth mentioning.
Rose Carpet Indigo (Indigofera pseudotinctoria ‘Rose Carpet’) is a low-maintenance ground cover that can be cut right back to the ground in the late winter or early spring (as you might do with a buddleia). In June and July, the plant is covered with dark pink, pea-shaped flowers. The compound, pinnate leaves are covered with small leaflets, giving this plant a delicate presence. Rose Carpet indigo stays just 6-12″ high, with a mature width of 2-4 feet. It performs best in full sun. Hardy in zones 5-8.
One of the shrubs just planted in the ground cover garden this past spring was Pawnee Buttes Sand Cherry (Prunus besseyi). This western U.S. native looks great through the seasons. It has fragrant white flowers in the spring followed by black cherries in the summer. The fruits are attractive to birds and if you can beat the birds, make great jam/jelly. In autumn, the foliage turns a beautiful bronze-red. The attractive silvery bark provides winter interest, when not completely covered by snow. Pawnee Buttes gets to an average of 15-18″ high with a spread of 4-6 feet. Hardy in zones 4-8.
Common Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), also known as kinnikinnick, is another low-growing shrub that looks great in every season. This member of the heath family is native to North America, where it is found on relatively sandy, acidic soils. At maturity, it has an impressive spread of up to 15 feet, but it is a slow grower that stays quite low to the ground, topping out at just 6-12″ high. The shiny, evergreen leaves are small and contrast nicely with the white/pink spring flowers and red berries in the fall. Bearberry has several traditional medicinal uses, as an astringent and as a diuretic to treat bladder problems. Bearberry is an all-around amazing plant! Hardy in zones 2-6.
The last ground cover plant to mention is European Weeping Larch (Larix decidua ‘Pendula’). This larch is often grafted into a tree form or staked so it grows more upright. When left to its own devices, it forms a beautiful ground cover. The delicate, feathery needles turn bright yellow in the fall and are then shed for the winter. Pendula is a fast-grower, so be sure to leave it plenty of space to roam. Hardy in zones 3-6.
So, the next time you are thinking about ground cover options, pass on the more aggressive growers, such as ajuga and pachysandra, and try one of these interesting, low-growing shrubs. I think you’ll be glad you did!