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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Enduring Evergreen Ground Covers

Some plants I find essential for a low maintenance landscape are evergreen ground covers.  I use quite a few since I have 2 acres, with a lot of large Western Red Cedars, fruit orchards, vegetable and flower beds, and lawn, so lots of opportunities for weeds.   The Cedar trees create a condition of dry shade with a lot of root competition underneath extending a long way out from the tree itself.  We used to fight weeds in these places, but ground covers have been excellent, one of the strongest is Vinca major.   Don't plant Vinca if you might want to remove it eventually, though, or some of these other ground covers.  (Two chicken tractors are in the background.)

Vinca minor is a much lower grower but will not keep other weeds out as well.  The glossy deep green leaves always look perfect.

Here is a variegated variety now blooming, it is neat and brightens gloomy shade-

Another variegated ground cover with glossy leathery leaves is Euonymus fortune 'Emerald Gaiety', a tough and slow-growing plant that trails and can slowly become a low shrub.  This is on a slight slope and allows some Brunswick Blueberries to grow up through it.

A ground cover that does well under cedars is hardy Geranium macrorrhizum, which blooms in the early summer and spreads well.  It doesn't have as much presence in winter but is still green.

A truly great ground cover under trees is Symphytum grandiflorum, dwarf Comfrey.  Amazingly all these plants came from a single 4" pot.   It will grow under the Cedars, but where it really shines is in a fruit orchard, where it seems able to suppress weeds, even the bad grasses I fight, eliminating mowing and weed whacking.   It is not so dense I can't find fallen fruit in it either.  Notice the lack of weeds.

In the center of the orchard where the Comfrey has not filled in I will be planting some native wildflowers this year, so I'm using newspaper to kill off grass and moss.  The Comfrey is just beginning to bloom, with little tubular flowers characteristic of the Borage family, there is a strain with deeper blue flowers, Hidcote Blue, but I don't have it.

Another choice ground cover for shade, but slow-growing compared to the others, is Epimedium, here sulphureum.  They have leathery leaves, and small "bishop's hat" flowers in spring, many flower colors and leaf shapes have been developed, notably by Collector's Nursery.  Epimedium also has a reputation as a medicinal herbal.

A native plant that could be considered a ground cover in sufficient number is the Sword Fern, which gets quite large and can spread by spores.  There is some Salal, Vinca major and minor in the photo-

Another PNW native ground cover is Salal, with leathery leaves, tubular flowers in spring, and edible berries excellent for antioxidants.  I have found it easy to transplant.  It can be used in flower arrangements.  Here is some with Oregon Holly Grape- Mahonia nervosa, and a Sword fern.

Oregon Holly Grape also makes a good ground cover but doesn't fill in well enough to keep out weeds and blackberry vines, so I have been working on weeding this patch and mulching with leaves, it is a wonderful plant with yellow flowers in spring and edible blue-black healthful berries, and attractive leaves, very drought tolerant.   I have not had success with transplanting it or growing it from seed.

A ground cover for sun is Rubus calycinoides, creeping Raspberry.  It flowers and I've seen one in a strip mall parking strip that fruits amazingly, but mine does not.  Perhaps that one is on a sprinkler system while mine gets almost no water in summer.   The berries are insipid, yellow. It is reputed to suppress grass but mine does not, as you can see from the grass stubble left, and Canadian thistle also comes up in mine.  It has cute rounded leathery leaves which look great cascading down a wall, and is very drought tolerant, as are all these.  The plant stubs on the left are the native Fireweed.

A closer look at the leaves-

Another ground cover that spreads well in sun is a dwarf form of Lamb's Ear, Stachys byzantina 'Silky Fleece'.  This has been growing from divisions from a single pot for 2 years.  It has very short bloom stalks, and in summer a more silvery look.

Another tough plant for sun, that gets wider but doesn't seem to self-sow for me, is Heather.  There is a wide range of leaf color and shape, bloom season, and flower color, so heathers can be arranged like a patchwork quilt for year-round interest.  They can be maintained by shearing them once a year if desired, I haven't. This one blooms in winter-

A choice ground cover with deep green glossy leaves that needs very little summer water and spreads well is Arctostaphylos uva-ursi 'Massachusetts', which has little tubular flowers in spring and red berries, but doesn't shut out grass enough for me, so every spring I have to weed it out.

Some other hardy geraniums can do very well in sun or part shade, like G. maculatum, which self-sows, and is covered in light purple flowers for months, and has successfully established itself as a ground cover in some beds, as this bed in summer-

G. sanguineum also self-seeds, and makes large low clumps covered like a bouquet in spring with pink or deep magenta flowers, but has not filled in to the extent of G. maculatum or macrorrhizum, pictured here blooming in early summer-

A delicate ground cover that is even edible, and can persist in winter in a sheltered location like a north-facing wall, is Campanula poscharskyana, which is covered in small magenta star flowers in spring.

Another plant for part shade to shade is Saxifraga x urbium Variegata 'London's Pride'.    It makes rosettes and blooms with sprays of tiny airy flowers on tall stalks in spring, very delightful.  It is a very tough plant and I can break off rosettes and plant them elsewhere successfully, where they will slowly spread.    I got a cute silvery Saxifrage last year but it didn't seem to want to grow as readily.:-(

A delicate deep green whorled evergreen that lives in shade but is not very competitive is Sweet Woodruff, Galium odoratum.  It can live on very little water, is fragrant when crushed, and has white flowers in spring.

A ground cover with potential for a lot of spreading but cute enough to be forgiven is Ajuga, it even looks great in a lawn.   Many have burgundy foliage, most with blue but some with pink flower spikes in spring.

I transplanted a variegated Ajuga last year to my new garden bed and it responded to more sun with a lot of runners.  It is looking rather geometric as it is sending up new bloom spikes-

As a warning, here is a ground cover thug, I got this in a trade long ago, and I love other Lamiums, but L. galeobdolon, Archangel, while a very lovely plant, is extremely invasive and hard to get rid of.  It tends to overrun other plants so unless extremely isolated it should be avoided.  Pretty though, huh?  There are a few plants of Herb Robert in the photo, it's another thug that will try to take over your yard, I don't know how they do it but the seeds really get around.  It is supposed to have medicinal value, though.  I work on trying to get rid of both when I can.

These are some of my major tools toward a more low maintenance garden.

Happy Spring, Hannah


  1. Thank you, I am working on having a neat but manageable yard--I am forever struggling with taking pictures in a messy, weed-ridden yard. I am in love with the pictures and notes here, if only the garden centers would be this comprehensive!

  2. I am working on a big garden/small park in Napier, New Zealand and your pictures and comments are very helpful. I have done lots of cleaning up and weeding and need some more ideas for ground covers. It has Lamium, Erigeron, Vinca major and some Ajuga already