Covering new ground

You have more choices than you think

A swath of dense, low-growing greenery divided the back yard and pool deck of my childhood home: Euonymus, my mother called it. Word nerd that I was even then, I quickly differentiated that botanical term from the word that means you didn’t sign your name and the one that means everyone agrees (or appears to).

Our evergreen euonymus stood up to weather, trampling children and other challenges. As soon as the snow melted and the little green leaves peeked through, it was only a matter of time before it would practically demand to be trimmed. Then it would need trimming again. That euonymus probably boosted the attractiveness of the condominium to which Mom and Dad later decamped.

That was years before euonymus would make the Indiana Invasive Species Council’s what-not-to-plant list. It was the suspect that lived a storied life of crime, popping up here and slipping away there, only to be nabbed in plain sight decades later when the authorities finally figured it out. Such is the world of ground cover: Know your villains, and think outside the box to find your heroes.

We use ground cover to help define one area of the yard from another and cover areas where it’s hard to grow grass (or hard to mow). It also serves to keep the landscape from looking too busy.

“In a garden or landscape with lots of elements, having one or more areas with all the same plant is nice. It gives the eye a place to rest,” said Laura Stine, owner of Laura Stine Gardens. “The key to ground cover is thinking of other plants that can fill that role that aren’t necessarily labeled as ground cover.”

We tend to think of ground cover as, say, six inches high. Stine expands the ground cover definition up to three feet. That in itself has us covering more ground, or at least increasing our range of choices.

Hostas, which I’ve only seen used as bedding plants, can serve as ground cover when placed close together, particularly the smaller “June” variety, Stine said. This variety only grows to about 15 inches tall. Another good hosta choice is the bigger “Elegans,” she added, which can grow to two or three feet high and boasts beautiful blue-green leaves.

Another shade-loving ground cover candidate is astilbe. These plants look like puffy plumes of flowers growing from fernlike foliage, which is basically what they are. They can grow to three feet high, but even if they don’t, they will stand their ground against deer, rabbits and black walnut toxicity.

Since native plants are a focus of her business, Stine particularly recommends two shade-loving natives as ground cover: Wild ginger and Virginia creeper. Wild ginger, with its heart-shaped leaves, is her favorite. Dwarf oak leaf hydrangeas look great around trees or in shady spots along a walk.

For small, sunny areas, Stine said it’s fine to use annuals as ground cover. She said a better choice for larger areas would be a hardy perennial geranium. Other choices Stine suggests for sun are coreopsis (the broad-leafed variety) and junipers, especially “Grey Owl.”

As with any plant, make sure you know your prospective ground cover’s needs and growing habits. Wild ginger, for example, needs a bit of extra water the first year until it gets rooted, Stine said.

Blogger Beverly Owens (indiana-garden.com) suggested roses could be used as ground cover, even here in Indiana. She was a bit skeptical (as am I) about how well a rose ground cover would overwinter. It might be worth a try in a small area, with due diligence about the specific rose variety you plant and how to overwinter it.

It all comes back to making thoughtful, sustainable choices about what we grow.

“The plants we choose as landscapers and homeowners really matter,” Stine said.

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