Groundcovers and Ferns

While having lots of colorful flowers in the landscape is a desireable goal, there are many plants that are extremely valuable additions to any landscape design and they have either no flowers or their flowers are insignificant. Foliage plants such as ferns and groundcovers are often used to fill in spaces with nice green colors and interesting textures. Many of the foliage plants will grow happily in full shade, and so are often used to fill in areas where few flowers would thrive.

Foliage plants are definitely valuable players in any attractive landscape. So don't overlook them as you develop the looks of your yard.

Some years ago Liz Ball wrote the following article about groundcovers.  It is a think piece and a good one.  It is worth your time to read it if you are just getting into groundcovers and want to be sure you understand their options and value.  

The Great Coverup: Groundcovers Solve Landscape Problems

by Liz Ball


Ornamental plants play all sorts of roles in home landscapes as they enhance their beauty.  They create shade, screen for privacy or quiet, obscure foundations, delineate property lines, define walks and drives, add color and texture and support wildlife.  However, it is when ornamental plants function as groundcovers, that they are most versatile and useful.  They can be counted upon to solve all kinds of landscape problems. 


A groundcover plant is simply one that, planted en masse, effectively covers the soil. to form an attractive tapestry of color or texture.  Effective groundcovers also simultaneously help the soil retain moisture and organic matter, supress weeds, and promote plant biodiversity in your yard to help keep all plants heathy.  While the plants most commonly used as groundcovers in suburbia and exurbia are turfgrasses such as Kentucky bluegrass or tall fescue, these have limited value.  They are attractive, but lack versatility.  Disease prone and needy, they often cause more problems than they solve.  Many, many, many other plants are as, or more, attractive, easier on the soil, lower maintenance and more effective in solving typical problems in the yard.  


Put aside the groundcover stereotype of boring, green, crawling plants.  Almost any plant--even shrubs--can function as a groundcover, and there is one for every soil and site situation.  Groundcovers may be annuals or perennials, tall or short, predominantly flowering or foliage, evergreen or deciduous, shade or sun loving.  They may be bulbs, vines, herbs, vegetables or fruit,.  Whichever, they are often the same familiar garden standbys that you know and love playing a different role.  Use them to solve problems as they beautify your yard.



What's the problem?


Too much lawn to care for:  An evergreen groundcover is ideal for reducing lawn size, yet retaining the green look.  Plant ginger, liriope, mondo grass pachysandra, ivy, vinca, or something similar under trees and shrubs, extending the patches out into the existing lawn to reduce the overall turf area.  Create islands of ferns or ornamental grasses in turf areas or fill in remote or undeveloped areas of a large property with naturalized bulbs, fringed bleeding heart or ferns.  Add a wide border of colorful verbena, petunias, lantana, portulaca or herbs around an existing patio or poolside to eliminate some turf.


Tough terrain:  Many yards are hilly.  Steep slopes or uneven grades in places make mowing turf difficult and dangerous, and promote soil erosion wherever turf breaks down.  Plant these areas with a perennial groundcover plant that has deep root systems that hold the soil and is self-reliant.  Use smaller, finer textured plants such as liriope or lilies-of-the-valley, creeping phlox in small areas; larger plants such as daylilies or large ornamental grasses in broader areas.  Often low growing shrubs such as carpet type junipers, azaleas, Russian arborvitae dwarf deutzia , potentilla or clumping bamboo are effective on hills.  Choose sun-lovers for a sunny bank; shade tolerant plants for slopes under trees or that face north. 


Tree surface roots  Beeches and certain other trees seem to naturally have surface roots.  Others develop them because their soil is so compacted that their roots must gravitate to its surface to obtain oxygen.  Whatever the reason, the roots are eyesores and piling soil on them to cover them up endangers the tree.  Instead, add a thin layer of soil and plant a shade-lover such as ivy, minor bulbs such as snowdrops or squill (they'll get their sun before the leaves come out), corydalis or tiarella among the roots to obscure them, yet allow them the air they need.  Choose shallow planted and perennial plants to minimize disturbance to the tree roots.


Too much shade:  Trying to grow turfgrass in shade is an exercise in total frustration because even those grasses listed as shade-loving still need about 6 hours of sun or very bright light dailyChoose an alternative groundcover plant that tolerates shade.  Use annuals such as impatiens, tuberous begonnias, torenia or coleus so that you can have a colorful and different look in that spot every year.  Or, go with a more permanent perennial plant such as hosta, bleeding heart, or hellabores.  Try moss if the soil is compacted and acidic.  If it is already be growing there, just keep the soil very acid by scattering used coffee grounds or powdered sulfur periodically and keep it moist and the moss will spread.


Tree and shrubs dry out quickly:  Only recently has it been understood how shallow the root systems of most trees (even huge, old ones) and shrubs really are--typically in the top 8 to 12 inches of soil.  They risk drying out in hot summers and evergreen trees and shrubs, especially, are in danger of drying out during dry winters.  A regular organic mulch over the soil beneath trees and shrubs eliminates the competition from the lawn and helps the soil absorb and retain moisture, but groundcover plants--living mulch--accomplishes that same thing and look more attractive.  They do not require the moisture that lawn grasses do.  Use evergreen, perennial plants such as lamium, vinca, epimedium, violets or mondo grass to protect the soil moisture under all shrubs and trees on your property.  


Difficult soil:  While the ideal soil is loamy, the typical residential property is more likely have soil that is less than ideal.  It may be too sandy, too clayey or include that special mix called builder's fill (sometimes in just one area) which features broken bricks, lumps of mortar, rusty nails and pieces of vinyl siding.  Some low parts of the yard may be chronically damp and boggy.  Groundcover plants to the rescue.  Carpet these areas with plants that appreciate the special conditions, making a virtue of necessity.  Many ornamental grasses, potentilla, and yucca are examples of plants that handle sandy soil.  Use plants that enjoy having damp feet such as red twig dogwood, astilbe, iris, Virginia sweetspire or forget-me-nots in the low-lying wet areas.


Unsightly ripening bulb foliage in spring:  While everyone loves the spring-flowering tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and others, their gradually ripening foliage always presents a problem.  Groundcover plants are effective at obscuring the unsightly foliage until it is time to clean it up.  Choose evergreen plants whose foliage will complement the bulbs during their bloom period or try herbaceous plants such as hosta, ferns or sweet woodruff that will emerge and green up to cover the bulb foliage as it begins to die back.


Stem or trunk damage on woody plants:  The advent of power tools to aid in yard care has brought mixed blesssings.  Thanks to gasoline or electric powered lawn mowers, tillers, edgers, blower-vacs and string trimmers residential yards are easier to maintain.  The downside is, however, that more and more trees and shrubs are sustaining injury from this equipment.  In fact some studies show that bark injuries are the leading cause of tree death in home landscapes.  While a nick in the bark does not seem to be a big thing, it allows insects and disease to invade and cause stress to the tree.  Over time these secondary problems fester and reduce the tree's life expectancy.  A planting of groundcover plants over the root zones of trees and shrubs replaces the turf near the trunks or stems, so there is no need to mow or string trim so closely.  It creates a barrier so that passing equipment cannot even get close enough to harm them.


Compacted soil:  Unless soil is aerated periodically, it gradually becomes compacted from the weight of pounding rain, foot traffic, or construction equipment.  When we plant garden beds we dig or till the soil to prepare it, so it gets areated, but turf areas are harder to aerate.  Particular chronic problems are areas between stepping stones, paths where the kids or the mailman takes shortcut, and edges of walks and driveways where traffic strays from the pavement.  To discourage unauthorized foot traffic and prevent compaction plant groundcover plants in these areas--low growing lamium, sedums, creeping thyme, lamb's ears, golden moneywort.  Stiff or prickly plants such as dwarf barbarry, junipers, or yucca make great barriers. 


Unsightly areas:  Every property has its eyesores.  Some are temporary and will be eventually be removed; others are permanent.  Once again groundcover plants can save the day.  Let vining plants--trailing nasturtium, strawberry begonia, ivy--crawl over crumbling walls or fences, decaying stumps and rock piles.  Use foliage plants (flowering ones attract the eye)--ferns, hostas, cotoneaster, hypericum and others to obscure utility pipes, drains, septic zones and taller utility boxes and air conditioner compressors.  


Yard lacks interest:  Not everyone is able or interested in planting garden beds to provide color, texture and variety to their property.  That does not condemn a yard to uninteresting green grass and a few shrubs.  Groundcover plantings are, in most cases, relatively carefree (especially compared to lawns).  Just because they are practical, does not mean they are not still ornamental.  Because they are composed of essentially the same plants you would find in a mixed flower border, or even a vegetable garden, they offer the same beauty--interesting foliage, a spectrum of color, variety of height and texture.  Used as groundcovers to solve problems, they still attract birds, butterflies and beneficial insects and enhance the entire property.  


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