Ask A Master Gardener – Utilizing Ground Covers

Albert Camus said, “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”  Fall is also an ideal time to take a serious look at your landscape and locate the areas that need a little help.  Groundcovers are an often-underutilized tool in the gardener’s repertoire.  They can fill in a tough spot where nothing else seems to fit, cover slopes, or complement the space between other plants.

Three frequently used but invasive ground covers are Bishop’s weed or goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria), lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), and common periwinkle (Vinca minor).  All of these nonnative plants are extremely aggressive and are not recommended in any location.  Having said that, there is a whole host of great choices.

Spotted deadnettle (Lamium maculatum) leaves resemble stinging nettles, but there is no sting to this plant.  It is a low (6–9 inches) spreading plant with exceptional variegated foliage.  It will also delight by blooming prolifically in the spring through early summer with pink to purple flowers.  With its fine texture, it pairs nicely with larger leaf plants.  It can outgrow its space, but is easily contained by pulling out the wanderers each year.

Perennial geranium Geranium spp.) are an excellent ground cover option.  These are not the red blooming upright flowers that you buy every spring from the nurseries.  In fact, those plants are not true geraniums at all, but are a different genus all together (Pelargonium spp.).  Instead, true geraniums are herbaceous perennials that are also known as cranesbill, bigfoot geranium, wild geranium, alum root, and other colloquial names. They are low growing (12–18 inches), clump forming plants that bloom for about a month in the spring with pink, purple, or white flowers.  In the fall, the semi-evergreen foliage will show a flush of red and can be left though the winter.  Wild geranium does self-seed, so it can slowly dominate an area.  However, they are easy to control by simply tidying up around the area on an annual basis.

Both spotted deadnettle and wild geranium will do well in shady conditions, however they can also grow in sunny conditions if offered some afternoon shade. Both will also grow in zones 3–8.  With their less aggressive manners, they make good companion plants for many landscapes.

Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) has a number of cultivars available to home owners.  This low-growing (around 6 inches) mat-growing plant will have small blue-violet, pink, or white blooms that rise above the foliage early in the spring.  However, the foliage is available in bronze, deep green, and variegated making it the more desirable characteristic.

Lambs Ear

Lamb’s ear (Stachys spp.) is a fuzzy, attractive, soft ground cover that makes people want to touch it.  This plant stays relatively short (4–6 inches), but will send up flower spikes.  The flowers tend to be insignificant, although there are some cultivars that have a more distinctive display.  More commonly, the plants are grown for the very attractive foliage and the dense mat-forming growth form.

Both bugleweed and lamb’s ear do well in sun, with some partial shade and can be grown in zones 4–8. The foliage of bugleweed will have a better display with more sun and it will help both resist the crown rot that can be a problem.  Both can also spread, but are easy to control and make good landscape plants.

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener

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