Living Groundcovers

Creeping Thyme is a dazzling sight in late spring, and remains fragrant in every season.

Creeping Thyme is a dazzling sight in late spring, and remains fragrant in every season.

When I was a new gardener, nothing was more satisfying than the sight of freshly turned soil between the plants I had just set in. Such a feeling of accomplishment, such beauty in that dark brown soil (heavily enriched, you may be sure, with all the amendments I’d bought at the big-box store, because composting and lasagne gardening and all those other wonderful ways of soil building were then unknown to me). There — my garden was IN, by which I meant “done.”

Yeah, so that lasted about a week. The weeds shot up. The soil cracked, compacted, and crusted. The beautiful plants began to look like oases in a desert landscape — which they basically were, because the soil soon had footprint-shaped pockets and valleys that pooled water, leaving other areas dry. More weeds moved in, strangling delicate plants before I had a chance to see how fast they had spread. You know how this story ends.

Iceplant is a fabulous choice for water-wise gardens in full sun. It actually prefers soil on the dry side.

Iceplant is a fabulous choice for water-wise gardens in full sun. It actually prefers soil on the dry side.

All of this is to say that I became a groundcover believer. A humble one, too. Let other people buy colored mulches and scatter decorative stones in key areas. My focus is on garden survival, and I’m not too proud to slap an old ripped shower curtain among the vegetables if it means I don’t have to waken at dawn to weed before the punishing July sun begins to beat. Now that I live in a water-scarce area, preserving soil moisture (and, let’s face it, lowering the monthly water bill) has become a focus. Many years later, I finally understand what is meant by “keeping soil temperature constant,” and I’m willing to cover the garden in groundcovers to keep my Clematis happy and my tender plants from heaving.

But I do love living groundcovers above all others. They may not be practical for short-crop areas such as the summer vegetable patch — though I know, and envy, many gardeners who fill every inch with cover crops and companion flowers — but they are fantastic for permanent borders, sidewalk islands, driveway plantings, bulb gardens, and just about every other inch of the landscape.

Groundcovers don't have to sweep across many feet of space. Pearlwort meanders just a couple of inches wide, filling in between rocks and stepping stones.

Groundcovers don’t have to sweep across many feet of space. Pearlwort meanders just a couple of inches wide, filling in between rocks and stepping stones.

You have probably heard the advantages before, but just as a reminder, groundcover plants:

  • help control weeds
  • prevent erosion
  • minimize evaporation
  • keep soil temperature constant
  • attract pollinators.
    Wintergreen is a magnificent groundcover, offering the trifecta of fragrance, evergreen foliage, and bright berries. (Oh, and it blooms, too!)

    Wintergreen is a magnificent groundcover, offering the trifecta of fragrance, evergreen foliage, and bright berries. (Oh, and it blooms, too!)

Of course, the most compelling advantage isn’t even on this list: they are beautiful.

So whether you choose good old Vinca for shade (it’s evergreen, its blooms are beautiful, and it really does look fresh and pretty year-round — there’s a reason it’s so popular!) or creeping Thyme for sun (that color! that fragrance!), or select from an ever-widening selection of perennials, prostrate shrubs, and vines, do let groundcovers blanket the bare soil in your garden. You will love how it looks, and never miss the chores it silently removes from your garden to-do list!

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