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Ground covers that make sense for the '90s: 12 diverse choices for problem areas in shade or sun.

It took an early snow to show me how well ground covers could define space in my Port Orchard, Washington, garden. Looking out over the fresh powder, one saw an arrangement of trees, shrubs, and fences emerging from a flat, white field. It was easy to imagine how a drift of variegated Japanese spurge could illuminate a dark space beneath a pine, and how one of the new selections of kinnikinnick could carpet a swath of sandy ground where no healthy grass would grow.

While recarpeting my garden with ground covers, I found that the trick is putting the right plant in the right place. And a well-chosen ground cover not only defines and beautifies a space, but also can drastically reduce maintenance and water use, especially if you're replacing a lawn. And your choices go beyond commonplace plants hike English ivy, ice plant, and star jasmine.

Some of the 12 ground covers we recommend here are virtual unknowns with great promise, while others are new varieties of more widely known plants. In general, these ground covers require low to moderate maintenance.

November is a good month to plant ground covers in the West's mild-winter areas - places where the ground doesn't freeze for long in winter. Plants spend the winter sending out roots to prepare for a burst of spring and summer top growth. In the West's coldest areas (Sunset Western Garden Book climate zones 1, 2, and 3), wait until spring to plant.

A ground cover can't thrive if its roots have to struggle through compacted soil or hardpan. If your garden soil isn't easily crumbled loam, till in a 3- to 4-inch layer of well-rotted manure, peat moss, or other organic amendment, water well to settle the soil, then plant.

Set out plants in a diamond pattern. Spacing depends upon variety: for variegated Japanese spurge, it might be 8- or 10-inch intervals (closer plantings fill in faster); for Bolax, it might be 24-inch intervals or more. Mulch can help conserve water, keep down weeds, and prevent soil from heaving if the ground freezes.

With luck, rain takes care of most of the first season's watering. In warm weather, newly set out plants may need a little extra water, but by the second summer many of them can get by with normal garden irrigation, and the most drought-tolerant varieties can make it on rainfall alone. Drip irrigation can be used with ground covers (especially using low-volume spray heads), but many gardeners find drip tubing too difficult to maintain once plants have filled in.

Feed plants by spreading a complete fertilizer in spring after new growth begins, then again in early summer.


Shade is a relative term: although many plants can't handle much direct sun, even shade lovers need a fair amount of light to survive. Light filtered through high-arching trees is often about right, though plants that need shade inland can handle full sun near the coast.

Blue star creeper (Laurentia fluviatilis), zones 4, 5, 8, 9, 14-24. Grows like baby's tears, but with pale blue flowers in summer. It needs regular fertilizer and water to thrive.

Dwarf periwinkle (Vinca minor), all zones. This periwinkle is less likely to become a pest than its aggressive cousin, V. major, but it needs more water and fertilizer to thrive. Standard flowers are blue (for a better shade of blue, try 'Bowles'); you can also get it in wine ('Atropurpurea'), white ('Jekyll's White'), and variegated ('Ralph Shugert' and 'Variegata').

Dwarf plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides), zones 2-10, 14-24. Grows as a low carpet of fresh green leaves in spring, topped by pretty blue flowers in summer and fall. Deciduous leaves turn red in autumn. Mow it back in winter.

Epimedium rubrum, zones 1-9, 14-17. Spreading by creeping roots, this perennial produces red flowers. It dies back in cold-winter climates.

Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens', zones 5-10, 12-24. Greenish black, grassy leaves grow in clumps and look quite black in shade.

Variegated Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis 'Variegata'), zones 1-10, 14-21. Distinguished by its cream-edged leaves, this variegated pachysandra has the toughness and weed-defeating denseness of its all-green counterpart.


In areas with very hot summers, filtered sunlight often serves these ground covers better than full sun.

Bolax gummifera (B. glebaria), zones 4-7, 14-17. Clambering over the landscape on arching stems, this plant reaches 3 feet in four years; B. g. 'Nana' grows more slowly to half that size, and is easier to find (check with nurseries that specialize in rock-garden plants).

Cotoneaster, all zones. Plants come in evergreen and deciduous forms and bear showy berries (usually red) that birds love. For an evergreen, try bearberry cotoneaster (C. dammeri). For deciduous plants with good fall color, try C. adpressus praecox or - in all but desert zones 12 and 13 - rock cotoneaster (C. horizontalis).

Creeping St. Johnswort (Hypericum calycinum), zones 2-24. Evergreen leaves, topped with yellow flowers in summer. Takes shade or poor soil; spreads fast. It drops some leaves in cold climates.

Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), zones 1-9, 14-24. An outstanding native evergreen for sandy soil, with pink flowers in early summer, red berries in fall. Stems of all kinnikinnick root as they spread. 'Vancouver Jade', with jade green leaves, spreads quickly; 'Wood's Compact' has a thick cloak of dark green leaves over red branches.

Salal (Gaultheria shallon), zones 3-7, 14-17, 21-24. Grows less than 2 feet tall in the mild Northwest's full sun; give it partial shade farther south. Pink or white summer flowers form dark, edible fruit. It likes acid soil. Shear it back if it gets too tall.

Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), zones 2-7, 14-17. Low-growing foliage is dotted by red, wintergreen-scented berries. Give it acid soil. It needs shade in hot-summer areas.


You can buy many of these ground covers at nurseries and garden centers, but some may be hard to find. Two good mail-order sources for plants are Forestfarm, 990 Tetherow Rd., Williams, OR 97544, (503) 846-7269; and Greer Gardens, 1280 Goodpasture Island Rd., Eugene, OR 97401; (503) 686-8266. Each company's catalog costs $3.
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Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:McCausland, Jim
Date:Nov 1, 1995
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