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10 Neat Things About Groundcovers
by Dorothy Dobbie
by Dorothy Dobbie

The Local Gardener magazines, Ontario Gardener, Manitoba Gardener and Alberta Gardener, are published by Pegasus Publications Inc.

Drawing on her 30 years' experience as a senior executive in the magazine publishing industry, Dorothy launched Manitoba Gardener in 1998, initially running the business out of her home. Two years later, Dorothy's daughter Shauna, living in Ontario, jumped into the fray with Ontario Gardener. And two years after that, they started Alberta Gardener. Visit us at and register for our "Ten Neat things" newsletter. Watch Shaw TV for garden tips and Listen to CJOB for the Gardener Sundays at 9:08

July 23, 2013

1. It's thyme, baby.

Thyme will hold up nicely between flagstones in a sunny area that gets a bit of foot traffic, although the only plant that can truly survive regular foot traffic is turf grass. Mother of thyme is very hardy and prolific and will grow where many other plants will not - in arid zones with little soil. It makes a lovely scented groundcover footpath for the occasional foot traffic.

2. Love it or hate it, grass is the answer.

Turf grass gets a bad rap in some circles, even to the point that Kentucky blue grass was voted Canada's worst weed by CBC Radio One listeners a couple of summers ago. Love it or hate it, though, there is no other material that can cover wide areas, stand up to foot traffic, and clean the air and filter water runoff all at the same time.

3. High and low.

There is no limit to the height groundcovers can reach; the key property is that they spread well to cover ground. Hybrid tea roses could not be considered a groundcover, for instance, because they don't spread. Rambling roses, however, can make a beautiful groundcover. As for height -- a forest, especially aspen, could be considered a kind of groundcover.

4. Groundcovers are useful as well as beautiful.

Groundcovers help prevent erosion. Consider the hills that are built when highway overpasses are developed; they are always planted with groundcovers, traditionally turf, but more recently clover, vetch or wildflowers that hold the soil in place. Groundcovers are also good for the air. As alluded to above, plants clean the air, taking in carbon dioxide and emitting oxygen. Most of us are aware that trees serve this purpose; in fact, all green plants do. Groundcovers just do more than the average plant because they are - well - covering more ground.

5. Groundcovers are good for water.

One of the worst pollutants of lakes and rivers is urban runoff rainwater. When rain falls on a non-porous pavement surface, it washes all the grime and chemicals off the pavement and into the storm sewers, which empty into the waterways. When rain falls onto groundcover, it percolates through the plants, roots and soil and into groundwater. Even groundcovers that are chemically treated serve to filter and clean rainwater. The environmental problem with chemical treatment of groundcovers is when too much of a chemical is used, or when it is carelessly spread onto hard surfaces; then the rain washes the excess into the sewers and waterways, where it can kill plants and animals and encourage unbalanced growth of algae.

6. A little too much of a good thing.

What makes most groundcovers effective is their ability to colonize an area. Sometimes they get out of hand and become invasive. In your garden, this can be frustrating; in a natural area, it can be devastating to the local ecosystem. English ivy and vinca are two attractive, shade-tolerant groundcovers that are perfectly charming in an urban garden but that wreak havoc when they escape into our native forests.

7. How about an annual habit?

Some annuals are sufficiently fast-growing to make good groundcovers. Nasturtiums can give ample coverage for a good portion of the growing season, for example, and self-seed. Annual candytuft, alternanthera and sweet potato vine are all worth planting. There's no worry about these babies getting unruly.

8. Landscape fabric.

Some landscapers will disagree on this; landscape fabric -- which is a mesh designed to let water into the soil while discouraging weeds from growing up from the soil -- may inhibit the spread of your groundcovers. I'm not alone in this opinion: the grower Valleybrook, who markets the Jeepers Creepers brand of groundcover plants, recommends against using landscape fabric around groundcovers. The whole point of groundcovers is to out-compete everything else, including weeds.

9. Groundcover tea.

Roman chamomile is a fast-growing groundcover, capable of replacing lawn in a dry, sunny area. It will even withstand light foot traffic; in fact, it's noted in one of Shakespeare's plays that "the more it is trodden on, the faster it grows". Also? You can make tea from the blossoms.

10. Shady characters on the ground.

Groundcovers are often very useful plants in the shade. A favourite is Canadian wild ginger with its heart-shaped leaves. Shy mauve flowers emerge from its leaves in early spring. Another shady wonder is Ajuga reptans or bugle plant which favours us in springtime with a carpet of blue flowers followed by a mat of lovely glossy bronze leaves. Bearberry is an evergreen shrub that enjoys dry shade. Bell-shaped pink spring flowers are followed by red berries that peep out from among the shiny little leaves in fall.

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