the toughest groundcovers i rely on

geranium-macrorrhizumW HEN I AM GONE, SOME OF THE PLANTS HERE WILL PERISH, TOO; any finicky or timid ones will get swamped by their more ambitious neighbors. But not the great groundcovers, not Geranium macrorrhizum (above) or the toughest epimediums and others content to keep growing whether I pay them any mind or not, even in the hardest spots like the dry shade of trees. To knit things together without a lot of fuss, I’ve come to rely on plants like these:

Geranium macrorrhizum, the big-root geranium: I wonder how many square miles of this plant I have grown. The bigroot geranium is so named because instead of a clumping habit, it grows from a ropelike rhizome that seems to barely need to touch the ground to thrive. Its attractive foliage has an aromatic, spicy scent, and is nearly evergreen even in my Zone 5B garden.

It will survive, I think, except in the wet; sun or shade, and even dry shade. All I give it is an annual haircut, and I do that when spring is turning to summer, the flowers have gone by and the leaves are stretching upward. Deadheading would be another option, but just shearing the whole plant is faster in masses, and also keeps it tighter and denser.

The straight species is pink (but not pastel); if Pepto Bismol isn’t going to work for you, there is the more prim ‘Ingwersen’s Variety,’ with nearly white blooms (and a less rampant overall demeanor, too, I think).

epimediumEpimediums, or barrenworts: Thanks in large part to the passion of Darrell Probst, the esteemed Epimedium collector and founder of Garden Vision Epimediums nursery in Massachusetts, a dizzying selection of the charming barrenworts is now in the marketplace. I have some choice ones, but two of the less rarified (and therefore less expensive) varieties have served me particularly well for groundcover: E. x rubrum (above, slower but steady, and very floriferous) and E. versicolor ‘Sulphureum,’ (more ambitious from the start, with early yellow blooms, a real do-er, as they say).

Shady locations suit epimediums, and once established they can really take it dry. In fact, their woody rhizomes will resent a wet spot, and rot.  Like many woodlanders with these woody underground parts, I find they like an intervention every now and again: When a clump gets really full, I go in and divide it, and repeat my success elsewhere with the divisions.

Plan to cut back their nearly evergreen foliage in late winter, as we have discussed before.

I highly recommend calling or writing for a catalog from Garden Vision, now owned by Karen Perkins, who has worked with Darrell since the operation’s founding in 1997. A website is in the works, but for now: (978) 249-3863 or email to epimediums at earthlink dot net.

hellebore-hybrids-massedHellborus orientalis hybrids: At the risk of repeating myself, the hybrid hellebores (massed above) are incredibly durable, increasing as their evergreen clumps widen and also by sowing themselves liberally around. The crash course on these toughies (and a slideshow of some beauties).

trachystemonTrachystemon orientalis is a fourth great groundcover lurking here at A Way to Garden, one I’m about to press into wider service than I have until now. Trachystemon orientalis, with its blue early spring flowers and bold, heart-shaped foliage from spring through fall, will put up with almost anything. You may recall my saying so not long ago.

Do you have areas where a one of these would help thwart weeds, shade the soil, and just tie things together visually? Or do you have any other reliable great groundcovers to recommend?

  1. Susan Holmgren says:

    I’m trying to find a ground cover to put in a narrow space between two driveways. Because I live in Wisconsin, this area will get some salt on it during the winter as we try to melt ice on our driveway. This area also has poor soil and gets full sun.

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