Groundcovers for Sun

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Variety of thymes creating a multicolored groundcover.

Looking for a groundcover for a sunny spot? Maybe because the lawn isn’t holding up well or because it’s on a slope or is otherwise hard to mow… or simply because you really don’t want to mow anymore? Here is a list of plants you might find suitable:

  1. ‘Angelina’ Sedum (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’), zone 3, FTR: none
  2. Barren strawberry (Waldsteinia spp.), zone 4, FTR: poor
  3. Barrenwort (Epimedium x rubrum), zone 3, FTR: none
  4. Basket-of-gold (Aurinia saxatilis, syn. Alyssum saxtile), zone 3, FTR: none
  5. Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), zone 2, FTR: moderate20170426WEN.jpg
  6. Bearberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster dammeri), zone 5b, FTR: none
  7. Bergenia (Bergenia crassifolia, syn. B. cordifolia), zone 2, FTR: none
  8. Bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum), zone 3, FTR: none
  9. Bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus ‘Pleniflorus’, syn. ‘Plenus’, zone 3, FTR: good
  10. Bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegatum’), zone 3, FTR: poor
  11. Black mondo grass (Ophiopogon plansicapus ‘Nigrescens’), zone 7, FTR: none

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    Bleeding-heart (Dicentra formosa). Photo: J Brew, Flickr

  12. Bleeding-heart (Dicentra formosa and D. eximia), zone 3, FTR: none
  13. Brass buttons (Leptinella squalida ‘Platt’s Black’), zone 4, FTR: good
  14. Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), zone 3, FTR: moderate
  15. Cambridge geranium (Geranium x cantabrigiense), zone 3, FTR: none
  16. Caucasian Sedum (Sedum spurium), zone 3, FTR: none
  17. Creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis), zone 2, FTR: poor
  18. Creeping speedwell (Veronica repens), zone 2, FTR: moderate
  19. Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum), zone 3, FTR: moderate
  20. Crested iris (Iris cristata), zone 3, FTR: none
  21. Crownvetch (Coronilla varia), zone 4, FTR: none
  22. Cutleaf stephanandra (Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa’), zone 3b, FTR: none
  23. Dwarf knotweed (Persicaria affinis, syn. Polygonum affine), zone 3, FTR: moderate

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    Faassen’s catnip (Nepeta faassenii). Photo: Wouter Hagens, Wikimedia Commons

  24. Faassen’s catnip (Nepeta x faassenii), zone 3, FTR: none
  25. Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), zone 3, FTR: none
  26. Goldenstar (Chrysogonum virginianum), zone 4, FTR: poor
  27. Green carpet (Herniaria glabra), zone 4, FTR: good
  28. Hairy greenweed (Genista pilosa), zone 5, FTR: poor
  29. Heuchera (Heuchera cvs), zone 3, FTR: none
  30. Hosta (Hosta cvs), zone 3, FTR: none
  31. Houseleek (Sempervivum spp.), zone 3, FTR: none
  32. Iceplant (Delosperma cooperi), zone 5b, FTR: poor
  33. Ivy (Hedera helix and others), zone varies according to species and cultivar: 4-9, FTR: poor

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    Kamchatka sedum (Sedum kamtschaticum ‘Weihenstephaner Gold’). Photo Maja Dumas, Wikimedia Commons

  34. Kamchatka sedum (Sedum kamtschaticum), zone 3, FTR: none
  35. Labrador violet (Viola riviniana ‘Purpurea’, syn. V. labradorica), zone 4, FTR: none
  36. Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), zone 3, FTR: none
  37. Lamb’s-ears (Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’), zone 3, FTR: none
  38. Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), zone 3, FTR: none
  39. Liriope (Liriope muscari), zone 6 ou 7, FTR: none

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    Golden moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’). Photo: European Environment Agency

  40. Moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia), zone 3, FTR: moderate
  41. Moss phlox (Phlox subulata), zone 2, FTR: none
  42. New Zealand burr (Acaena microphylla), zone 4b, FTR: poor
  43. Oregano (Origanum vulgare), zone 4, FTR: none
  44. Ornamental strawberry (Fragaria x rosea), zone 3, FTR: moderate
  45. Pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis), zone 4, FTR: none
  46. Perennial dusty miller (Artemisia stelleriana ‘Boughton Silver’, syn. ‘Silver Brocade’), zone 3, FTR: none
  47. Periwinkle (Vinca minor), zone 2b, FTR: moderate
  48. Rozanne™ geranium (Geranium ‘Gerwat’), zone 4, FTR: none
  49. Scotch moss (Sagina subulata glabrata ‘Aurea’), zone 3, FTR: moderate
  50. Self-heal (Prunella grandiflora), zone 4, FTR: none
  51. Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), zone 3, FTR: none

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    Siberian cypress (Microbiota decussata) forms a dense, weed-resistant groundcover. Photo: Crusier, Wikimedia Commons

  52. Siberian cypress (Microbiota decussata), zone 3, FTR: none
  53. Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum), zone 2, FTR: poor
  54. Spotted dead-nettle (Lamium maculatum), zone 2, FTR: none
  55. St. John’s wort (Hypericum calycinum), zone 6, FTR: none
  56. Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), zone 3, FTR: none
  57. Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina), zone 2, FTR: none
  58. White clover (Trifolium repens), zone 3, FTR: moderate
  59. Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei), zone 5b, FTR: moderate

    20170426H Ghislain118 (AD), www.fleurs-des-montagnes.net

    Woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) Ghislain118 (AD), http://www.fleurs-des-montagnes.net

  60. Woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus), zone 3, FTR: moderate
  61. Yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon), zone 2, FTR: none

Keeping Them Under Control

Most groundcover plants are a bit to very invasive… and that’s normal, considering that we choose groundcovers specifically for their ability to cover ground. It does, however, mean that you should always plan on how you eventually intend to slow them down when they’ve filled up their allotted space and start looking for new territory. You could, for example, contain them with a walkway, paving stones, a short wall, logs, lawn edging or deep shade.

Groundcovers for Shade

If you are looking for suggestions of shade-tolerant groundcovers, see the article Groundcovers for Shade.20170426A

The Leaf Vacuum Plant

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The leaf vacuum plant in late November: already almost all of the fallen leaves have been absorbed!

Sometimes I think plants are misnamed. The terribly invasive Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), which annihilates everything in its path, should for example be called the steamroller plant. And I find that Japanese pachysandra or Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis) really deserves the name leaf vacuum plant.

Seeing this little groundcover plant at work is quite extraordinary. It’s usually used as a groundcover in wooded areas, under deciduous trees, where it forms vast carpets. Then comes fall and tree leaves begin to drop by the thousands.

Any other plant would be buried by this mass of brown foliage, but not the leaf vacuum plant. Its stems are short, but nevertheless held firmly upright, while its evergreen leaves bend down a bit under the weight of the leaves. Thus, the dead leaves slip gradually downward, through the foliage, to accumulate at the plant’s foot, after which the leaf vacuum’s leaves straighten out and hide the dead leaves from view. As a result, the plant maintains its green carpet effect right through the year and all those dead leaves disappear from sight, as if it had vacuumed them up. Then they slowly decompose, out of sight and out of mind.

This is a great plant for the laidback gardener, because there is absolutely no maintenance to carry out, either in fall or in spring, except sometimes to gather larger tree branches that fall onto the groundcover carpet over the winter and that therefore stick up through the plant’s green foliage. Even small branches get vacuumed out of sight by this amazing ground cover plant.

Growing Your Own Leaf Vacuum Carpet

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Although the leaf vacuum plant’s flowers are quite attractive, in the garden they don’t draw much attention.

Plant leaf vacuum plants quite densely, about 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) apart. Dense planting is important, as unlike most groundcover plants, pachysandra is not invasive and only slowly spreads by short underground rhizomes. Even at a 12-inch (30-cm) spacing, the plant will take about 3 or 4 years to fill in completely.

It’s a woodland plant that prefers shade or partial shade, but it can tolerate direct sunlight in winter and even in summer, although full sun plantings may well be a bit bleached in hot summer climates. It tolerates almost any soil, rich or poor, as long as it is well drained and it seems unbothered by the presence of tree roots or heavy clay.

As mentioned, no maintenance is necessary, not even watering… well, once the plant is well established, that is (it would be wise to water it during periods of drought over the first summer). Of course, fallen leaves produce all the fertilizer that the leaf vacuum plant would ever need.

As for hardiness, it can be grown in zones 4 and warmer (even zone 3 with snow cover)… and it rarely suffers from pests and diseases, plus it’s deer-resistant and pet friendly.

You want more? You can easily divide your leaf vacuum plant in spring or fall and plant your harvestings elsewhere.

Appearance

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The leaf vacuum plant, up close and personal.

Honestly, this plant is grown as a groundcover designed to carpet the ground with a vast layer of evergreen foliage. And as with a carpet in your home, where you tend to look more at the ensemble effect than the strands of yarn that compose it, the appearance of the individual plants that make up a groundcover are of relatively little importance.

Even so, if you do take the time to study it, pachysandra is a small plant about 8 to 12 inches (20-30 cm) tall bearing whorls of toothed oval dark green leaves at the tip of an upright stem. It produces short spikes of white flowers in mid spring that always look great in photos, yet are surprisingly insignificant in real life: you have to look closely to appreciate them.

There are also a few cultivars, such as ‘Green Carpet’, which is more compact than the species (6 inches/15 cm), ‘Green Sheen’, with glossier leaves, and ‘Variegata’ (‘Silver Edge’) with white-edged leaves.


If raking up leaves in the autumn drives you up a wall, you now know that there is a plant ready to do the job for you. Don’t hesitate to take advantage of it!