In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
April, 2012
Regional Report

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Ornamental grasses make ideal ground covers and add interest to the landscape.

Ground Covers

Ground covers are plants that have a specific job in the landscape. They are usually ignored, unless they are not performing up to snuff, and are looked upon as a backdrop for their more ornamental cousins.

Ground covers are used in the landscape to protect and enhance bare soil over large areas. Turf grass, or lawn, is actually a form of ground cover, but in this column I want to discuss other plants more commonly thought of as traditional ground covers.

Plants that are used as ground covers are usually low growing. They come in a variety of forms, which include; spreading, clumping, or vining. An example of a spreading ground cover is juniper. The branches spread horizontally across the soil, eventually covering large areas. Juniper was very popular in the 1950's through the 80's and you will still see elderly and overgrown landscapes with remnants of these hardy plants. Most juniper beds have succumbed to over watering and bad pruning.

Two examples of clumping ground covers are African daisy (Osteospermum) and Cape dandelion (Arctotheca calendula). Both of these plants are hardy in our dry climate and have daisy like flowers that are available in various colors and size. They are so successful that they have been put on the invasive plant list. Mexican evening primrose (Oenothera) is a prime example of a plant that, although lovely when contained, quickly makes an escape and become a nuisance. Oenothera, arctotheca and osteospermum spread by sending out runners, or specialized stems that set roots from the leaf nodes where they come in contact with the soil.

Hypericum and vinca are vining-type ground covers. These plants grow long stems from a central base, which enlarges as the plant matures. Vining ground covers are usually mown and fertilized just prior to the growing season to promote compact growth and keep them from getting stringy and thin.

Supposing you want to re landscape a section of your garden. Which ground cover should you choose? The answers depends on the type of soil you have and the amount of light available. Ice plant (in the Sedum genus) prefers loose, fast draining soil and is ideal to grow along the coastal areas. Aptenia is another succulent ground cover that does well in similar conditions but requires heat and a rich soil to bloom. Vinca minor, pachysandra, and ajuga will do well in light shade, while hypericum will languish without full sun. Vancouveria is ideal for woodland gardens and thrives under firs, oaks, and hemlocks. It has delicate foliage similar to maidenhair fern.

As always, do your homework before you make your selection. Improve the soil with organic compost prior to planting and "mother" the little plants until they become fully established. Avoid choosing exotic ground covers that will be difficult to replace if you have problem areas that need replanting.

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