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A Russian cypress (Macrobiota decussata) covers ground nicely on this shady slope. It is one of many needled evergreens that can cover large amounts of ground. Photo by Kathy Connolly

A Russian cypress (Macrobiota decussata) covers ground nicely on this shady slope. It is one of many needled evergreens that can cover large amounts of ground. (Photo by Kathy Connolly )

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Fragrant sumac ‘Grow low’ (Rhus aromatica) is a native shrub that can cover dry slopes in sun or part shade. It has yellow flowers in the spring and brilliant red leaves in fall. Photo by Kathy Connolly

Fragrant sumac ‘Grow low’ (Rhus aromatica) is a native shrub that can cover dry slopes in sun or part shade. It has yellow flowers in the spring and brilliant red leaves in fall. (Photo by Kathy Connolly )

Shrubs as Groundcovers: Why not?

Published Sep 29, 2016 • Last Updated 02:26 pm, September 27, 2016

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No lawn mower has ever touched a 2,500 square-foot section of my yard, nor will it, as long low-growing juniper shrubs continue to thrive on this hot, sunny, dry, windy embankment. We trim them once per year. We’ve never watered them.

These junipers are poster children for the concept of putting the right plant in a place, the perfect groundcover for the spot. (No credit to me. A prior owner planted them more than 30 years ago, and they have succeeded for more than three decades.) Most other groundcovers, including lawn grass, flowering perennials, and even ornamental grasses, would have struggled and required extensive maintenance in this difficult site.

Most people don’t associate the word “groundcover” with shrubs, yet shrubs can be great problem solvers.

According to long-time nursery grower Bill Harris, owner of Acer Gardens in Deep River, a groundcover is any plant that, when grouped, can form a canopy and out-compete weeds. While many think of groundcover as growing very low to the ground, that is not necessarily a requirement.

“Some shrubs form a canopy a few feet above the ground, but when they grow together they have the same effect as low-growing shrubs,” says Harris. “There are many, many shrubs that cover ground effectively.”

See the sidebar for a list of common and botanical names.

For sun, he likes creeping larch, a deciduous needled plant with interesting branch structure that can cover large areas. He also suggests Scots pine ‘Hillside Creeper’ for a plant that will cover large areas of very poor soil. Creeping blue spruce is another sun-lover.

 

For part shade, he likes a low-growing variety of the Japanese spreading plum yew. For deep shade, he names the taller Japanese plum yew ‘drupacea.’

Harris also names flowering shrubs that can be massed as groundcovers. For instance, Japanese rose, Kerria japonica, is a tough, sun-tolerant plant that is highly deer resistant. He also points out Japanese spirea, dwarf fothergilla, and fragrant sumac (not the poison variety).

For sunny slopes, he likes Vigorosa blanket roses ‘Starry Night’ or ‘Sea Foam.’

“They are disease-, insect- and drought-resistant,” he says.

He also recommends Forsythia ‘gold tide,’ a low-growing forsythia with golden leaves, for slopes.

As for junipers, Harris suggests they are overused. He has a point, in that junipers offer little or no variation throughout the year.

“One of the most common juniper groundcovers, ‘Wiltonii,’ is too low and doesn’t really out-compete weeds,” he says. “If you are going to use junipers, try Bar Harbor juniper, Sargent juniper, or Japgarden juniper.”

He points out that some often-requested plants are unexpectedly tricky. Heaths and heathers, for instance, can make excellent groundcovers but only if they have perfect soil and sun conditions.

His least favorite groundcover shrub is low bush blueberry.

“In 35 years of planting groundcovers,” he says, “I have found this plant most often fails to produce the result that people want.”

Groundcovers can be an expensive addition to a landscape, says Harris.

“If you are dealing with large areas, your project may require large numbers of plants and extensive labor,” he says.

He suggests that before we become determined to use a particular plant, we should evaluate sun, shade, water, slope, soil, foot traffic, and the presence of moles, voles, deer, and other wildlife.

But after the initial expense, there are rewards. Once established, shrubby groundcovers take up a lot of space and are likely to need only occasional maintenance.

Because someone had the foresight to cover ground with shrubs in my yard more than 30 years ago, I can attest to the benefits.

 

Kathy Connolly is a garden writer and speaker from Old Saybrook. Reach her through www.SpeakingofLandscapes.com.

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