Master Gardener: Groundcover plants are a gardening asset – The Daily News Online


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Is your garden interesting to look at in the winter?Does it have structure? Evergreens for some color? Trees for height or maybe with an interesting bark?Do your perennial beds disappear after the first hard frost and become a sea of mulch?Mulch has its place in the garden. It helps cover the ground, preventing weed seeds from germinating, it helps modify the soil temperature and helps retain moisture in the summer.As it breaks down, it can even add some organic matter back to the soil. It also needs to be replaced, sometimes annually, which can be costly and time-consuming work.Is there an alternative?Consider replacing some of that mulch with groundcover plants.By definition, a groundcover is a low-growing plant that densely covers the ground. When applied to the garden, we usually think of an ornamental plant, but it can also refer to mosses, sedges, grasses, ferns, vines and low-growing shrubs.We want them to perform the same functions as mulch, but look nicer. Think of them as living mulch.Additionally, some groundcovers also flower, and you can choose ones with variegated leaves or evergreen foliage which adds interest to the garden.I’m going to recommend that you stay away from traditional garden-type groundcovers such as English ivy, periwinkle and wintercreeper. These groundcovers have run amok and can be found outside of their garden beginnings.Winter Creeper (Euonymus fortune) is even listed on the DEC invasive plant list. Gardeners who have inherited Bishop’s Weed, Chameleon Plant or Ajuga will tell you to beware. If you plant it, you’ll never be rid of it.While these plants do exactly what we want — they cover the ground and quickly — they become garden thugs and, in some cases, environmental thugs.Choosing a groundcover that is native to your area will also add to the biodiversity of your garden. Instead of a giant swath of one-plant species, use a mixture of native groundcover plants that grow under similar conditions for a tapestry effect.When choosing groundcovers, the same rules apply as for other garden plants — the right plant for the right place. Site conditions such as light, moisture, soil type, pH, winter winds, road salt, etc. should all be considered.An added benefit to using native groundcovers is that they can help provide shelter and habitat for our native bumblebees, butterflies, fireflies and other beneficial insects. Using native plants under our native trees can help provide habitat that some have started calling “soft landings.”Many moths and butterflies need safe places such as these for their caterpillars to pupate and complete their life cycle. These soft landing places also include leaf and plant debris which groundcovers can help hide from view.Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) is a ground-hugging native that spreads quickly by runners to form large patches. Once you have them, you can propagate them from the runners.Bonuses are the small, but sweetly delicious, berries.Plants bloom mid-spring with white flowers that attract pollinators. Berries appear in early summer.The trifoliate leaves add fall color turning shades of red. They prefer full sun but can take some light shade and grow in a variety of well-drained soils.Field Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta) is named for the resemblance of the flower clusters to a cat’s paw. A plant for difficult sites it prefers lean, gritty to rocky soils that are well-drained in full sun.Avoid planting it in soils that remain moist or have poor drainage. The silver, velvety leaves hug the ground and will slowly spread.Fuzzy, white flowers appear in spring on stalks about a foot tall.Pussytoes would be a good choice for a rock garden. While deer and rabbits are not interested, Pussytoes are a caterpillar host plant for the American Painted Lady butterfly.Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum) is an excellent planting partner with Pussytoes as they like similar conditions — sunny, dry, and well-drained. It will die out in wet winter soils.While the nodding pink flowers are cute it’s really the pink seed heads that steal the show. The wispy, feathery seed heads inspired its name.Plants spread slowly and they do not tolerate being crowded by taller perennials. The ferny foliage is semi-evergreen and will turn shades of red in the fall.Large clumps can be divided every three or four years. The plant is deer resistant.Foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia) is a great choice for shady spots.A spring bloomer, the flowers are attractive to many insects. The small star-shaped flowers bloom on 8-inch-tall stems and seem to “foam” over the mounding foliage.The maple-like leaves are a rich green and semi-evergreen into the winter. You can find foamflower growing in the wild in open woods so mimic those conditions in the garden.They prefer shady, moist sites with soils high in organic matter.Foam flower would be great in the front of a shady border. They will tolerate being nibbled on by deer and rabbits.Have dry shade? Appalachian sedge (Carex appalachica) would be a terrific plant to add.The fine-textured, narrow foliage gives it a fountain shape. Reaching about 12 inches tall, it is a clump forming sedge and does not spread quickly.Another happy woodland plant, it is good for part shade to full shade. It is adaptable to many soil types, will grow under black walnut trees but it is not tolerant of too much moisture.This sedge is a host plant for Skipper and Satyr butterfly caterpillars. To tidy it up, in late winter trim it back. Deer resistant.Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica) has fine textured leaves that make it valuable as an alternative to turf that won’t grow under trees or in a shady location. Unfortunately, it does not tolerate foot traffic, nor does it grow well from seed as it is slow to germinate.Its creeping habit will fill in area. It prefers part to full shade, well-drained soils and is drought tolerant when established. It is deer resistant.While you’re working on your 2022 plant list this winter, include a few native groundcovers.Hours and programmingHave a gardening question? The Master Gardener Helpline will be closed through Jan. 2. Volunteers are normally in the office 10 a.m. to noon weekdays.You can stop in at our CCE office at 420 E. Main St., Batavia, call (585) 343-3040, ext. 127, or e-mail them at: [email protected]

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