By Cindy Gilberg
Everyone can think of at least one reason to plant ground covers. Many landscape dilemmas are wonderful opportunities for using ground covers, since they are practical alternatives for problem solving. Imagine no longer struggling to mow those steep slopes or tight narrow strips between walkways. Eliminate mowing in other difficult areas where the grass struggles to grow, for instance, areas with wet soil or where irrigation is out of the question. The deeper roots of ground covers such as sedges make them quite effective choices for erosion control.
From a design perspective, masses of lower growing plants visually unify a garden. Ground covers define the space by providing a low, textural transition between lawn and garden. Hardscape elements in the landscape can be softened by planting a foliar carpet. Typically thought of as low-growing plants, in larger settings taller plants can be just as useful as ground cover. After all, loosely translated, a ground cover is a plant that covers the ground. And many plants that cover the ground are not spreaders, a useful fact for areas where you may want them to stay put.
For maximum effect always use the “right plant, right place” concept. Become familiar with your site “soil, water and light” and compile a list of plants that will thrive in that particular environment. Initially, new plantings need to be nurtured until they’re established. After that, the need for irrigation, fertilizer or pesticides should be nil.
Hot dry sunny areas are just what some Missouri native plants need in order to flourish. Prairie dropseed is one of my favorites, though it doesn’t spread in the classic sense of a ground cover. Its gracefully soft foliage covers up to three feet in diameter and creates an undulating sea of grass-like texture. A bold contrast to this would be the prickly pear cactus with broad, rounded leaves and large, exquisite yellow blooms in mid-summer. Another great textural plant with large rounded leaves is the prairie alum root, a coral bell relative. Other low-growing options include rose verbena, sand phlox and Missouri evening primrose. Larger expanses of lawn or steep slopes call for larger plants such as feathery bluestar, aromatic aster, lance-leaf coreopsis and little bluestem. Plants such as yellow false indigo or prairie dock can be integrated into the design to provide strong contrast. Weathered stones can be included to help hold slopes and add four season structure to the landscape.
Another difficult situation is wet soil in a sunny site, and these conditions are frequently associated with erosion. This is where sedges (Carex sp.) come in handy, spreading as a ground cover while thriving in alternating wet and dry conditions, often times with poor, clayey soil. Sedges have ornamental seed heads and grow an average height of 2-3 ft. Carex grayii, palm sedge (Carex muskingumensis) and the clump-forming tussock sedge (Carex stricta) are readily found at nurseries. A few others that may take more hunting to find are fringed sedge (Carex crinita), Short’s sedge (Carex shortiana) and fox sedge (Carex vulpinoidea). Add in some beebalm, which is another moist soil native that spreads well. Its pink flowers are wonderfully attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies. There are two yellow-flowered coneflower species that thrive in moist soil, the sweet coneflower and the showy coneflower. These are familiar sights in most gardens and are also great choices for attracting birds and butterflies.
Plantings of native plants are fast becoming solutions for use in creating sustainable landscapes because, once established, native plants need little if any irrigation, fertilizer or pesticides.
Native Ground Covers for Sunny Sites
- Sedges (Carex spp.)
- Fringed sedge (C. crinita)
- Gray’s sedge (C. grayii)
- Palm sedge (C. muskingumensis)
- Short’s sedge (C. shortiana)
- Tussock sedge (C. stricta)
- Fox sedge (C. vulpinoidea)
- Beebalm; bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
- Obediant plant (Physostegia)
- Sweet/orange coneflower (Rudbeckia subtomentos and R. fulgida)
- Feathery bluestar (Amsonia ciliata)
- Aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius)
- Lance-leaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)
- Rose verbena (Glandularia canadense)
- Prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii)
- Missouri evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa)
- Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa)
- Sand phlox (Phlox pilosa)
- Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
- Prairie dropseed (Sporobolis heterolepis)
Cindy Gilberg, horticulturist and Missouri native, founded and ran the garden center at Gilberg Perennial Farms with her husband Doug for 28 years, also teaching classes and workshops on gardening and garden design. She now focuses on garden design, consulting and teaching, and also works part-time in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, emphasizing the use of native plants in home landscaping.