Spotlight on Great Native Ground Covers

The word is out. Native plants are better. Native plants help clean the air like any other, provide shade and bloom, and, even better, go much further than cultivars (“pedigree” plants) to attract butterflies, birds, even endangered bees. Of course, most of us live in a city area, where neighbors are always ready to pounce on an unlovely yard. The goal for good gardeners is to dress their yards with natives but follow a gardening plan only slightly modified from their neighbors’.

This is relatively easy if you have a wooded lot. Most see the trees, recognize woods, and relax. In the woods you’re allowed to have oddly placed plants because Nature doesn’t insist on perfection. With a wooded lot, deer and invasives are the biggest foes. Deer alone are a death knell to small plants of almost any sort. Fencing, even fencing individual plants, is what will help our beleaguered natives to grow.

Sun is another story entirely. Deer may still be horrors, but there are sheer garden issues, as well. Plants in the sun tend to get tall, so next to a shorn lawn or walkway tall flowers can look like erupting volcanoes of green. This drives good gardeners to purchase and spread continent sized piles of mulch so it’s clear to all and sundry that this is a garden, see the pretty flowers? They long for short, unassuming plants they could place in the front of their garden beds. And if they’re also natives…Woo hoo!

And heaven forbid they simply want a nice ground cover that isn’t invasive like English Ivy or Pachysandra. There’s a reason those plants were so overused (please don’t plant these; get rid of them if you can).

What’s an earth friendly gardener to do? Consider two things – amending your taste to like the “flower eruption look” or find good native plants that will behave themselves. Think of it as a game.

First moves in the game…What comes to mind when you think edge plant or ground cover? All sorts of things, from nicely shaped leaves, pretty bloom, not much upkeep come to mind, but what comes to mind first is short. Something short that leads the eye gently into the intense eruption of glorious bloom. That’s the ticket! Do any natives fit the bill?

If you are lucky to have shade, there are many options, even ephemerals that show up and disappear, underlining spring’s arrival. Wild ginger. Spring Beauty. Wild Fringed Bleeding Heart. Foam Flower. Iris verna. Mayapple (ephemeral). Blood Root, Trillium, Pachysandra procumbens, Bellwort…oh, the joys of spring in a shady garden. Come summer, they’re short and unassuming. Everything gardeners love in a ground cover.

Faced with unrelenting sun, many gardeners assume they really can’t enjoy good ground covers without resorting to invasive offerings. Sun gardeners, take heart. There are some glorious native short plants for your sunny yard. All it takes is recognizing what’s right in front of us.

Violets. Violets are perhaps the most under sung gorgeous native plants ever. Yet they are adorable perennial plants, with heart shaped leaves and pretty flowers in early spring. They seldom – even in sun – get taller than 8 inches, and they may even be available for free.

With their vibrant purple, Violets are such happy little flowers.

Violets are frequently found growing in the lawn. The sunny lawn. They grow quite happily in shade, but they also make their statement in the sunniest areas. If they’re in your lawn, you can dig out, for free, all the plants you’ll need to get good edge or ground cover going. If you don’t have any, some of your friends do. Believe it.

Left to themselves, Violets will spread by rhizomes (underground spreader roots) and by seed, quickly covering whatever ground they’re supposed to. They appreciate a little water in summer dry spells but will survive if they’re ignored (leaves might get “toasty” edges).

If deer are yard nasties in your neighborhood, too, Violets can really rock the scene. Even under Black Walnuts! Bunnies, Bobwhites, and Mourning Doves like the seeds, but deer aren’t impressed by anything a Violet has to offer (hurrah).

Violets are great for fritillaries, which are butterflies without claws on their front legs (who knew?). Checkerspots, Viceroys, and Heliconian fritillary butterflies are all attracted to lovely Violets, who help them give rise to the next generation. Violets are larval host plants for gorgeous fritillaries; they’ll help you attract these beauties to your yard. It’s well worth digging those Violets out of the lawn to replace the boring mulch.

Moss Phlox. Native Moss Phlox (Phlox subulata) and Creeping Phlox (Phlox stolonifera) are so pretty that many cultivars (bred plants, not wildflowers) have been created from their stock. Creeping Phlox prefers shade, but Moss Phlox glories in sun.

Blooming Moss Phlox is a wonderful sight in early spring.

Both these natives are absolutely classic, even sought after, ground covers. Moss Phlox is almost astonishingly easy to grow in sunny areas, providing nectar for butterflies and bees (Creeping Phlox tends to attract moths, not butterflies).

In the best fashion of preferred edge and ground covers, both are short, reaching a maximum of 8 inches. And…deer are unimpressed. Does it get better than this? You can’t go wrong.

Wild Geraniums. We’re talking true, “hardy” geraniums here, often called “Cranesbills” Geraniums (the annual geraniums often sold for gardens, with the distinctive scent, are an entirely different plant family called Pelargonium). Cranesbills Geraniums (Geranium maculatum) are perennial, short, and easy to grow. Left to themselves they will cheerfully spread whereever they’re allowed, covering the ground (no need to mulch. no mowing). While they can achieve a height of two feet, they flop over, so they’re actually short.

Deer and rabbits prefer to eat plants other than the Cranesbills Geranium.

Hang onto your hats… deer and rabbits would rather eat something else. Fabulous!

Maureen Rice is a naturalist/gardener living in Talbot County. She is the author of “Not! Your Granny’s Garden.” Email to receive the blog straight to your inbox.

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