Ground covers can fix a lot of problems in your garden. They hold soil where it is too steep or rocky to grow lawn you can mow safely. They prevent weeds for people who are too busy or too lazy (or both) to tend an ornamental bed. They serve as a backdrop for more striking plants.

All plants cover ground, including huge trees and Kentucky bluegrass. But the term ground cover usually refers to an alternative to the lawn that is short, takes little maintenance and can be walked through without doing much damage to the plants.

Ground covers also serve a role in the ornamental garden. Often they link the different perennials and shrubs, providing a green backdrop rather than the brown of soil or mulch. If planted next to the lawn, they prevent accidental damage by mower of more valuable plants.

My mind turned to ground covers because of an email I got last month from the Native Land Trust, based in Framingham, Massachusetts.

The Trust and the Woodwell Climate Research Center, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, have created the Yard Futures Project, to study how changes in lawns can reduce damage to the environment and climate change.

One of the prime ways to reduce the environmental impact of suburban homes is to reduce the amount of lawn. Uli Lorimer, director of horticulture at the trust, said one of the main problems with lawns is that they require fertilizer, particularly nitrogen, and pesticides: both of which cause problems when they run off and get into the ocean.

One of the first ground covers that Lorimer recommended was bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi. They are evergreen shrubs that grown only about 6 inches tall, but where I have seen them the leaves are brown throughout most of the spring. It turns out bearberry hates road salt. So, if you plant it near a parking lot or street, you won’t like the results. But away from salt, Lorimer said, it will be a lush green.

A similar small woody that Lorimer likes is three-toothed cinquefoil, Sibbaldiopsis tridentata, which grows in terrible soil, likes full sun, and, as it happens, thrives on the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia.

Wild strawberries may already be growing in your lawn. Among other reasons to encourage them? Tiny little berries in June that you can eat. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

For people who want to replace their lawn with something more grass-like, Lorimer likes oak sedge, Carex albicans. It is related to grass so if you mowed a few times a year, you’d have something that looked a bit like a lawn. Poverty oak grass, Danthonia spicata, is a similar lawn alternative. It’s drought tolerant (which would have been helpful this year) and requires only occasional mowing. Lorimer also likes wild strawberry, which produces tiny fruit, and barren strawberry, which produces yellow flowers.

Ground covers needn’t be lawn replacements. They also go well in flower gardens, and my wife Nancy and I grow many in our home gardens, underneath shrubs and next to the lawn. They aren’t native, but they don’t require pesticides and receive very little fertilizer.

The two ground covers that get the most room on our property are vinca, which goes by the common name periwinkle, and lily of the valley.

Vinca is an almost perfect plant. The leaves are shiny and attractive, it grows densely so it keeps out weeds. It spreads, but it does so slowly, so it is easy to control if you want it to stay put. In the spring, it has gorgeous purple or white flowers, depending on the variety. It prefers shady locations, so it fits in well in our yard.

Lily of the valley, or Convallaria, is a sentimental favorite in our family. When we first moved into our home 45 years ago, a neighbor gave us some that he said his grandmother had given him. The ones he gave us were mostly pink, and they have mostly disappeared. The more common white variety is hardier, and will crowd out the pink ones. Our daughter, though she isn’t an eager gardener, has managed to maintain the pink ones through diligence, but we only occasionally see pink lilies of the valley in our gardens anymore. They have a wonderful sweet fragrance that fills the house in the spring. I have heard people call lily of the valley invasive, but it won’t jump large distances. It just slowly takes over things right next to it, like lawn (hey, not a bad thing), but it can be mowed down or dug out.

We also grow sweet woodruff, although it is understated compared to the vinca and lily of the valley. It spreads slowly, but is attractive, and I like that it is an ingredient in May wine, which I enjoy.

Lamium, or spotted deadnettle, is an attractive low-growing plant. I like Red Nancy and White Nancy, not only because they share my wife’s name, but because they have variegated green and white foliage along with long-lasting flowers.

I promise that I never had heard of Uli Lorimer before our telephone interview, and he has never read my column. He recommended, without prompting from me, letting violets invade the lawn, providing purple and white flowers in spring and green plants from spring to fall. I have written in the past about our violet-dominated lawn.

I am so glad the Native Plant Trust approves.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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