Thinking Low To The Ground: Ground Covers For A New Climate

Kim Blocher

You know that it's time to take global warming seriously when the Weather Channel gets on board. According to a piece by Derrick Jackson of the Boston Globe, the Weather Channel will begin a new series this fall. One of the topics is reflection on the potential disaster of global warming. The Weather Channel's climate scientist admits that her station was, "very conservative for a long time. It didn't want to offend anyone." They intend now to educate the public that even one degree of warming can have a huge impact on our climate and ecosystems.

What's a concerned gardener to do, especially in the wake of one of the hottest summers on record? Like all problems, start with the simplest solutions first. We must seek to conserve moisture in the landscape. Adaptive gardening starts at the ground level.

Almost all gardeners know that mulch is essential to stave off the drying effects of a hot summer. But don't limit your thinking to hardwood or pinebark mulch. What would Mother Nature do? Well, nature uses low-growing plants as mulch.

A perennial groundcover reduces maintenance, conserves water, and makes your landscape more beautiful. As with any perennial you can select for time of bloom, autumn color, winter interest, or attraction for wildlife. What a great alternative to the monotony of a lawn! If you choose the right ground cover, you will rarely need to do more than a little weeding and watering during severe drought.

I will highlight some native plants that function beautifully as groundcover. The ones noted are adapted for drier habitat.

Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is in the heath family and forms thick mats 12"tall. It features bright red fruit July through August, and is an evergreen. It is well suited for pairing with conifers. Bearberry is graced with dainty urn-shaped flowers in spring.

Sweet-fern (Comptonia peregrina) is at least 80 million years old, native from Nova Scotia to North Carolina and west to Indiana. Sweet fern is a multi-branched shrub that can be up 3 feet tall. It is ideal for bank planting in light shade, and the foliage is slightly aromatic.

Hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctiloba) is a deciduous fern (deciduous means that it is not evergreen) that spreads rapidly on creeping rootstalk. It grows up to 3 feet tall, and easily forms large masses. So easily, that the Forest Service often finds it necessary to eradicate because it crowds out tree seedlings. But if you have a gently sloping forest area in which you want good coverage it is ideal. Plant it with wildflowers or native shrubs and trees. It has a pleasant, hay-like, odor.

Southern bush-honeysuckle (Diervilla sessilifolia) is a low growing, suckering, shrub. The foliage is red in fall and has a spring and summer bloom of yellow flowers. This is another great choice for banks because it fills in very well. It tolerates a range of partial shade to full sun

Creeping Phlox 'Bruce's White' (Phlox stolonifera) is a great native plant particular to Pennsylvania south to Georgia. Foliage is evergreen, 3 to 6 inches tall. The springtime white flower is very showy in dense clusters. It tends to form solid mats, and must be kept free of debris in winter. It grows best in partial shade but will take nearly full sun with rich, amended soil. There are other cultivars with blue and purple flowers. It can be nicely paired with columbine.

Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is from the oldest family of ferns and another terrific native. The evergreen fronds can be up to 2 feet tall, with a characteristic twist toward the top. Once established, they will withstand considerable abuse and will tolerate nearly full sun.

Fragrant sumac 'Gro Low' (Rhus aromatica) is a multistemmed, woody shrub up to 3 feet tall. There is a nice orange to red to bronze fall color, with a distinctive tri-foliate leaf. This interesting plant is in the cashew family, and will quickly cover a bank. This plant adapts from light shade to full sun, in poor to average soil.

As you can see, the possibilities are endless. There are hundreds of native and non-native plants suitable for groundcover. Let's say goodbye to monoculture and expand our gardening range, while adapting to a new climate.

Read other articles on garden and landscape design

Read other articles by Kim Blocher