groundcover for small, sunny mixed bed...?

woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)January 27, 2014

Pardon this long, rambling post - this is how my thought processes work in the garden! :-)

What do you use for groundcover in a bed dominated by a shrub? I have been mulling this over - for years actually! - for a small bed in the front garden. The area is roughly triangular (I call it the 'teardrop' bed) Two sides are about 5' long and the third is about 7'. The planting originally was dominated by a 'Blanc Double de Coubert' white rose with underplantings of things (smaller roses, clematis and perennials) in blues and pinks. The rose attracted Japanese Beetles so it eventually got evicted in favor of a 'The Swan' hydrangea. . Since that hydrangea takes a few years to buid up a woody framework to support itself, perennials (particularly coneflowers and asters) have dominated in the past couple of years. By the end of last summer 'The Swan' was getting big enough to start to take on its proper dominant role. (If it doesn't survive this winter, I'll have to think of what to use to replace it!) Last summer/fall we removed most of the coneflowers and asters, leaving the other, smaller perennials (e.g. pulsatilla, columbine, a perennial geranium, dwarf iberis, delphiniums) and the xDurandii clematis that grows into the hydrangea. In the fall, I plunked in a dark heuchera or two that had spent the summer in pots. The iberis, pulsatilla and heucheras are all things I've been considering as groundcovers in both this bed and the large front bed where I'm gradually replacing some of the perennials with smallish flowering shrubs.

So, after this long preamble, my question is - what do you use on the ground plane in this sort of situation? In an all-perennial bed, the perennials themselves have always been the groundcover for me. Now that I'm moving more into flowering shrubs in some areas, the issue of underplanting them with something is becoming more relevant, and I always find it useful to see what others have done in similar circumstances. Rouge and SB - if you two come down in spring at some point, it would be good to have your in-person reaction to what's there/what to do..... :-)

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Hi Woodyoak,

Ajuga might be a good option for you. It's also called Bugleweed. It has fantastic foliage colors and does bloom for an extended period, which means it will most likely be in bloom when the hydrangea or other flowering shrub is not. It can have quite a spread, usually from 2 to 5 feet, so you won't need a bunch of plants. It's a perennial in zones 4 through 11, so it should overwinter fine where you are. It's adaptable to soil and moisture conditions and is a semi-evergreen, which also means it will look nice when your shrub(s) have dropped their leaves.

I'm betting your yard is gorgeous!!!!!

Here is a link that might be useful: All About Ajuga

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 11:38AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

I should clarify.... I'm not looking for a grouncover that will make a 'sheet' of planting, but rather one that will be the predominant, unifying plant while mingling happily with the other plants that provide a harmonious variety to keep things interesting. Ajuga is too much of a carpeting plant - as are things like sedums - to fit the image I'm aiming for.

grandamaloy - you can see pictures of my garden at the link below. I'm in the proces of updating that for the changes made in 2013.

Here is a link that might be useful: my garden

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 11:59AM
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Vinca minor/creeping myrtle/periwinkle grows in quite a few of my garden beds, in full sun, part sun and full shade and doesn't interfere with the perennials planted in those beds. It simply provides an evergreen carpet with periwinkle blue flowers in Spring. If it spreads where it isn't welcome, it's fairly easy to yank.

Where I lived for 25+ years before moving here, Pachysandra never interfered with seasonal bulbs or other perennials in full shade + acid soil and was also evergreen.

The beds I've planted since moving here are more defined than those that existed previously so they're mulched over corrugated cardboard whereas the beds planted by my parents are less structured. I've pulled out buckets of vinca/periwinkle but allowed much of it to naturalize at its own pace. The result isn't disciplined but it pleases my eye.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 9:16PM
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In my garden, periwinkle/Vinca is a bit of a thug, and while it doesn't overwhelm shrubs or large perennials like rhubarb, it is hard on things like Heuchera as well as crawling into the lawn, so I've decided to rip it all out as it is too much work to keep it in bounds.

I find that Veronica 'Georgia Blue' or 'Waterperry Blue' both play well with others, spreading nonaggressively to tie things together. I also have cranberry in several beds, which with its spreading rooting stems, tiny leaves and flowers, and comparatively large berries makes a delicate but tough groundcover. It grows densely in sun and less densely in shade and requires ordinarily moist acid soil.

Wooly thyme is great in sunny slightly drier situations as is ice plant.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 10:03PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Vinca and pachysandra are things that look great in the right place but are not suitable for this area (I gave away all the pachysandra that was carpeting one area of the backyard when we bought this place in 1999. I gave it to a neighbour who used it, plus vinca mixed with it, to carpet an area near the road and under trees that was being invaded by a neighbour's violets. The vinca+pachysandra looks great there and chokes out the violets.)

I'm obviously not communicating well what I'm looking for. I think the word 'groundcover' is bringing up the wrong image :-) I'm looking for short-ish plants to cover the ground under the hydreangea but not a 'groundcover' per se. Perhaps some pictures will help set the scene:

In this one from June 2010 you can see the 'teardrop' bed sitting behind the narrow driveway border, and see that there is a mulch path on two sides and a grass path on the third, between this bed and the main front bed. The red X in the bed indicates the white rose that was to be removed (the picture shows the planned removals for later in 2010 plus the addition of an iron tuteur).

This picture shows the bed when the white rose was there. The 'groundcover' under the rose was a lot of other plants with a pale pink/white/blue theme. That's the sort of look I'm aiming for again but, as you will see from the third picture, the plantings need changing!

Since 'The Swan' hydrangea is just reaching a little over 2' (7' mature height), I haven't bothered taking many pictures of it as it is, by mid-summer, still swamped by the perennials - particularly the coneflowers and asters that seeded in there and were left to fill the space while the hydrangea got established. We removed the coneflowers and asters in the fall so there is blank space to fill this spring. You can see the messy look of things in this picture from last summer. The clematis, delphiniums and pulsatilla (you can see some of the fluffy foliage in the picture) will stay but all the rest of the perennials are gone. There are tulips in the bed in the spring - they are also staying.

nhbabs - i like the blues of veronicas but have removed both the spikey ones and the low, creeping ones for the crime of too much seeding :-) I'm very fussy aren't I ....?!

Since I'm looking for inspiration, perhaps what would work best is if people could post pictures of their favorite groupings of not-too-tall perennials that can take full sun, and forget the word 'groundcover'! I'd appreciate it if you would do that. I often get inspired by pictures people post here....

    Bookmark   January 28, 2014 at 1:07PM
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christinmk z5b eastern WA

Sorry I am still a bit confused (which is nothing unusual...fear not, lol).

You said in your first post that you were thinking of Pulsatilla and Heuchera as possibilities for your "groundcover". So would that mean you are looking for smallish plants that do NOT spread but could be used en masse for a "drift" type planting?

Or are you looking for what I call "mat forming" perennials that are low growing and spread gently?

If the former:
Alchemilla erythropoda- dwarf ladies mantle.
Erigeron glaucus 'Sea Breeze'
Dwarf balloon flower
I don't see any grasses...maybe a small variety like Pennisetum 'Little Bunny'?

For the latter:
Geranium cantabrigiense- wonderful low growing fellow. It spreads slowly, so isn't a groundcover per se. Not sure you want more geraniums or not in that area...
Mat forming Campanula (like carpatica, etc)
Coreopsis 'Moonbeam'- spreads a bit
Dracocephalum argunense 'Fuji Blue'- "groundcover" type. Mine grew very flat, so perhaps not the best plant for you spot.

Those are just a few ideas. Not sure if those are helpful or not...

    Bookmark   January 28, 2014 at 3:40PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

CMK - 'the former' in your categories is what I'm looking for! The Erigeron glaucus looks like a good possibility. Balloon flower I'd love to have but I've tried and tried to grow them and none has ever survived here - they seem to be something that should do reasonably well.... Our soil is pretty heavy though so perhaps the 'carrot-like root' has too much trouble with that. I am suspicious of all Alchemillas after taking years to get rid of seedlings from one in the north alley - and still they appear... Plus the yellow of the flowers wouldn't suit this area. Lady's Mantle is one of those plants that I wish didn't flower at all because I love the foliage. Grasses worry me re seeding and Heritage Perennials info on Little Bunny says 'Deadhead in fall to prevent self-sown seedlings' Big red flag for me! :-) But mentioning grass brings to mind Blue Eyed Grass (which is not a grass... Sisyrinchium - an iris relative). I have some of that under the Japanese wisteria and that might work in this bed too.

So, good ideas there CMK! Any more out there....?

    Bookmark   January 28, 2014 at 4:16PM
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Campanula UK Z8

various dianthus
geums - borisii, coccineum
ergigeron karvinskiana
linum flavum
various saxifrages
hardy geraniums
primula - many
species tulips
alpine poppies
campanula - cochlearifolia, portenschlagiana, pulla, pulloides, carpatica
thymes (various)
sisyrynchium idahoense
phlox (douglasii)
alchemilla erythropoda

    Bookmark   January 28, 2014 at 5:59PM
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christinmk z5b eastern WA

-woodyoak, sure thing!

This is a pretty horrible picture, but here is E. 'Sea Breeze'.
It's bulked up a lot since this pic was taken. As you can see, it is not in an ideal location. It's gotten the boloney beaten out of it from the hose. lol.

Other Ideas:

I was also going to suggest Geum, but was pretty sure you said you have a native Geum infestation? Sorry if that wasn't you who said that, LOL.

Baptisia minor (don't grow it myself)
Teucrium chamaedrys- Germander. Think I have the dwarf form. Very tidy and compact. Often used as boxwood sub in knot gardens, so has a "woody herb" type look to it (not sure if that is the texture you want or not).
Salvia- smaller forms like 'Marcus' etc

Saxifrage is nice. I have S. urbium 'Aureopunctata' (gold spots on foliage). Slowly creeps outward, but at a snail's pace! Great texture, but might be too low?

Scabiosa? How do you feel about those? I've got one that is about 1ft tall and wide and another called S. japonica 'Blue Diamonds' that is six inches. Mild re-seeder.
Stachys minima- essentially a super small version of 'Hummelo'. Slow to get going.

Are you interested in any other geraniums? G. renardii my absolute favorite (pic below). Nice foliage even after blooming. The cinereum types are also good.


    Bookmark   January 28, 2014 at 7:11PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Interesting lists - I have some research to do....! :-)

Dianthus is another one of those things that I'd love to grow but just has not taken to the conditions here although I've tried many of them in hopes of getting one that will decide it likes it here!

I have not tried any saxifrages - for some reason I associated them with being fussy but maybe it's time I tried one or two to see how they do.... Any recommendations for good ones to start with?

linum flavum - I'm not keen on yellow for this spot but I do like both the flowers and foliage on the blue ones, so maybe I'll move a seedling one of those in here - I think the color and texture would work well with the other blues in there. It does seed a fair bit and I want to avoid self-seeders as much as possible, but I find the flax not too offensive a seeder, so will think more about that one.

That's a very nice looking geranium CMK - does it seed around? The one in the bed now does and is likely to get evicted sometime soon for that reason. The one in your picture would definitely be a possibility - if it is well-behaved.

Primulas are another category of things I like but do not like me! :-) Geums (yes, it's me with the weed problem CMK...) are not given entry here because of their pesty relatives!

Tulips - species and otherwise - are already present in sufficient quantity.

The campanula family have some interesting ones - and ones to steer clear of! Any recommendations for well-behaved ones (no underground spreaders; no vigorous seeders)?

E. 'Sea Breeze' looks very appealing and likely to be tried somewhere here, whether this bed or somewhere else....

Germander seems to be a spreader from what I see in i quick search....? I'm still trying to get rid of the dwarf Russian Sage in that bed that turned into a spreading thug. I don't want to put in something else that will confuse my efforts to get rid of the Russian Sage!

There are some Cyclamen hederifolium in the driveway border on the other side of the mulch path. They've been there for years and only produce a couple of flowers a year, so I'm not inclined to try more of that tribe

Very helpful input...

    Bookmark   January 28, 2014 at 8:55PM
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christinmk z5b eastern WA

Besides the urbium, I have only tried a couple of mossy saxifrages (like 'Peter Pan'). I found those difficult to grow. S. urbium is slow to mature but not too fussy as long as drainage is adequate.

I've only found a couple seedlings of the Geranium renardii- and those were very near the mother plant. Not aggressive seeder at all in my experience. If you are interested in seed I can send you some ;-) Also...if you didn't want white there is a cultivar of this species called 'Philippe Vapelle' with blue-ish blooms.

I hear you with the campnaulas! I'm almost starting to hate my persicifolia plants because of that. Plus they feel the need to seed themselves right on top of other plants! Campanula "Blue Clips" & "White Clips" may work. There is a new-ish cultivar called 'Viking' that doesn't spread or seed: Check out the cute Viking!

I've never experienced spreading or suckering with this particular Teucrium. I've heard it can send out new shoots in some locations (rich soil I assume?), but haven't seen reviews of it becoming a problem.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2014 at 9:51PM
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Geranium cinereum Ballerina' is small and restrained and clumping in my garden. G. Rozanne is one that folks seem to either love or hate - it weaves among other plants and blooms nonstop.

I'm going to put Veronica 'Georgia Blue' back in the mix. It doesn't seed that I've ever noticed, and it's the only Veronica other than 'Waterperry Blue' that I've been happy with. Totally not like other Veronicas, and I've grown (and ripped out) quite a few. It's a nonagressive weaver with delicate stems and shallowly rooted, so I can't imagine that it would cause issues. It does spread some each year, but 10 minutes work once a year would keep it where I wanted it if I didn't want it weaving amongst the feet of other plants. In the five years I've had it, it hasn't overwhelmed another plant or crawled into the lawn.

Alchemilla erythropoda, dwarf lady's mantle has tiny, almost star-shaped leaves with little white fringes on the edges part of the year. It is a clumper, not like regular Alchemilla mollis, and in my garden has never flowered in the 10 or so years I have had it.

Petrorhagia saxifraga (used to be Tunica saxifraga) has threadlike leaves and stems that grow from a central point. They grow perhaps an inch high and about 10" wide and there are types with double or single flowers. I've only grown the double-flowered one.

I've grown Campanula 'Blue Clips' for several years with no seeding and no spreading. Totally clumping.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 1:10AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

CMK - my persicifolias have crossed over into the annoying category too - I love the flowers when they're in bloom but there are now FAR too many of them! They have become part of spring weeding chores :-( The Viking sounds potentially interesting, although the double in size in two years is a bit worrisome - if it kept that up ,t could rapidly become huge! The white geranium looks promising - I need more white there. I've got lazy re starting things from seed - haven't done that in five years or so :-) At this point in my gardening life I prefer to just buy the plant.

nhbabs - that dwarf Alchemilla looks interesting - not for this spot but it might suit the 'moat bed' at the top of the ditch or the north side of the big front bed so I'll probably find a place for it somewhere.... And I definitely need to try a saxifrage or two. 'Blue Clips' and 'White Clips' campanulas have both turned their noses up at my garden! Tried both in various places - vanished almost instantly....

I think I've got blues covered now with the ideas from here. What are your best small white or pale pink clumpers?

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 11:07AM
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christinmk z5b eastern WA

Don't feel bad woodyoak! I managed to kill my Blue and White clips each within two years. I've got a feeling they dislike very hot, dry summers.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 12:15PM
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My garden is likely similar to yours in terms of soil and weather condition. A few suggestions:
Penstemon x mexicale 'Sunburst Ruby' (self-sow just enough for me to keep, and many other smaller non-red penstemons possible)
Ceratostigma plumbaginoides
Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Golden Arrows' (you may not like the lime yellow foliage, but there are other forms)
Limonium latifolium (an under-used beauty)
Lychnis viscaria
Dwarf bearded irises (much more carefree than the taller ones)
Miniature roses

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 1:34PM
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Campanula UK Z8

Yeah, the 'clips' campanulas are probably the most rubbish so don't use that as any sort of yardstick.

I had a pea moment last year and ordered every variety of lathyrus I could get my hands on - I think the L.vernus, aureum, niger, venetus and sylvestris might be good for you, Woody.

I am not averse to filling gaps with annuals either - nemophila, phacelia, legousia, limnanthes, ursinia, felicia, brachycombe, verbenas, welsh poppies (quite a few poppies, in fact).

There is a particularly nice cerastigma too - low growing with good foliage. Oh yeah, another gorgeous little plant - erodium chrysantha - great foliage and delicate flowers.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 2:11PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

garcan - the only penstemon I have is the rather common Husker's Red. I'm not sure why I haven't tried others; I was just looking at some on the Heritage Perennials site and I'm pretty sure I will find one or two to add to this bed or elsewhere.... Ceratostigma plumbaginoides was a failure here when I tried it a number of years ago! Heather would, like all acid lovers, turn its nose at my garden up I'm sure :-) Golden Arrows would not suit this bed (Rouge is a strong proponent of that one too...) But various suggestions for yellow (flower or foliage) plants on this thread have me thinking about making a 'golden' area in the front bed too - I started one in the back garden last year. There is an area on the north side of the big front bed that desperately needs renovating and the discussion we've been having here has made me think that it might be a place where I could try some of the 'yellow' plants that I otherwise don't have a place for. Another project.... :-)

campanula - L.vernus sounds like it belongs in my woodland garden areas somewhere... added to the shopping list... I'll check out the others you mentioned. Annuals are too much of a PITA :-) I want things that come back on their own - veggies are the only exception to that. I searched for erodium chrysantha and all the sites I found were either UK/Europe or places like California, so it's not a likely one to be found around here by the sounds of it!

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 4:33PM
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(deleted by garcan)

This post was edited by garcan on Thu, Jan 30, 14 at 14:47

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 7:37PM
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