When we look back through photos of our house and surrounding grounds, it’s pretty astounding to see how much things have improved around here. When we began, our lot was a dry-farmed wheat field. There was essentially nothing in the way of protection from both sunlight and wind. Growing plants that needed shade was out of the question. As you can imagine, that seriously limited our options in the way of plant choices.
Like any discipline of life, you learn a lot by simply doing. The work itself teaches you. We had our share of errors along the way, but fortunately the wins added up and we are now enjoying the benefits of our earlier efforts.
As trees and shrubs grew up, this gave us more options both in visual design and the type of plants we could enjoy. There’s nothing like success to make you want to take on more. And we did! You could describe us with this seemingly paradoxical phrase — “ambitiously lazy.” That is, while the vision for our place will always outpace our ability to make it happen, whatever we do, we want to do with the least amount of effort while getting maximum results.
A good example of this is creation of raised beds. We found it’s easier to go up from the ground level than to dig down in. Thanks to generous contributions from our neighbors’ feedlot, with plenty of organic material, it certainly made it easier for us to do so. Putting in irrigation lines is a lot easier too. You can lay the piping on the surface and bury it with rough-out stubs sticking up. It almost feels like cheating!
Having elevated beds helps visual appeal as well. Plantings on sloping hills and mounds look a lot better than on flat surfaces.
Using this approach has allowed us to put in relatively large areas of plantings in a short period of time with impressive results the following season. Visitors comment on how much things have changed — and for the better — in a single season! It’s a gratifying feeling.
Even so, I didn’t pay enough attention to what was going on at the ground level of all these new planting areas. A great environment for landscape plants is also extremely inviting to weeds and other undesirables. It’s a shame there’s no commercial value for morning glory and pigweed. If so, I could fund my next tractor purchase in a season or two!
Not only does the ground need to be covered in such a way to suppress weeds and better contain plantings, but if you could boost color, providing something better to look at than bare soil or bark chips while enhancing moisture retention, wouldn’t that be a winning combination?
I asked my friend Wade Anderson, of Tooele Valley Nursery, for some of his top picks for ground covers. A good ground cover minds its manners, not overcrowding its neighbors, nor using them to climb up and obscure. It should naturalize well, without depending on you to constantly replant new sections. If used in a bed with various trees and shrubs, it should do fine in both sun and shade. And it should have a robust enough root structure to resist wind and water erosion, access moisture efficiently, and adequately anchor the plant — without being so deep rooted that it can’t be pulled if needed to rein it in after several seasons. That’s a LOT to ask for!
So, without further ado, let me present Wade’s picks for ground covers in the Tooele Valley.
Turkish Veronica — Veronica liwanesis — is first on the list. This fast-growing and drought-tolerant Turkish native grows well here, displaying a clean glossy foliage, and plentiful blue flowers that will complement just about any planting. It does well in sun or shade, and blooms spring and fall. You can be sure I’ll be adding some of this in coming seasons!
Next up is Creeping Red Thyme — Thymus praecox ‘Coccineus.’ Some people call this the “walk on me” plant. There are several great thyme varieties but Wade favors this one for its attractive reddish pink flowers in the spring or fall, its ability to grow in full sun or partial shade, drought tolerance, and the low thick mat it forms. Of course, like most thymes, it’s very aromatic when brushed against, stepped on, or cut.
Wade’s next pick is Soapwort — Saponaria ocymoides. This old-world bloomer is right at home here, with its pink blooms in early summer, strong growth, and ability to thrive in sunny and partially shady spots. It’ll form a nice carpet of semi-evergreen foliage that will come back year after year. The name “Soapwort” refers to the sap of the root of some Soapwort varieties, which was once used to make soap.
Also on Wade’s list are Sedum and Ice Plant (Delosperma). There are many, many varieties. These are succulent plants, meaning they have thick, waxy leaf structures. Moisture is efficiently retained and helps make them extremely drought-tolerant. They will do well in sunny, drier areas of your yard. In fact, they don’t like “wet feet,” and too much water will lead to their demise much more quickly than the lack of it. Although perennial, there will likely be some die-back during the winter. Don’t worry though; they will come roaring to life in spring.
There are other advantages to these types of plants. They are very easy to propagate from cuttings. That means when you get some favorite varieties going, it will be easy to plant in other locations around your place as well. They are also available in a variety of colors and have great-looking foliage in many shapes and colors. And they act as a great fire barrier due to the high moisture content in their leaves and stems. With recent community events, this is something to take notice of.
That brings us to Dead Nettle — Lamium. This attractive plant comes in many variations with beautiful foliage and a summer blooming habit. It is best suited for shade or partial-shade areas. It will spread readily, but is not invasive. If given adequate moisture, it will venture into sunny areas. Dead Nettle can also be propagated with the spreading runners it produces. It is mat-forming, and grows to be about 6-8 inches tall.
And there you have it. These are five of Wade’s favorite picks, and there are plenty more out there to choose from. However, you would be hard-pressed to go wrong with any of these!
I have one addition to the list. I have a patch of Plumbago — Ceratostigma plumbaginoides (say THAT fast three times!) that took me awhile to identify (another reason to keep a gardening journal!). This ground cover has been very reliable, and spreads out a moderate amount each year via rhizomes. It’s well-behaved, and puts out a nice display of blue blooms mid to late summer. Later, in the fall, the foliage will turn reddish. It does fine in the full sun and also in partial shade under our trees and shrubs. It is very cold-hardy and drought-resistant. I highly recommend it.
So, if you’ve got great trees and shrubs going, but are over-dependent on bark chips, mulches, or landscaping cloth, I heartily commend these ground covers to your thinking. All of them will benefit your garden space, a beautiful understory to your taller plants and trees. This approach looks more natural, and creates a more complete and sustainable ecosystem in your yard. And these great additions can be used in open spaces as well. If you do, be sure to mix them up using various types to pump up the visual interest. You will be happy with the results, but I assure you that the weeds won’t be!
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.