I came across a meme recently that really spoke to me. It dealt with the most agonizing part of maintaining a garden, weeding. But it showed a different perspective on the matter, even celebrated it. It likened the act of pulling a weed out by the roots to removing an enemy’s spine (think the movie, Predator.) That resonates more than it should with me.
So, let’s talk about making the chore of weeding less traumatic. I am approaching this in a more organic fashion because I try to steer clear of chemicals and toxic methods. One of the best ways to suppress weeds is by planting more of the things you want and forcing the weeds to compete with the other items in your garden. Enter groundcovers.
The typical groundcovers traditionally used in our area include ivy and pachysandra. Both these plants are non-native and considered invasive, plus they contribute nothing to our local ecosystem. There is a native pachysandra called Allegheny Spurge, but it’s more at home in a woodland environment than in the coastal community we have here.
There are plenty of suitable alternatives to ivy and pachysandra. Wild ginger is a great selection for shady areas, as is Virginia creeper. Virginia creeper is actually a vine that is a great food source for numerous birds and turns a brilliant red color in the fall. These are both native plants deserving more attention in our private landscapes.
Think outside the box, too. Just because the word is “groundcover” doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be six inches from the ground. Consider slightly taller perennials and spreading shrubs to fill in the gaps in your garden.
Threadleaf coreopsis is probably my most go-to, no-fuss perennial for a groundcover. It tolerates dry conditions due to its low transpiration rate of the threadlike leaves. It provides an abundance of color all summer long, and spreads throughout the garden. It can get up to 12 to 18 inches in height. Massing it together under flowering trees or in the perennial border makes a huge impact. Coreopsis is also salt-tolerant, so it is perfectly at home in the coastal garden.
For a shadier woodland garden, try foamflower. Its heart-shaped leaves remind me of coral bells but they only grow to be six to 12 inches in height. New cultivars have varying shades of colors on the leaves. They produce spikes of white flowers in spring and spread easily in rich, moist soils. A combination of foamflower and wild ginger is a great way to use texture and color in the garden.
Looking for a woody shrub to help suppressing weeds? Look no further. There are tons of creeping junipers on the market that will do just that. However, there are also some non-traditional shrubs that can help too. Lowbush blueberries that grow 18 to 24 inches tall can be used as a type of groundcover. Not only do they grow well in sandy soils, but they also provide an abundance of fruit and turn beautiful shades of reds and purples in the fall. A three-season winner in the garden.
Keep an eye out for selections of other shrubs that work double-duty in the garden, providing color and beauty but also help to suppress weeds. There is a low-growing variety of St. Johns Wort that comes to mind. In addition, selections of cotoneaster also spread along the ground. They produce flowers in spring, dainty fine-textured leaves in summer, and decorative berries in fall.
Other options for groundcovers include the native bearberry (NOT barberry), American wintergreen, native ferns, and native sedges like oak sedge.
It’s time to try something new when it comes to groundcovers. Or, should I say bring back what nature has always been providing us in our native ecosystems.
Stay well and let’s garden together.
Eric W. Wahl is a landscape architect, artist, and president of the Delaware Native Plant Society.