Keep the ground green in winter

Sunday, February 5, 2006

What's a prettier color in winter: brown or green? Green, of course!

And that's a good reason to blanket the ground with evergreen plants. Seas and islands of low growing greenery knit the scene together in informal and formal gardens.

The big three of evergreen groundcovers are vinca, pachysandra, and English ivy. But also consider other shapes and shades of green with which to paint the ground.

For instance, suppose you wanted a delicate evergreen groundcover for a garden usually enjoyed up close -- bordering a doorway, for instance. Dainty leaves would be the ticket, just what you would find on plants such as wintergreen, bearberry, partridgeberry, lingonberry, and cranberry. They also all bear charming little flowers in spring and summer.

There's more: these plants also yield -- as their names imply -- berries. The berries look pretty against their green backdrops, and, unless eaten by animals, can persist all winter. If you want to grow something that you could eat as well, grow lingonberry, cranberry, or winterberry and munch on them yourself all winter.

Many evergreen groundcover plants, including some of those mentioned above, are native to the dappled shade of our eastern woodlands. These plants also like soils that are acidic and rich in humus. Create these conditions by digging peat moss into the ground or individual planting holes, then keep the ground permanently mulched with organic materials such as shredded leaves, sawdust, or wood chips. Fertilize lightly or else you will burn the tender roots or encourage more aggressive competitor plants.

Some sites cry out for bold rather than dainty plants. Here you need greenery with larger leaves, oconee bells, for instance, a Southeast native with round, toothed leaves. Expect these leaves to redden in winter. Some other plants with bolder leaves include European ginger and bugleweed, although either of these may lose their leaves during a cold winter. Give these large-leaved evergreens the same humus-y, moist, acidic conditions specified for winterberry and company.

In full sun and dry soil, look for plants that are really evergray or everblue than evergreen. The waxy or woolly coverings on their leaves helps reduce water loss in winter. Lavender and santolina are two such plants. Thymes are also adapted to these conditions. Caraway thyme has tiny, tiny leaves that stay pressed right against the ground; common thyme rises a half-foot or so above the ground.

In contrast to the shade-tolerating groundcovers mentioned earlier, these sun-lovers need well-drained soils with plenty of limestone to counteract acidity.

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