Ground cover

gregoryjohn(z4b/IL)October 30, 2005

With fall well under way and winter fast approaching I have taken to indoor projects, but, the garden is never far from my thoughts. One of the nagging problems that I just haven't been able to find a solution to is the ground cover issue. I live in USDA zone 4b. I would like to find a ground cover as short as possible that will survive ours winters (extra points for evergreen). Growing true mosses is probably not an option at this point as there is no shade. With a seemingly short list of plants, I am more interested at first to find suitable species and worry about leaf color and luminosity later. If everyone could be so kind as to share their thoughts and experiences that would be great!

Thank you!


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Hi Greg ---

We regularly transplant haircap moss (Polytrichum) from sunny locations to other sunny spots. We look for construction or logging sites (ideally about a year old) where most of the trees have been removed. There are usually pockets of Polytrichum which have survived and are growing in pretty much full sun. These adapt perfectly to other sunny locations, and it's usually easy to get permission to remove them because the site is pretty much trashed anyway.

Here are some others we use regularly in full sun in Japanese gardens here in Maine:

Empetrum nigrum (Zone 3) - Crowberry - looks great around rocks.

Arctostaphylos uva-ursa (Zone 3) - Bearberry - spreads fast to produce fabulous evergreen groundcover.

Both need excellent drainage and are best planted in a rock-garden type soil.

That's just a start. We use lots of native plants in our Japanese-inspired gardens, and they tend to be suitable for zones colder than our Zone 5.


    Bookmark   October 30, 2005 at 10:35AM
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Hi Greg,
Take a look at what I use instead of moss because I cannot grow moss at least not as a ground cover I can grow small quantities for my bonsai but that's about all,just click on this link .or copy and paste.

Here is a link that might be useful: George's Japanese Garden

    Bookmark   October 30, 2005 at 4:26PM
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Gardener_KS(zone 5 KS)

You could use liriope. I have seen it used in Japan in traditional gardens and I have incorporated it into my garden in several areas. There are clumping (Liriope muscari) and running (Liriope spicata) varieties. I also use Ophiopogon japonicus (dwarf mondo grass), which I have also seen in Japan, but I don't think it would be hardy for you.

    Bookmark   October 30, 2005 at 9:32PM
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Hi Lee,

Thanks for the great suggestions. With regards to the Empetrum nigrum, and the Arctostaphylos uva-ursa, how much does the flowering and berries, detract from the view? Do the berries and spent flowers create a maintenance problem? Any other choices come to mind? :)

George, your garden is very nice but the information I have found on the internet regarding Soleirolii and Saxafraga suggest that usda zone 7 is the coldest they would go. I am looking for cold hardy species. Still, I appreciate your help!

Gardener, thanks for the liniope suggestion. I can see it for small areas. As for the mondo grass I think your right about it not being hardy here. I believe Jando had some in her garden (she's about 20 miles from me) but I have not heard how it handled the winter, mild as it was.

So far I am still holding out hope that I can find a very short, cold hardy, full sun ground cover with inconspicuous flowers.

Gardenberry, what does your garden use? Edzard, surely you have tackled this problem.

I do appreciate everyones help and ideas. If I can provide more information that would help in your recommendations let me know.



    Bookmark   November 1, 2005 at 7:38AM
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Hi Greg ---

The Empetrum has inconspicuous flowers and has small black berries that blend in with the foliage. The Arctostaphylos has fabulous, small, glossy leaves and inconspicuous flowers. It does have red berries in the fall, but to me they don't look at all out of place in a Japanese-inspired garden.

Another good one with completely inconspicuous flowers and fruit is Paxistima canbyi, "hardy to Zone 4 or 5" (according to "Perennial Groundcovers" by David S. Mackenzie --- a good reference, by the way). It spreads nicely and is easy to grow.

Another good option is Vaccinium macrocarpon (Zone 1) (which also does have red berries --- but it works for me).


    Bookmark   November 1, 2005 at 8:25PM
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I don't think anybody's mentioned Wintergreen - (Gaultheria procumbens) - I don't know how it fares in Illinois, but it comes from the eastern U.S. We have some & it's making a nice ground cover, though slowly, compared with things like Ajuga.

    Bookmark   November 1, 2005 at 10:25PM
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I also use Gaultheria (wintergreen), but it needs shade and Greg said he has none. If you have shade, it opens up a whole new range of possibilities.


    Bookmark   November 2, 2005 at 1:59PM
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Sorry, I missed the lack of shade. How about one of the Bearberry Cotoneasters - Cotoneaster dammeri? Some of them are quite low-growing - e.g. the variety 'Coral Beauty'. They grow fast & the Western Gardening Book says they like full sun.

    Bookmark   November 2, 2005 at 2:31PM
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gardenberry(z5 IL)

We use various groundcovers, some do better in sun, some in part-shade and some full shade.

Sedum sarmentosum
Sedum sexangulare
Euonymus fortunei 'Minimus'
Muehlenbeckia axillaris
Sagina subulata
Thymus x praecox 'Annie Hall'
Hernaria glabra

Hope this helps. If you have any questions about any of them, send me an email.


    Bookmark   November 2, 2005 at 3:58PM
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gardenberry(z5 IL)

One thing you need to know about these other suggestions (Gaultheria, Arctostaphylos, etc.) is that they require somewhat acidic soils with good drainage. In Chicagoland area, that is extremely rare. If you have the right kind of soil, though, Arctostaphylos and Paxistima are great plants, just not very groundcover-y. They tend to be more shrubby. Somewhere in my many files, I have a list of more groundcover potentials.

You have to watch out for the very invasive stuff that is still being offered on the market - avoid Lysimachia nummularia at all costs, for one.


    Bookmark   November 2, 2005 at 4:02PM
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Hi Lee, Herb, Gardenberry.

Thanks so much for your recommendations. I have looked up a number of them and will be reading about them and hopefully others through out the winter months. It's only half way through fall and already I am anxious for spring. If anyone else has any suggestions please add to this thread. I am sure that I am not the only one interested in various plants for ground covers.

Thanks again.


    Bookmark   November 2, 2005 at 11:23PM
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Jando_1(Zone 5 IL)

Hi Greg
Try Vrnoica 'Repens'
cheers Jando

    Bookmark   November 3, 2005 at 7:48AM
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Jando_1(Zone 5 IL)

sorry left out the E

    Bookmark   November 3, 2005 at 8:18AM
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Gardener_KS(zone 5 KS)

I am using epimedium in one area of my Asian-inspired garden. It is slowly spreading and doesn't seem fazed by drought or extreme heat/cold.

Here is a link that might be useful: epimedium

    Bookmark   November 5, 2005 at 10:37AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Hernaria glabra is also very convincingly argued for in the thread linked below for a different reason, same effect.

Here is a link that might be useful: another ground cover thread

    Bookmark   November 5, 2005 at 3:21PM
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Several years ago I trialed Herniaria glabra, Thymus praecox 'Minus', Mazus reptans, Thymus serphyllum 'Magic Carpet', Thymus serphyllum 'Elfin' and Sagina subulata for potential use as groundcovers in Japanese gardens. All were planted in slight shade (mostly sun). I'm in Zone 5b.

The best of the batch was the Herniaria, but it then died out completely during the second winter. It's supposed to be hardy in Zones 5 to 10, but it died here and I would definitely not try it in Zone 4.

The thymes all bloomed too much to look good in a Japanese garden, in my opinion. I had read somewhere that 'Elfin' was good for Japanese gardens in full sun, but I would not use it or any of the others.

The Mazus was always scraggly-looking and also bloomed too much.

The Sagina was quite good, and it's the only one I'm still using. It does have little white blossoms, but if you can stand it while it's blooming it looks great and spreads well. It does have a tendency to die out, but it is famous for replacing itself with --- moss.


    Bookmark   November 6, 2005 at 1:41PM
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edzard(3b Canada)

I seem to be stopping too many threads, :. it seems best to reply late or not at all. sorry.
Silene acaulis, (moss campion) 3 spp. white-pink or scarlet (Walawala mtns.) flowers, 2-5cm, evergreen, gritty welldrained soil
Antennaria, (pussy toes) (McClintok = white, 5 - 10cm, @ 10cm = dioica 'rubra') , needs welldrained poor dry soil.
Cerastium tomentosum - Snow-in-summer, well drained poor soil, 15-20cm and 'Mouse-eared chickweed'...
Salix repens, 30cm,... tolerant of almost everything.
-and my favourite for such location, Potentilla tridentata under two spp names, 'Nuuk' and or 'Nootka', matforming evergreen shrub from Greenland, key being - dry soil, 8 to 10cm high with 45cm wide, faint white flowers almost inconspicuous, needs light, not shade. almost glossy, 'clean' looking leaves that seem to resist dust.

and of course, under junipers, richly moist looking darker green Buffalo juniper enjoying dry conditions, averaging 3cm high occasionally growing a mound to 15cm, easy to clean non prickly, however does not stand up to heavy foot traffic.

    Bookmark   November 6, 2005 at 2:27PM
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Hi Edzard --- What is this mysterious Buffalo juniper of which you speak?

...and I second the recommendations of the P. tridentata and Salix repens. With the salix you have to keep on top of it to prevent its looking scraggly (or maybe "wild" is a better word), but it loves to be pruned and is very easy to propagate, too --- just take your pruning scraps and stick them in a pot or in the ground somewhere. Cutting off everything that wants to grow "up" is a good idea if you're using it as a groundcover.


    Bookmark   November 7, 2005 at 7:24AM
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edzard(3b Canada)

'buffalo' is a not often used 'sabina', here is the best link I could find, since some photo's were tamarisfolia or the cruder sabina's.
It most closely resembles and is derived from the softer native junipers that we have in the foothills, montane and lower mountains before Banff or the Crowsnest.
Recommend remembering that juniper is to some degree like pine, that a smaller needle will beget a smaller needle, larger vertical growth will gain a taller plant. I find them quite variable since they will cross readily with other junipers in the vicinity.

Here is a link that might be useful: buffalo juniper from Sunny Gardens

    Bookmark   November 8, 2005 at 12:34PM
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gardenberry(z5 IL)

Most correct name, I believe is Juniperus sabina 'Buffalo'. It really needs dryness. In our poorly drained soil, it looks horrible.

I disagree about the flowering thyme. It's an eye catcher for a short time in my garden, people ask my about it constantly, but my seasonals and I take the hedge shears to it periodically to keep the flowers and stems in check, so it isn't a very profuse flowerer and it's a nice, mid-summer cheer-up, much the way the azaleas and magnolias are in spring - the still bloom a bit, even though they've been pruned. I, personally, don't mind it. What I object to is when you have more than one thing blooming at once, together. I'd rather focus attention on the one flowering plant at that time, appreciate it's beauty, then move on back to serene-green.


    Bookmark   November 8, 2005 at 4:40PM
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Hi edzard. Thanks for the suggestions. I've not heard of Juniperus Sabina 'Buffalo'. It sounds interesting but Gardenberry's experiences concern me. I am only about 90 miles from there. I also have had some spider mite problems on some dwarf japanese junipers.

I like your idea regarding the Sagina. I may give that a try. Do you think it would be better to buy seeds or nursery stock? Thanks again for you input.

Gardenberry, I am sorry I have not been out to meet you and see what you have done with the garden. Maybe I can con Jando into lugging her husband out there with me and my wife for a 'field' trip next spring. Thanks for your input. :)


    Bookmark   November 9, 2005 at 11:22PM
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gardenberry(z5 IL)

I'd be happy to meet you, Greg, and give you and your wife a tour. I have lots of fun with Jando and her husband.

In order to get a specific cultivar of a conifer, you have to get a cutting. Buy seed and you could end up with something shrubby instead of a groundcover. So, buy the cultivar you want as a plant.

Look forward to seeing you. Just email me when you want to come this way for a visit. We're under construction right now, but the garden remains open and beautiful as long as you ignore the chainlink fence.


    Bookmark   November 10, 2005 at 8:03AM
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patjonking(z7 VA)

gregory john,
Some mosses grow in full sun. You don't necessarily need shade. However I'd imagine that the GC's mentioned above are probably better anyway.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2005 at 12:53PM
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pugfeathers(5b Ohio)

Hi All,
I have been quite pleased with Juniper horazontilus "Blue rug" in my garden. It spreds quickly, but is easy to control. It withstands full sun and drought, and it takes on a very nice purple tinge in winter. I planted it where there used to be grass and compacted soil and it has done very well.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2005 at 5:59PM
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Dave_WA(8 WA)

I hope you don't mind if I resurrect this thread to keep everything in the same place. I'm in the Seattle area, zone 8, with wet winters and dry summers. I'm looking for a groundcover for mostly full sun. The only complication is that my soil is pretty much hardpan - to plant anything I pretty much need to take a pick to it and then add topsoil, and that isn't practical for a large area. I could add some topsoil on the top if the groundcover isn't too deeply rooted. I was wondering if sagina or creeping thyme would do OK if I just added a couple of inches of topsoil on top of what I have now. Or I could dig planting holes for herniaria - since that spreads well I wouldn't have to dig a really large number. Any suggestions?

    Bookmark   September 9, 2008 at 3:11PM
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