What to do with dry shade? Try ground covers

Garden Chat

Mention the term “ground cover” and many gardeners visibly tense. There is a change in body language as visions of goutweed and ribbon grass come to mind. Quite literally, ground covers are plants that cover ground – often aggressively and without inhibition. When planted where they don’t belong – in a border or a rock garden – they soon take over.

But in the right location, they solve landscape problems rather than creating them. Consider dry shade. The worst scenario? The shade below a spruce tree. Use ground covers. They survive with little maintenance and sometimes provide a long season interest through colour and texture.

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Amend the planting holes with organic matter and mulch thoroughly between the plants. Water deeply during their first growing season. Once established, they should do just fine.

Here are some prairie hardy ground covers to consider:

Bergenia, pig squeak (bergenia cordifolia), is one of the most adaptable ground covers for the prairies, equally at home in sun or shade. It’s called pig squeak because that’s the sound one hears if the leaves are rubbed between thumb and forefinger. The large round leathery leaves, 30 to 45 centimetres in height, remain attractive throughout the growing season, turning a purple-red in the fall. Tiny waxy pink flowers are produced on short spikes in the spring.

False Solomon’s seal (smilacina stellata) is amazingly drought tolerant if put to the test (as I found when I accidently moved one to an area that is never watered). White, star-like flowers are produced in early May. Only 30 centimetres in height, the light green leaves turn golden in fall.

Siberian barren strawberry (waldsteinia ternata) is a plant that deserves much greater availability in our garden centres and nurseries. It’s tough, good looking, hardy and adaptable to sun or shade. The common name, Siberian barren strawberry, speaks volumes. It’s ruggedly hardy, barren (do not expect it to produce fruit) and its leaves resemble those of the strawberry (glossy green leaves in clusters of three). Only 10 to 15 centimetres in height, it’s equally at home in sun or shade, with or without water. Small, bright yellow flowers bloom from late spring to early summer.

Western Canada violet (viola canadensis), native to the woodlands of the prairie provinces, is a hardy, enduring and attractive groundcover for dry shade. Fragrant white flowers with a yellow eye and distinct purple-pink veins appear in late spring and early summer above heart-shaped foliage.

Sem false spirea (sorbaria sorbifolia sem) is a fairly recent addition to our arsenal of ground covers and survives in deep shade with little water once established. It emerges in the spring with startling pink-orange-golden foliage mingled with lime green, brightening even the gloomiest shade. Pinnately compound leaves and white feathery flowers in late summer add to its landscape value. About one metre in height, it will eventually form a continuous understory (ideal below taller trees) through suckering. (As attractive as the foliage appears in a nursery pot in spring, don’t be fooled into thinking that it will be well behaved in a shrub border. It will be out of bounds within a season. Use it as intended: as a ground cover.)

Virginia creeper (parthenoccissus quinquefolia), a vine with large palmately-compound leaves, also works as a groundcover, particularly on slopes. It is most admired for its brilliant scarlet fall foliage that will be subdued in shade. Inconspicuous flowers are followed by small blue berries that resemble grapes.

Sara Williams is the author and coauthor of many books including Gardening Naturally with Hugh Skinner, Creating the Prairie Xeriscape and, with Bob Bors, the recently published Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens. She continues to give workshops on a wide range of gardening topics throughout the prairies.

— This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society (SPS; saskperennial@hotmail.com ). Check our website (www.saskperennial.ca) or Facebook page (www.facebook.com/saskperennial) for a list of upcoming gardening events: July 15, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. – Lilies in Bloom at Honeywood Nursery near Parkside; July 15, 16, 17 - Saskatchewan Horticultural Association Bus Tour, contact Sheila Glennie 306 338 7304 sheglennie@gmail.com.


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