Let’s Start with Native Ground Covers

People! Evolve with the Times in Your Garden
Ben Porchuk

There’s a great saying that goes, ‘the silence between the notes is what makes the music.’ In gardening, this is also true. How we design our gardens to highlight the individual plant, log, or rock features often conveys clearer ‘music’ with proper spacing and botanical feng shui. That said, in some places ground cover can significantly change the feel of a garden space, adding much needed contrast to more manicured areas, and when harnessing native plants, we can accomplish hundreds of positive impacts all at once. Hundreds? Oh yes, but…

Before we get to specific ground covers, I have to put my hawthorn staff down on the earth and say, an evolved garden in this day in age, pays more homage to the native plant than having a few Ostrich ferns thickening the greenery in certain relegated margins of your garden spread. Really, evolved? Isn’t it just really a preference or desire to choose to either have the big, long-lasting colourful blooms of the latest horticultural variety in addition to the long-established doors open gardens tour caliber, show-stoppers, compared to the dull-green, seldom in flower, itty bitty natives (first of all, the perceptions need to change through education and promotion of the many beauties of native plants…many are colourful, some have long bloom times, and many are large…! – there, myth busted…)?

Yes and no. It’s still a choice indeed. And…given what we’ve learned about the importance of native plants, gardening for wildlife, and the need to badly bolster our degraded urban ecology systems, green space design and creations at home are urgently required to take notice of and address these critical issues head on. The good news is, we can do it all while still creating gorgeous, inviting, and highly functioning ecological spaces.

Back to ground covers – almost. We have almost established why your selection needs to start including many native plants…before we fully delve into that, let’s talk about what it means to be Climate Smart. It’s not just some buzz phrase, though I have to agree it is a bit snappy to say. The point is, now is the time to make some great choices for the pocket book, for future generations… for the Earth, to cool down the warming trend. Simply put, a Climate Smart Garden is great for the climate. This means, the gardening effort doesn’t rely on consist watering (which saves money and time), it doesn’t create more greenhouse gases than the that which it sequesters. “Oh, but it’s just one yard,” you might say about your desire to use a non-native like English Ivy, Goutweed, or Periwinkle. Yes, yours is one yard, living in cities with millions of people – imagine the amplifying affect of the shift in action by the masses.

Rolling this into something tangible…a Climate Smart Garden uses locally adapted species that, with little efforts, self-perpetuate with very little effort. Ground covers are an important element of this. Barren soil, or even that covered with woodchips, mulch, or even stone are highly prone to erosion. Loss of soils cost billions annually, and individually, it forces you into more work and expense to maintain your garden. Ground covers does a few things to prevent this. Ground cover roots create a strong ‘glue’ of bacteria in the soil around the root systems. By creating a dense cover of plant matter over the soil, the blow from rain drops are softened, creating a protective blanket around the earth. Further, unlike non-native ground covers, native ground covers provide important foods of our native insects, thereby creating a ripe foundation for rebuilding our urban ecology.

Here are my picks for great native ground covers to last throughout the season, to provide flowering, soil holding, and wonderful plants, totally in alignment with Climate Smart Gardening, that boosts our urban ecology:

Running Strawberry (Euonymus obovatus)

This is actually a woody plant, or a small vine that creeps along the forest floor, eventually gaining in density. It has tiny yellowish-green flowers, which turn into gorgeous round, pinkish-orange fruit that open into a four-seeded berry.

Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis)

A small herbaceous plant, this species is about the height of a Trillium, but has serrated leaves and a beautiful round white flower. It will form dense colonies and is so effective as a ground cover, it will ground around and within most things you have planted…and so some maintenance will be required if you want it only in certain areas.

Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum)

A soft herbaceous plant with triangular-shaped leaves, the muted purple-blue flowers are beautiful. It is not super vigorous in it’s ability to get around, but it can easily cover a good parking space section in a few years if left to ‘move.’ It is similar in size to Canada Anemone.

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)

Heart-shaped lime green leaves are the prominent feature in this plant which can grow thick patches of dense foliate. The flowers are burgundy and rest on the ground, being pollinated by ants. Growing more slowly than the above listed plants, this species can be divided easily, with shallow roots, you can mover it around the garden quickly.

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)

An amazing deciduous evergreen, this is a tiny shrub with waxy green leaves the size of one’s pinky finger native. Beautiful, minute pink flowers turn into edible bright red berries. I have seen some sections of Partridgeberry covering large swaths of areas in and around pine, spruce or hemlock trees.

Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa)

A very small-leaved plant with a delicate white flower, the soft texture and simple leaf lobes of the leaves of this plant add a gorgeous accent to any garden.

Each of these plants of course like specific habitats. The best way to assess is to try them out in your garden after doing a little more research on their requirements. If possible, get some soils that come from someone who has a well established native plant garden. This effectively inoculates your soil, adding much needed soil diversity that will support your new ground covers in helping to get them established.

Good luck, go native with your ground covers, stay Climate Smart in doing so, and like the expression, ‘Two Mangoes, One Stone,” you’ll be saving the world one right action at a time!

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