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Garden Talk

A thick planting of dwarf white iris

By Katherine Hale

Marketing & Communications Assistant

Close-up of five-petalled blue flowers of leadwort.

There is no such thing as a zero-maintenance garden. Every kind of human-controlled landscape, from sprawling estates to farm fields to the tiniest backyard postage stamp or balcony, requires some upkeep after its initial creation—the only question is whether that necessary labor is a good fit for the personalities, lifestyles and circumstances involved. One gardener’s most despised task is another’s favorite, but as long as you’re honest with yourself, it’s possible to design a beautiful landscape consistent with your budget (time, energy and/or money) and your values.

A zero-maintenance garden may be an impossible dream, but a low- or lower-maintenance garden is completely achievable. To this end, gardeners and landscape designers use a number of strategies to minimize their long-term workload—including reducing the amount of land they have to actively manage by planting groundcovers.

“Groundcover” is a catch-all term for any quickly spreading plant capable of expanding and filling a wide area over time, eventually forming a dense living carpet that completely covers the ground, leaving no space for any unwanted competitors. In theory, this includes lawn grasses, which perform a similar function; in practice, “groundcover” generally refers to non-turf species, which includes perennial bunchgrasses, sedges, ferns and a wide variety of low-growing herbaceous perennials. Beyond that, it’s difficult to generalize—the exact properties of a groundcover depend on the species in question.

Thus, choosing a groundcover can be tricky, as there are a wide variety of possibilities and considerations. Your ideal choice will depend on the site, the larger landscape around it and the needs and desires of the people involved. Bunchgrasses tend to be on the taller side, while low-growing plants like creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) can fit between paving stones.  Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) can withstand a certain amount of foot traffic that many other species cannot. Leadwort (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) thrives in full sun, ferns like shade, and green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) can do both. Most sedges (Carex spp.) like wet feet, but there are a few outliers that prefer it dry. Then there are aesthetics to consider, and the relationship of the groundcover to the rest of the space—the list goes on and on.

Some groundcovers are native to North America, like partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) and crested iris (Iris cristata), and thus provide food and shelter for pollinators and other wildlife. Many other groundcovers, such as Japanese mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) and lilyturf (Liriope muscari), are introduced. Some commonly grown groundcovers, such as English ivy (Hedera helix), are invasive and should not be planted in the ground—the line between a plant that grows quickly and one that grows too quickly is often a narrow one.

Although groundcovers are usually intended to reduce the amount of overall maintenance, plantings often require hand-weeding any unwanted volunteers (especially grasses) until they are fully established—ditto for watering, especially in dry periods. They also need to be kept clear of leaves, which can block the light and kill the plants. However, with a little forethought, care and elbow grease, especially at the outset, it’s possible to create a thriving single-species colony that will mostly take care of itself over time—a much more efficient ratio of effort to results in the long run.

Learn more: Shannon Currey of Izel Native Plants will teach Low-Resource Landscaping Series: Covering Ground with Plants on site at Duke Gardens on Friday, Nov.10, from 10 a.m. to noon. The program is for gardeners or aspiring gardeners at all levels. Read more about this class and others on our program registration site.

More Garden Talk Highlights

Photos from top: Dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata), by Clarence Burke; close-up of leadwort flowers (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) in the Doris Duke Center Gardens, by Jessica Voss; and a thick groundcover of liriope (Liriope muscari) beneath an ornamental cherry in the Historic Gardens, by Cathi Bodine. 

close-up of a grassy liriope groundcover