By Bruce Crawford, State Program Leader in Home and Public Horticulture, NJAES, NJNLA
Several years ago, I attended a plant conference where I was honored to be a presenter. Following the talk, a lady approached me in the hallway and mentioned how she was uncertain as to whether I was a presenter until she looked at my shoes. An odd comment I thought, but I began to wonder – can you tell a gardener by their shoes? In my case, they were well-worn loafers, undoubtedly in need of polish. They were comfortable and reflected how I prefer to garden. My garden is relaxed and I prefer groundcovers to smother the weeds over hours of laborious ‘weeding’. Preferable to mulch, groundcovers offer many flowering options to brighten the spring garden.
A phenomenal groundcover for shade is Epimedium, commonly known as Barrenwort. Epimedium species are native from the Caucasus East to Japan with flower colors ranging from white through yellow, pink and purple. The flowers adorn the plant in April into May on 10 to 36″ tall stems! The 10-14″ tall foliage is linear to heart-shaped, often possessing red highlights in spring. Some species have attractive soft spines along the leaf margin such as Epimedium wushanense ‘Sandy Claws’ (pictured at top), while others have a smooth leaf margin. Most selections spread moderately by rhizomes to create dense and long-lived colonies that are extraordinarily drought tolerant! Epimedium x perralchicum ‘Frohnleiten’ has been my long-time favorite for shaded and sunnier locations. The large yellow flowers have a dark orange center and attractive foliage year-round. There have been numerous recent introductions that highlight wonderful foliage with larger flowers. For example, ‘Amber Queen’ (shown on right) is a 2006 introduction with long spurred yellow flowers reaching 1½” in diameter on willowy stems up to 30″ tall! Another large flowered form introduced in 2004 is ‘Domino’. The flowers sport long white spurs with a maroon flower tip that are abundantly arranged along 24″ tall stems. Clearly, no woodland garden should be without Epimedium!
Another wonderful woodland groundcover is Crested Iris, Iris cristata. Native to central regions of Eastern United States, the plants prefer humus rich, well-drained soils. They are tolerant of calcareous or acidic soils and are hardy from zones 3-8. The plants display 3″ diameter flowers ranging from 4-6″ tall in late April into May. The foliage subsequently extends to 6-12″ tall and effectively hides the
seed pods from predation. The flowers range in color from light to dark blue, purple, white and rarely pink. One of my personal favorites is ‘Powder Blue Giant’ whose large, yet soft blue flowers look great in shade or dappled shade! On average, foliage is a rich green throughout the summer, turning yellow come autumn before vanishing for the winter. The plants spread by rhizomes and create a broad, mat-like groundcover.
Not to be outdone, Cranesbill or Hardy Geraniums also makes an impressive groundcover. One of my long-standing favorites is Geranium macrorrhizum or Bigroot Geranium, which does feature thick rhizomatous stems appearing much like a root. Spreading fairly quickly, the maple-like foliage has an attractive fragrance when disturbed that is also effective for keeping deer at bay. Come late April into May, the plants display attractive pink to magenta flowers (as seen on left) and in late autumn through winter, the foliage is painted with splashes of oranges, purples and reds. Best grown in light shade or moist sunny areas. Another Geranium that has been receiving great reviews is Geranium x ‘Rozanne’. It offers attractive blue flowers that continue to open throughout the summer on sprawling stems. Unlike its big rooted cousin, it prefers sun and has a more open habit, allowing it to be worked in with a companion groundcover. I recently saw it nicely coexisting with our native, rosy purple flowered Clinopodium vulgare or Wild Basil; I thought the color combination between the two, as well as their ability to attract Hawk Moths was noteworthy.
These are but a few of the many plants that will help ease the burden of weeding while providing spring color. They also reduce the need to mulch. Indeed, I suppose gardeners can be recognized by their shoes!