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Small Plants Can Cover a Lot of Ground

November 01, 1986|ROBERT SMAUS | Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Planting ground covers may seem too big a project to tackle on a weekend, especially if you have not recovered from trick-or-treaters, or if your idea of ground covers is a substitute for a lawn. But think of them simply as ground coverers, and you will see all sorts of places to plant them on a manageable scale.

In the morning while it's still foggy and dewy, stroll through the garden and notice how much bare earth shows--between every shrub and under older trees and shrubs, in awkward, narrow areas next to walks and driveways and between stepping stones. Planting these spots can make a tremendous difference in how the garden looks. It could be the single most effective home improvement--rivaling painting the house--and a perfect weekend project.

It is largely the lack of bare earth that makes picture-perfect gardens look that way. And in my book, this is the best use for plants sold as ground covers. They are a tough lot, or they wouldn't be sold for covering large expanses and, though this is their traditional use, I find them more useful for covering much smaller areas. There, they are easier to weed (weeds being the nemesis of ground covers) or replace (since many, such as gazanias, have a habit of dying out in spots).

Though it has only rained once so far this fall, the likelihood of rain is one good reason to plant ground covers in the fall, especially if they are simply tucked here and there as I am suggesting. Diligence is required to keep them watered, but about the time you are getting tired of this task along comes winter's storms (with any luck at all) to relieve you. Even without rain, it takes so long for the soil to dry at this time of the year that you needn't water very often. However, because ground covers are planted from flats, they have shallow root systems and may dry out well before the rest of the soil does. To be safe, water every few days the first week or so.

Ground Covers Displayed

I was reminded of ground covers by a visit last week to Roger's Gardens in Newport Beach. Better known for their fantastic, flower-filled hanging baskets, they also have a respectable selection of ground covers, sold by the flat, and a bank that is planted with all the different kinds available at the nursery, so you can see how they look. All those new homes in Irvine and those steep hillsides in Corona del Mar and Laguna undoubtedly account for the emphasis on ground covers, but it's a good place to see ground covers for the use we have in mind.

You'll instantly notice that several ground covers are disqualified for small-scale use because they trail or spread too much. But you'll also see many that are admirably suited. My favorite is ajuga because it has pretty leaves colored a slightly metallic burgundy or bronze, and the leaves are large enough to make an impression. Lew Whitney, the man in charge of Roger's, favors a cultivar named "Jungle Bronze" that has unusually large leaves. It's his favorite, and when he was designing gardens, you could find it tucked here and there in every plan, as you now can in my garden.

Ajuga has the added benefit of growing in sun or shade, though it is happiest somewhere in between.

In shade, good ground coverers are baby's tears (though they should be kept away from the bases of trees and shrubs) and blue star creeper. The former likes deep shade, the latter a little less. And, if you can find it, Australian violet, which looks like a large-leaved dichondra but always has lovely white and violet flowers standing above.

Cape Weed Indestructible

In sun, it is hard to beat gazanias, though you could try the similar Arctotheca calendula , aptly named cape weed, if you want an indestructible ground cover for the back forty that you can plant and walk away from. Equally indestructible but pretty is the knot-weed, Polygonum capitatum.

So dainty and pretty you could grow it in a rock garden (and they do in Seattle) is armeria, or sea thrift, with pretty pink flowers over grasslike foliage. Potentilla is a creeper, but effective in small places, growing an inch tall with butter-yellow flowers in spring. Cerastium tomentosum, called snow-in-summer for its white flowers, has pretty gray foliage.

There are many, many more, but that should serve for starters. So, on this first day of November, when the rest of the country is buckling down for winter, buy a flat, separate the plants by pulling them apart or slicing them apart (like cake), and see how many bare spots can be covered with one flat and one hour. Then hope for rain--we're due.

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