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Gardening: Ground covers are great problem-solvers

Some kinds of mondo grass are so dark they almost look black, making a nice contrast with concrete pavement.
Some kinds of mondo grass are so dark they almost look black, making a nice contrast with concrete pavement. Proven Winners photo

The weather is so good these days, it is easy to get lost in the glory of fresh air and blue skies and new green growth peeking though the soil. Such good vibes can leave one in a reverie, forgetting what we set out to do.

But, just looking at the lawn can raise the thought that something must be done about those bare spots where grass stubbornly refuses to grow, despite heroic efforts.

Such places may be the result of constant foot traffic that has created a path, often remedied by the placement of stepping stones that solves both the problem of bare ground and muddy shoes.

But there are other causes, such as shade, slopes and shallow tree roots. These three things are a source of anguish for those who have not yet discovered the value of evergreen ground covers.

Most of these are attractive plants, but more important, they are useful ones, ready to grow well in difficult spots. This is because they tolerate shade and withstand drought.

Three of the best-known plants – Vinca minor, mondo grass and, for a hot, sunny slope, creeping junipers – are evergreen, This means they look good all year and tend to tolerate drought once established. Other choices include ajuga, which is quite low but spreads nicely, and pachysandra, which requires shade and moist but not soggy soil. Direct sun tends to bleach the leaves yellow.

Your choice depends on several factors, including the amount sun and space you wish to allocate to this project. Many ground covers look best when arranged in broad strips or wide circles that give the plants room to maneuver and create a dense look that is attractive. Be extremely wary of planting English ivy as a ground cover because it shows no regard for boundaries and will be all over the place.

Other plants that are not strictly thought of as ground covers serve the purpose. These include evergreen ferns such as Autumn, holly and Christmas. They perform admirably in shade or part-shade. Another perennial not usually thought of as a ground cover is the Lenten rose, one of the most useful and easy-to-grow plants for Piedmont gardeners.

It will even perform in the difficult environment of the root zone of a willow oak tree. This is an evergreen perennial, but its new growth emerges in late winter followed by the long-lasting flowers, a winning sight where you need one most. They look best spaced about 2 feet apart with mulch. This allows each plant to stand out as an individual yet do the work of a ground cover.

Ask Nancy

Q. Is it appropriate to deadhead my Endless Summer hydrangeas’ dried flower heads now? If not, when should I do this?

A. Yes, you can do this now, but take care. Snip off only the spent bloom and the short stem attached to it. You should already see fresh growth beginning to emerge along the stems. This will develop and produce this year’s first blooms in late spring and early summer.