Cooler weather and autumn rains will help new plants get established before winter, and come spring give them a head start against the weeds.
HAVE WEEDS had their way with you this year? The long, wet spring encouraged invaders from bindweed to horsetail to multiply and colonize. I can’t remember such a year for garden thugs.
Gardening is all about covering the ground, with hardscape, gravel or plants you actually want to be growing. Bare soil is as clear an invitation to weeds as a hosta leaf is to a slug.
With our patience and bodies still worn from all that weeding, why not fill in any bare, weedy spots with ground covers before next spring’s onslaught? Cooler weather and autumn rains will help new plants get established before winter, and come spring give them a head start against the weeds.
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Low-lying, carpeting plants come to mind when we talk ground covers. I love dark, crinkle-leafed ajuga, creeping thyme and Corsican mint to edge beds and fill in between pavers. But there are many more possibilities. Taller plants, like ornamental grasses, small shrubs, and dense perennials all work as ground covers. Really, any plant that spreads obligingly but not aggressively, and grows thickly enough to keep down the weeds, will do the job.
For a stunning example of taller ground covers, check out the entry bed near the parking lot at the Bellevue Botanical Garden. Ribbons of catmint and ruby red barberry punctuate masses of ornamental grasses in varying textures. If any weeds are trying to get a toehold on this hillside, you sure can’t see them.
Three things to remember about ground covers: Choose wisely so the ground covers themselves don’t become the weeds you were trying to prevent in the first place. Plant ground covers close together so they smother weeds sooner rather than a few years from now. And third, do all you can to get them off to a good start.
This means preparing the soil, weeding it thoroughly, adding compost and mulch. A soaker hose will keep the young plants well-watered next summer.
For ground covers that take foot traffic, check out “Stepables” (www.stepables.com/). Broaden your definition, and consider everything from strawberries to ferns and dwarf conifers as possible ground-cover candidates. A few of my favorites are sedges (especially the auburn Carex testacea), hellebores and drifts of golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’).
It’s hard to predict which plants will prove to be invasive. Who understands the alchemy that turns a plant into a raging demon in one location but not another? I’ve known gardeners who have struggled to grow the same English ivy the rest of us rip out in horror.
Every gardener has plants they regret; play it safe and stay away from those listed. While these all-too-successful ground covers (often marketed as “robust” or “vigorous”) are widely available in nurseries, each should carry the botanical equivalent of a Mr. Yuk sticker.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “petal & twig.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.