Groundcovers are…

The icing on the cake?

The bow on the present?

The cherry on the sundae?

Whatever cliche fits best, they deserve some special attention. Last week I realized how important groundcovers are to pulling together a garden, and I’ve been looking for some good contenders ever since.

I’m sure we’ve all seen certain plants get overused as carpets in parking lot beds and in front of new homes as builders’ favorites, and those plants get crossed right off our lists. Lucky for us there is no end to new and unusual plants, which is why we garden, isn’t it?

For groundcovers to make the cut on this particular list, they had to meet some basic criteria:

  • – Be super cool or weird
  • – Have a long season of interest
  • – Don’t rely on flowers as the main attraction
  • – Be reasonably easy to grow
  • – Be frost hardy
  • Don’t be something I’ve seen a million times

Cotula hispida

cotula hispida
Cotula hispida, photo by Karl Gercens III

Where to start? The adorable silvery balls that catch beads of water and sparkle like diamonds? The soft texture you can’t help but run your hands through? The happy yellow globes of non-obnoxious flowers that pop up in summer and hover like tiny UFOs? Swoon. It looks too delicate, but our ever-trusty friends at Xera Plants say it’d do well between pavers. I’ll take one for every inch of sunny well drained soil I have available, please.

Echeveria amoena, Baby Echeveria

echeveria amoena
Echeveria amoena, by Far Out Flora

Echeveria is one of those plants I usually have to sigh and envy Californians for. Since we see sempervivums around here so much (and I still love them too), those fleshy blunted echeveria leaves look so darn exotic. Thank god for zone-pushers like our friends at Cistus Nursery, because we get a few echeverias like this one that are hardy to zone 8a given good drainage. And since I’m technically in zone 8b, there are even a few more options for hardy echeverias.

Graptopetalum paraguayense

graptopetalum paraguayense
Graptopetalum paraguayense, photo by Far Out Flora

Graptopetalum paraguayense is another surprisingly hardy version of a succulent I think of as a California plant. It has survived 7°F at Plant Delights in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Secret Garden Growers has seen it survive in zone 7B in Canby, Oregon, so it doesn’t appear to be a fluke.

Acaena microphylla, New Zealand Sheep Burr

acaena microphylla
Acaena microphylla, photo by Zefram

Acaena micrphylla is called sheep burr, and you can definitely imagine these crazy burs sticking in your flock’s coat, or in your fluffy dog’s, so maybe it’s better somewhere the animals don’t frequent, but they are fun to look at. But this isn’t a plant that relies on it’s weird burrs for interest. There just something about those tiny jagged-y leaves that says “plant me.”

Juniperus horizontalis ‘Mother Lode’

juniperus horizontalis mother lode
Juniperus horizontalis ‘Mother Lode,’ photo byKarl Gercens III

Forget what you think you know about the poor, much maligned Junipers. Yes, they get over planted in inappropriate spots, all the charming bits of their graceful branch tips hacked off in lawn replacement mass plantings. That’s not the Juniper’s fault. Give one an appropriate spot where it can stretch out those lovely finger tips, don’t try to turn it into a hedge or a lawn, don’t prune all its charm off. It’s actually a really beautiful plant in the right spot. The flat groundcovers are especially gorgeous. The gold foliage? Yes, yes, yes.

Juniperus conferta ‘Sunsplash’

juniperus conferta sunsplash
Juniperus conferta ‘Sunsplash,’ photo byKarl Gercens III

Too much gold on Juniper ‘Mother Lode?’ Trick question, there’s no such thing. But for the sake of variety, ‘Sunsplash’ has just a bit thrown around.

Juniperus conferta ‘All Gold’

juniperus conferta all gold
Juniperus conferta ‘All Gold,’ photo by Karl Gercens III

Told you there’s no such thing as too much gold. ‘All Gold.’ Want! This is the same plant as the very top photo, by the way.

Pinus mugo ‘Bubikopf’

pinus mugo bubikopf by hedwig storch
Pinus mugo ‘Bubikopf,’ photo by Hedwig storch

Ever find yourself wanting a plant you never imagined you’d want? Mugo pines are fine but I’d seen a lot in family gardens, so I’d put them in the “tired of that” camp. But shorty here is pretty adorable.

Marrubium rotundifolium, Silverheels Horehound

marrubium rotundifolium
Marrubium rotundifolium, photo by Plant Select

Velvety! Non-fussy! Vigorous! And look how it molds itself to the surrounding rocks like slow moving lava. This is an easy yes.

Selaginella sanguinolenta var. compressa

selaginella sanguinolenta var compressa
Selaginella sanguinolenta var. compressa by Plant Delights

I’m in love with the entire selaginella genus, with its soft foliage that somehow simultaneously looks coniferous and fern-y. Naturally, any plant that is hard to get your hands on becomes 10x more attractive, I quite like this corkscrewy variety.

Maihuenia poeppigii

maihuenia poeppigii by Michael Wolf
Maihuenia poeppigii, photo by Michael Wolf

What a super cute cactus. It’s hardy down to 6a, which makes me wonder why we don’t see it around more. Here’s some advice. If you see this for sale, grab it.

Ajuga incisa ‘Frosted Jade,’

ajuga incisa frosted jade
Ajuga incisa ‘Frosted Jade,’ photo by Far Reaches Farm

Do you ever like a plant just for the surprise factor? Who knew some Ajugas had pointy leaves? While I’m not a big flower fan and these bright ones appear in spring and summer, I have to admit this has a certain charm.

Acer palmatum ‘Ryusen’

acer palmatum ryusen
Acer palmatum ‘Ryusen,’ photo by Karl Gercens

Who knew there was a groundcover maple? I guess you can stake it to make a weeping tree but if I had this, it’d be gracefully spilling over the edge of something.

Credit for the very top photo goes to Karl Gercens III, quite possibly the most prolific garden photographer in the world. Seriously, check out his flickr page some time. He has quite the enviable life. Near-constant travel to gardens all over the world. He’s been such a huge help to us, populating plant lust with so many of our plant photos. Cheers, Karl, safe travels!

Plants featured in this post: