Simply put, groundcovers cover the ground (well, duh!) and technically lawn is one type of groundcover. But most people in our region are looking for not-lawn, low-water, easy to take care of, safe for humans and pets, not bothered by hungry wildlife , pretty to look at – groundcovers.
Why Plant Groundcovers?
Groundcovers help the entire landscape when they are included in the yard. They soften the landscape composition, add color, perhaps movement, and often fragrant flowers. Since they cover the soil, they reduce overall soil temperature, help soil moisture retention, and reduce weed growth. The right species of groundcovers can help hold soil on banks and prevent erosion.
Groundcovers come in four basic forms: trailing, clumping, mounding, or spreading.
Trailing groundcovers hug the ground, but also cascade down a bank or over the edge of a planter.
Clumping groundcovers form a clump, pointing upright.
A mound is a kind of clump, but it has a smoother feel to it, more of a rounded effect.
A spreading groundcover is one that hugs the ground but does not trail over edges.
All plants, except a few hybrids, will flower — and groundcovers are no exception. The groundcovers I am writing about today flower for longer than three or four weeks, thus providing long term color for the yard. All of these listed are evergreen, and on my rabbit, javelina, and deer resistant list. Some can not take hard freezing – so note the temperatures (X F) listed if you live in upper elevations.
Rocky Point Ice Plant
Rocky Point ice plant (Malephora lutea), a spreading groundcover that reaches 1 X 6 feet. Cheerful yellow flowers cover the plant every day of the year, even in winter. The glossy green spiked leaves store water, and are sometimes pecked by thirsty birds. Although they flower year round, they are relatively dormant in summer and can rot if over watered in summer. Rocky Point ice plant withstands freezes of 15 degrees, and never needs any pruning, trimming or special care.
Golden yellow, daisy-like flowers grace damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana) virtually all summer long. Quail adore its seeds. This Sonoran desert native is a mounding clumping sort of groundcover, that reaches 18 inches tall by (eventually) 5 feet across. Damianita looks well even in winter, with glossy lime green leaves. This plant looks well skirting the edges of agaves or around cacti. Since it needs little care, let it fill in where it will. Think of it as a perennial wildflower. (0F)
Bush Morning Glory
Bush morning glory (Convovulis cneorum) is a trailing groundcover with leaves that are a silvery pale blue green. This native of Europe has smallish white to pale blue morning glory like flowers. It does need well drained soil, and reaches 18 inches tall by around 10 foot spread. It can grow in part shade. (15F) Not ideal in Low Desert heat or upper elevations cold.
Note – If someone tells you, “Morning glories are illegal in Arizona,” they are only partially correct. Field morning glory is illegal and it is an Ipomea. Entirely different genus of plants. Just one more problem about common names.
Blue euphorbia (Euphorbia rigida) forms a clump. It has lime-green leaves and chartruse-yellow flowers. Clumps spread to 2 X 5 feet, and need only rejuvenation pruning every year or two. For some reason this is also sold as gopher plant, but gophers, and rabbits too, hate it. Like all members of the Euphorbia family (which includes poinsettia) it contains a latex with toxins in it. Don’t plant if you have pets that like to chew on plants. Can withstand freeze to -10F.
Wedelia, also called yellow dot (Sphagneticola trilobata, formerly Wedelia trilobata), is a beautiful trailing groundcover with coarse dark green leaves. Golden orange daisy like flowers cover the plant in the hot season, from April through October. Less than a foot high, it can trail to 6 feet wide. Due to its trailing nature, this is excellent for raised planters as well as beds. Can freeze to 0F.
There are many other gorgeous groundcovers available. I focused on these primarily for their long flower season, and especially for winter color. As opposed to the above low-water plants, lantana is often planted in our area. Perhaps because it is inexpensively obtained in big box garden centers. Lantana is not an ideal groundcover because it freezes in winter, and is a high water user. It also needs high maintenance, requiring steady pruning and soil acidifiers. Worse of all – dogs like to chew on lantana and over time it will damage their liver.
All of the groundcovers I discussed are available at your local nurseries – listed here. Most of these nurseries have trained and industry certified staff that know low-water native plants and can help you get the best plants for your site. “Shop Local” makes sense when it comes to plants.
More groundcovers in this booklet: Landscape Plants for the Arizona Desert. Scott Millard and I compiled it upon request for the Phoenix area so do pay attention to the cold tolerance. ((They took my personal name out and put in my landscape design company at the time “Tierra del Sol,” I guess Dr. Soule was too much a Tucson Wildcat for the Sun Devils up there.))
Note – This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies – at no extra cost to you.
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Cover image: Wedelia.
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