Goundcovers put on show before autumn curtain falls
Published 5:24 pm, Thursday, October 31, 2013
With the blaze of colorful foliage about, it's natural to spend your ogling time looking up, not down. But you could be missing something pretty special: A number of groundcovers put on their season's show right before the autumn curtain falls. Small and low and often spreading, they brighten up the mulch once the annuals are gone.
Some of these tiny treats are happy to ham-and-egg it with spring's bulbs, providing a coverup for the tulips and hyacinths in early summer once their performance is finished.
Others do their thing in late fall and then vanish, only to return the following October. You can plant annuals over them for the summer months if you mark their territory (I use colored golf tees) as you would other spring bulbs.
A particular favorite groundcover of mine is plumbago, or Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, with the less exotic common name of Chinese lungwort.
Plumbago is one of those mat-like groundcovers, with thick, shiny green foliage and gentian blue flowers (similar to phlox blossoms), which bloom in my garden from late September to November.
The bonus this plant offers is that once the flowers are gone, there's an after-party with bronzey red leaves that last into the winter. Plumbago is one of the late risers in spring, which makes it a perfect companion for bulbs; plumbago comes back up while the bulb foliage is going down.
As long as you don't plant this prize in a wet location, plumbago is most accommodating -- full sun to part shade, virtually any kind of soil; a true team player in the garden.
Next on my list is partridge berry, or Gualteria procumbens, a member of the wintergreen family that you'll recognize when you crush its foliage, which smells like chewing gum. This partridge berry is the shrub form (don't confuse it with another plant by the same common name of partridge berry called Mitchella repens) and thrives in acid soil, which we certainly have.
The leaves are shiny green like the plumbago, but its flowers are white to pink in summer and funnel shaped. The plant later turns these into the wonderful red berries for which it is named and these will often last all winter.
The plant will grow in sun or semi-shade (under a pine, where the needles drop and decompose, adding to the soil acidity), but needs sun to produce a crop of those ruby berries. Its rhizomitous growth keeps it spreading.
Ajuga or buglewort in its variegated form makes another spreading favorite with autumn interest. Rosettes of handsome tricolored foliage set it apart (there are many varieties and some minis, like Chocolate Chip) that will grow virtually anywhere (that isn't wet).
My final favorite is the cyclamen, hederifolium and C.coum. Not the large houseplant variety but the hardy form, smaller and shorter but no less lovely. The delicate, white-tinged pink flowers of hederifolium and the various shades of pink that C.coum sends out float-like butterflies above the heart-shaped, variegated leaves the plants send up in October after lying dormant through the summer.
These grow from puck-like tubers planted just below the surface in loamy, well-drained soil in a shaded location. When happy, cyclamens quickly form a blanket of those handsome leaves and flowers that keep going throughout the winter.
Cyclamen, once established, tolerate dry conditions and are good companions for epimediums and those other late-season favorites of drought and shade, the hellebores.
Over the winter, a mulch is a good idea in these parts, where temperatures fluctuate; given a happy home they will naturalize and throw off seed for years to come. Hardycyclamen.com has been my source for seeds and tubers for hederafolium; Wayside Gardens.com offers C. coum.
Maureen FitzPatrick is a freelance writer in Connecticut. Her email is Maurdude@aol.com.