Groundcovers – Base for the Layered Garden

  • Post published:04/28/2018
  • Post comments:4 Comments
tiarella or foam flower
Tiarella, or foam flowers, spring blooms, and groundcovers all season

The layered garden is created by arranging plants from the ground up beginning with groundcovers ranging from delicate tiarella, epimediums, and lamium to taller plants like ferns, and even low growing shrubs like cotoneaster and very spready junipers.

            The layers continue upwards with an herbaceous layer of perennials and annuals, followed by a shrub layer and ending with trees. Layers will  spread out across the garden space. For example, I have planted two river birches in one of my lawn beds. That long narrow bed does contain groundcovers like tiarella and bistort, perennials like daylilies, bee balm and Japanese anemone, and not very tall shrubs, a winterberry and a fothergilla. By mid-June most of the ground is covered and I can enjoy its beauty and know that it supports the birds and pollinators in our neighborhood  – and helping keep down  the weeds.

            To my mind it is the groundcovers, covering the soil, that knit the rest of the plantings into a pleasing whole. The first groundcovers I used were foam flower, barren strawberry, and lamium.  ‘White Nancy’ Lamium maculatum,is less than a foot tall with variegated white leaves edged with dark green. It is a vigorous grower, but it can be kept under control. It can tolerate dry soil and full shade.

Waldsteinia, or barren strawberry is a very mat-like groundcover

            Barren strawberry, Waldsteinia, is a very low growing, dense mat of foliage that is similar to that of strawberries, and the yellow flowers resemble strawberry blossoms, but there are no fruits. It likes full sun but tolerates part shade. I have always grown it successfully where it got a fair amount of shade. Each plant will spread about two feet, and the rhizomes can be separated in the spring to propagate new plants.

            Foam flower or Tiarella cordifolia lives up to its name. It creeps along the ground and in the spring sends up foamy white spires of blossom that will not reach more than 12 inches. There is also a pale pink variety. It likes some shade, but tolerates a lot of sun. In the spring it will send out stolons with plantlets which can be cut off and propagated.

            Bistort, Persicaria, bistorta, is said to grow to two feet, but in my garden it has never grown that tall, even with the tall spikes of pinky bootlebrush type flowers. The foliage is quite large and it spreads by rhizomes. It likes sun and shade. I have it growing and spreading underneath a river birch that I limbed up early this spring, so the bistort will get a little more sun, I think.

Epimedium sulphureum

            I first admired epimediums for their foliage. I would occasionally see these beautiful heart shaped leaves in other gardens, but could never remember what they were called. And then I finally saw the plants in bloom and could never forget the name epimediums after that.  Sometimes they are called barrenwort or charmingly, bishop’s hat. They grow well in shade, but I have grown them in full sun without any difficulty.

            Epimedium ‘Sulphureum’ is a particularly sturdy cultivar that spreads easily. The delicate looking yellow blossoms are hardy to Zone 4 and are attractive all season, even after the blossoms wither. They are usually no more than a foot tall and need little care beyond cutting back last season’s foliage – which I should be doing right now.

            The world of epimediums is comprised of many flower forms and colors from pale to deep and rich. We are fortunate Garden Visions, a nursery that specializes in epimediums is located in Phillipston, not very far away. The Garden Visions nursery has a limited number Open Garden Days: April 27 and 29; May 4 through 13; and May 18 through 20.  Hours are 10 am – 4 pm rain or shine. Their catalog is online at, or you can download a printed order form or order a printed catalog by emailing

            Cotoneaster (pronounced co-tone-ee-aster) is fairly slow growing. I planted one and it came along  so slowly that I planted another one nearby to get that ground covering effect, and got quite a tangle but handsome anyway.  I first planted C. adpressus which only grows to less than 10 inches. Then, foolishly I planted C. apiculatus (I think) that grows to four to six food spread. I was happily shocked when it produced wonderful red flowers in early summer. I was only expecting red berries in the fall. I ought to read labels more carefully.

            There are a number of creeping junipers, J. horizontalis, that spread nicely and can give you a range of color. Blue-green ‘Bar Harbor’will not be more than a foot tall and will spread more than 5-10 feet. ‘Icee Blue’ is a silvery shade, less than a foot tall with a spread of 6-8 feet. Both like sun, but will tolerate some shade.

            An unusual low conifer is Picea Procumbens ‘Blue Spruce.’ It can reach a height of 2 feet and spreads slowly to cover 10 feet. Think of Blue Spruce foliage spreading along the ground. Much different from the finer foliage of the junipers. Very hardy.

           The world of groundcovers is very large. This is only a sampling of easily available plants that require very little care.

           Between The Rows   April 21, 2018

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Lisa at Greenbow

    A nice selection of low growers. I love tiarella but it doesn’t like my garden. Your stand is so pretty.

  2. So many lovelies! I have several Epimediums, and I LOVE them. I just bought a few Tiarellas the other day, and I can’t wait to get them in the ground. Really pretty flowers and so light and feathery!

  3. Pat

    Beth – You will love the Tiarellas – and the way they spread.

  4. Pat

    Lisa – It is always so frustrating when a plant you love doesn’t do well in your own garden. Especially, as sometimes happens, it really SHOULD do well. Grrrrrr.

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