Phlox divaricata blooming in spring

Groundcover plants do just what they claim–they spread out and cover large chunks of bare ground. For many years ground covers were used in erosion control. Besides helping stabilize banks, groundcovers can help reduce weeds and help define the edges of gardens and walkways. They are often a more attractive alternative to mulch. Some grow only a few inches high, others grow up to 12 inches or more.

In the flowerbed, they tended to take over all available space. Some invasive groundcovers like creeping myrtle and goutweed fell out of favor because they escaped and invaded our wild areas depriving local species of habitat. Even now gardeners need to be careful to use non-invasive species and keep some in very controlled spaces.

That said, there are fine groundcovers that speed up our northern area flowering season. These low-growing perennials can define a flowerbed and soften the hard edges of patios, decks and retaining walls. The most important aspect in selecting a groundcover is not the flower, but the leaves. While the flowers will help bridge the season between the spring-flowering bulbs and the summer blooming plants, the leaves create the groundcover’s interest throughout the growing season.

One of my favorites is Phlox subulata, called moss phlox. A sun-loving plant, it grows about eight inches tall and in May is a solid carpet of color. They come in soft pink, startlingly bright magenta, white and a very soft blue. Moss phlox slowly creeps over very large areas. It is easily divided into more plants. During the rest of the summer, this phlox has bright green needle-like foliage that stays attractive during the whole season. For a shady area, you might try Phlox divaricata or wild sweet William. They are taller and the lavender-blue flowers are fewer and much looser, but they are beautiful in the woodland garden.

Another sun-loving spring-blooming plant is Iberis sempervirens or candytuft. Candytufts bloom in frothy white blossoms at the same time as the moss phlox. Its foliage is darker greens with small, round to oval-shaped leaves that remain attractive all summer. The plants grow between six and nine inches tall.

If you want yellow flowers you might try Alyssum montanum, or Aurinia saxatile also called basket of gold. These mat-forming perennials have grayish foliage and many small four-petaled flowers. Mine bloomed at the same time as my Phlox subulata ‘Emerald Blue’ and looked lovely next to each other.

Many good, low-growing Dianthus species and cultivars are available, so it is impossible to list them. You will need to check the plant’s label for hardiness zone and height. Selections from the alpine pinks, maiden pinks, cheddar pinks will do very well. All are mat-forming with pink, red, or white flowers.

Iris cristata, or crested iris, grows to a height of four to six inches and while not growing as thick as the above groundcovers, will boom very early in partial shade areas. These also like a moister location. Look for other dwarf iris. They come in many colors, will work as well and their spike-shaped foliage adds textural interest.

There are many other groundcover plants. Some are much taller, some are grown for foliage only, and some are meant to grow only in tough locations. All of the selections mentioned start the season off with a burst of color and then their foliage adds an attractive carpet for summer’s flowers.