Great Groundcovers and More

Great groundcovers are among this physician's favorites.

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Built around an old two-story farmhouse, this large, rambling garden (3-1/2 acres) is nestled in the rolling hills near Asheville, N.C. Heather Spencer and her husband Charles Murray are physicians who relish the time spent in the garden away from beepers and cell phones. Their expansive garden features a large perennial bed in front of a long rock wall, stone steps that lead to more garden areas, a croquet court, a conifer garden, two "pondlets" and a new "secret" garden.

To Spencer, the garden is an art project, a place to express herself. Several areas of the garden allude to books from childhood (such as the secret garden with its evergreen walls). Although there are classical elements (the sweeping stone steps, for example), she describes the garden's style as "funky" and says her tastes gravitate towards the rustic and primitive. One example of her whimsical style is a large tree with old wheelbarrows hanging from its branches.

A self-described "plant nerd," Spencer has a hodgepodge of trees, shrubs and perennials, both native and exotic. Because of the vast area under cultivation, she uses large swaths of groundcovers — in particular 'Patriot' hosta, epimediums and hellebores, all of which she propagates and plants in the spaces beneath large trees.

Some details about the plants she uses:

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Cranesbill 'Rozanne', or hardy geranium (Geranium x 'Rozanne'). This wonderful hardy geranium was introduced in the early 1990's. A cross between Geranium himalayense and G. wallichianum 'Buxton's Variety', the herbaceous perennial was hybridized in the garden of Donald and Rozanne Waterer in Somerset, England. The free-flowering, spreading plant produces true-blue single flowers that measure 2-1/2 inches across. 'Rozanne' has an extremely long flowering period, from June until the first frost. The foliage turns reddish brown in the fall. The mounding, compact clump grows 15 inches high with a spread of 18 inches. The plant has a vigorous, compact habit. Hardy in Zones 5 to 7b.

How to use it: Plant in perennial borders in combination with spiky flowers like salvia and other summer-blooming plants. 'Rozanne' makes an excellent groundcover that produces blooms for six months.

Cultivation: Site in light shade to full sun in moist, well-drained soil. Easy to grow.

Source: Plant Delights Nursery

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Golden Japanese stonecrop (Sedum makinoi 'Ogon'). This treasure from the Far East has small, round, bright gold leaves that form a springy mat. Yellow flowers appear in summer. The plant spreads but its height remains two inches tall. Hardy in Zones 7 to 9.

How to use it: This is an excellent subject for a rock garden or wherever you want a groundcover to brighten a garden spot. Also excellent in containers.

Cultivation: Plant in light shade and protect from hot afternoon sun. Easy to grow in well-drained soil.

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Fairy wings (Epimedium sp.). Epimediums are herbaceous perennials that produce beautiful, often heart-shaped foliage and airy flowers that can range, depending on the species, from white to chartreuse to yellow, peach, orange and red. Native to China, these woodland groundcovers form large colonies. Hardy in Zones 5 to 8.

How to use it: This is an excellent genus for covering the woodland floor or for interplanting with ferns, hosta, foamflower or crested iris.

Cultivation: Grow in woodland-type soil. Once established, epimediums will grow in dry shade.

Source: Several different species available from Woodlanders.

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'Patriot' hosta (Hosta 'Patriot'). Named the 1997 Hosta of the Year by the American Hosta Society, 'Patriot' is a sport of the popular hosta 'Francee'. 'Patriot' has extra wide margins of pure white surrounding a medium-green center. In summer the plants send up lavender flower spikes. Hardy Zones 3 to 9. The clumps grow to 15 inches tall with a 24-inch spread.

How to use it: Great to lighten up a shade garden and beautiful with ferns, toad lilies and other shade-loving perennials.

Cultivation: Easy to grow in moist, well-drained soil in shade to part shade. Divide clumps in spring to produce a big patch of hosta.

Source: White Flower Farm

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Violet sage 'Blue Hills' (Salvia nemorosa 'Blue Hills'; syn. Salvia x sylvestris 'Blue Hill' or 'Blauhugel'). This herbaceous perennial produces 24-inch-high flower spikes of blue violet in June. Reliable and long-lived, the plant has an upright habit and is deer resistant. The flowers are attractive to bees and butterflies. Hardy from Zones 4 to 7. The plant performs best in cooler climates. In hot, humid weather, the flowers tend to flop.

How to use it: Grow in a flower border or in a container. This is a good subject for a butterfly garden.

Cultivation: Plant in full sun in well-drained soil. Cut back to the rosettes of leaves at the base for overwintering. Divide overgrown clumps in spring.

Source: Local garden centers that carry Monrovia plants.

Martha Tate is co-executive producer of Gardener's Diary.

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