Ground-covers nurtured to cut workload

Anne Marrison is happy to answer garden questions. Send them to


A few weeks ago a harassed gardener asked me if there are any maintenance-free plants. Apparently “weeds” was not the answer she was seeking.



Anyone who wants a non-weed garden will be faced with some maintenance at some stage, but some plants are certainly less needy than others – and choosing those can easily reduce maintenance.

For instance, gardeners who focus on native plants as habitat and a food supply for wildlife can enjoy a much more relaxed type of garden.

Many native plants, such as salmon berries, thimbleberries, Indian plum, and salal have beautiful flowers and nutritious berries, but they’re only maintenance-free for a while. Later, because they’re so well adapted to our soil and climate they cover more and more space as roots expand and seeds find good spots to sprout. At some point, the gardener must pick up a spade and establish firm boundaries for paths, driveway, and other valued areas. And it can become a yearly task.

Native ferns are much closer to being truly maintenance-free. One of the easiest is the native sword fern.

It’s an evergreen which does best in a moist, shady situation, and the old fronds form a thick, mulching carpet that surrounds the plant and suppresses weeds.

Ground-covers are generally thought to be maintenance-free also, but in the early stages, diligent weeding is essential. It’s not difficult to end up with weeds that a groundcover will actually hide until they’re difficult to uproot. And all ground-covers are invasive to some degree. The more invasive they are, the more successfully they cover ground. Groundcovers such as Vinca minor and Vinca major, Ajuga species, Cerastium tomento-sum (Summer Snow), or Lamium galeobdolon (Yellow Archangel) can turn into unstoppable monsters in mild climates. Many are on invasive plant lists.

With these and others, sooner or later, gardeners must resort to stopping a ground-cover’s headlong rush for more living room.

And a few ground-covers, such as Kenilworth Ivy and some lamiums, can also climb.

Some sprawling shrubby groundcovers, such as Cotoneaster dammeri and junipers, can grow into a dense cover in which weeds won’t germinate, but there is still the initial weeding as one gets them established.

In our West Coast climate, rhododendrons demand less attention than most other plants, but no matter how small a rhododendron seems in the garden centre, many are destined to become big shrubs, and some become trees.

A crucial point is planting them where they have room to expand. A spot under windows or close to doors will lead to major pruning as the rhododendron matures.

The smaller rhododendrons fit best into city-lot size gardens, including purplish-pink-flowered PJM rhododendrons and the pink or white-flowered rhodo yakusimanum and its

hybrids. There are also some ornamental trees that get by with little or no pruning or care, once they’re safely planted. One is Sorbus aucuparia (mountain ash), which has beautiful red or orange (rarely yellow) berries that are a feast for birds in the fall.

Crataegus species can

also be left to grow in their own way. These various kinds of hawthorn produce flowers that are usually white or pink (sometimes double). Fruits may be red, orange, yellow, or black, depending on the species.

Anne Marrison is happy to answer garden questions. Send them to

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