Gardening: Stronger meadow ground covers to solve your landscape problems

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Strawberries are stoloniferous plants, which makes them so effective as a ground cover.

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Here’s another half-dozen plants that do well in shade and dry shade (check out our previous list here). Remember to keep them evenly moist during their first year. Mulch them to a depth of at least four inches with pole skins or clean straw.

Fragaria in Iceland wild strawberries.
Fragaria in Iceland wild strawberries. Photo by Sara Williams /Photo provided

Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)

The name of the genus comes from fraga, the classic Latin name for strawberry, derived from fragans meaning fragrant, alluding to the delicious smell of the fruit. Virginia is one of its many natural habitats which include the temperate regions of North and South America.

Strawberries are stoloniferous plants, which makes them effective as a ground cover. They have attractive compound leaves, white flowers in early summer, and, of course, delicious fruit. Our native strawberry, 10-15 cm (4-6 in.) Tall, makes an excellent ground cover with many runners.

Plant them in full sun to partial shade in loamy soil rich in organic matter. Our native strawberry is drought tolerant once established. It is best used as a ground cover and is easily propagated by runners and (more patiently) by seeds.

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False seal of Solomon, seal of Solomon with star flowers (Maianthemum stellatum, syn. Smilacina stellata)

Native to moist woodlands throughout much of North America, including parts of the Canadian prairies, the Solomon’s False Seal is surprisingly undemanding and moderately drought tolerant once established. Accidentally transplanted, she has been growing under pine trees on sandy soil in Sara’s garden for years.

Botanical names are descriptive. Maianthemum comes from the Greek Maios, mai and athema, blooms, while stellatum means star and describes the shape of the flower. Standing about 12 inches tall, the plants produce white, star-shaped flowers, while light green leaves turn golden in fall.

It spreads by creeping rhizomes to form colonies. Purchase from a nursery specializing in native plants and propagate by division.

Siberian barren strawberry (Waldsteinia ternata)

This plant deserves greater availability in our garden centers and nurseries. It’s tough, beautiful, sturdy, and adaptable to sun or shade. The common name, sterile Siberian strawberry, says it all: it is hardy and sterile (don’t expect it to produce fruit), and its leaves resemble strawberries (shiny green leaves in clusters of three ). At only 10-15cm (4-6in) tall, it is equally at home in the sun or shade. Small, bright yellow flowers bloom from late spring to early summer.

Western Canadian Violet (Viola canadensis)

Native to the woodlands of the Prairie Provinces, this is a sturdy, durable and attractive ground cover 6 to 12 in. (15-30 cm) tall for dry shade. Fragrant white flowers with a yellow eye and distinct purple-pink veins appear in late spring and early summer above the heart-shaped foliage.

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Sem false spirea.
Sem false spirea. Photo by Sara Williams /Photo provided

‘Sem’ false spirea (Sorbaria sorbifolia)

A tough, hardy shrub, “Sem” is a newer addition to our ground cover arsenal. It survives in deep shade with little water once established. It emerges in spring with surprising pink-orange-golden foliage mixed with lime green, lighting up even the darkest shade. The pinnate compound leaves and feathery white flowers in late summer add to its landscape value. Up to 1 m (3 ft) in height, it ultimately forms a continuous understory (ideal under taller trees) by suckering. As attractive as the foliage appears in a nursery pot in the spring, don’t be fooled into thinking it will perform well in a shrub border. It will be out of bounds within a season. Use it as intended: as a ground cover.

Virginia creeper (Parthenoccissus quinquefolia)

The name of the genus echoes the common name: parthenos is the Greek word for virgin and kissos means ivy. (It was first introduced to England from the colony of Virginia in 1629.) The name of the species describes the foliage: quinque means five and folia, leaf, therefore the five leaflets that make up the compound leaf.

Although a vine, Virginia creeper also works as a ground cover, especially on slopes. It is most admired for its brilliant scarlet fall foliage which will be somewhat subdued in the shade. Hardy, fast growing and vigorous, it is drought tolerant once established. It grows in the sun or shade in most soils. Leafhoppers are sometimes present and powdery mildew can be a problem during times of high humidity if air circulation is poor.

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The large leaves (5-15 cm / 2-6 in) are palmately compound, each with five toothed leaflets. The inconspicuous blooms are followed by small blue grape-like berries.

Sara Williams is the author and co-author of numerous books, including Creating the Prairie Xeriscape, Gardening Naturally with Hugh Skinner and, with Bob Bors, recently published Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens. She continues to teach workshops on a wide variety of prairie gardening topics.

This column is courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society. Contact the company by email at [email protected] or visit their website at saskperennial.ca. You can find them on Facebook at facebook.com/saskperennial. All Saskatchewan Perennial Society events are on hold until further notice.

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