Spreading plants have their place in landscape

"Yes, those plants look nice enough," I sometimes hear. "But don't they have a reputation for spreading?"
Yes, there are a number of attractive plants that have a reputation for spreading out across, and sometimes beyond, the area in which they are planted. This can be a problem and it is advisable to investigate the "spreading habit" of any plant before you buy, if that is a potential problem in the designated planting location.
But a plant's "spreadability" is not necessarily a bad thing. Spreading plants can be just what you are looking for in the right circumstances. They can choke out weeds, reduce soil erosion and beautify a sloping or rocky area that is difficult to mow.
Here are some of my favorite plants that you should take a look at if you have an area that could benefit from some low-growers that tend to spread.
Purple Creeping Mazus (Mazus reptans) In my opinion, this is one of the most versatile groundcovers you can find. Throughout the growing season, you'll see a virtual carpet of bright green foliage that continues right into winter. In June/July, it produces a mass of tiny purplish-blue flowers with white markings. A tough, long-lasting plant, Mazus reptans is easy to grow. Each plant reaches a height of no more than two inches, spreading out to six inches or so, making it ideal for rock gardens and in between stepping stones. It does well in full sun to light shade and prefers moist but well-drained soil.
Verbena "Superbena" Burgundy The Superbenas are a variety of Verbenas that have been bred to withstand heat and mildew, and that can be an important benefit in some areas. It produces large burgundy blooms on dark green leaves and will regenerate vigorous growth when you cut it back. With a maximum height of twelve inches, it makes a colorful groundcover that is popular with Swallowtail butterflies, and is a good choice for containers, baskets and window boxes.
Creeping Red Thyme (Thymus praecox subsp. arcticus) You might be aware of the fragrance before you even see this fast, low- growing evergreen that is a good choice as a groundcover or between pavers for an attractive, rustic look. Easy to grow in full or partial sun and shade.
Phlox, Creeping Emerald Blue (Phlox subulata) A rocky embankment or outcropping where weeding, tending or mowing is hazardous or impossible? Creeping Emerald Blue Phlox could be an ideal solution. I've also admired it in the nooks and crannies of dry stone retaining walls and around rock waterfalls. Locations of that nature are ideal for Phlox as it enjoys the good drainage provided by elevated planting. For contrast, try mixing it with Creeping Candy Stripe Phlox with its tiny pink and white flowers.
Liriope Big Blue For some thing a bit taller, try this tufted evergreen groundcover with its arching, grass-like foliage. In the summer, you'll see an abundance of blue flower spikes that are followed by clusters of black berries in the fall. In addition to hard-to-get-at areas, Liriope is a good choice for borders and edging.
Trailing Periwinkle (Vinca minor) Continuing the "blue" theme, don't forget Trailing Periwinkle, a delightful evergreen with dense, shiny, oval-shaped foliage that forms an almost flat, springy carpet adding soft, rolling contours to landscaping. In early spring, the foliage is covered with blue (yes, periwinkle blue) flowers. Vinca minor likes fairly good soil and does well in full sun, partial sun or shade.
Pachysandra terminalis Introduced from Japan circa 1882, pachysandra is one of the most planted groundcovers in America. Most everyone is familiar with this rapidly spreading plant that thrives even in the dense shade of evergreens.
A spreading plant isn't necessarily a negative, as long as you plant it in a location where its natural tendency is a benefit rather than a nuisance.
The Plant Man is here to help. Send your questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to snipped-for-privacy@landsteward.org and for resources and additional information, or to subscribe to Steve's free e-mailed newsletter, visit www.landsteward.org
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