Green Scene

Shielding the Soil From Rain's Destructive Power

Virginia sweetspire forms colonies and offers fragrant white flowers.
Virginia sweetspire forms colonies and offers fragrant white flowers. (By Sandra Leavitt Lerner For The Washington Post)
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By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, September 5, 2009

The tiny splash caused by a raindrop is a surprisingly destructive force and the No. 1 cause of soil erosion. As rain falls, the drops hit bare ground, breaking soil particles free and washing away valuable topsoil. The resulting runoff sweeps chemicals and sediment into rivers and streams in amounts that can imperil aquatic life.

Concerned landscapers and home gardeners can do their part to mitigate the erosive effects of rainfall with plantings known as ground cover, which hold topsoil in place. The preferred choice of ground cover continues to be lawn, provided the area in question gets enough sunlight. But turf is far from the only option available, and some sunny areas such as steep slopes may require a ground cover better suited to the terrain.

In general, plants ranging from four inches to four feet in height that grow together into colonies or masses can create useful ground covers. Some are chosen for ornamental characteristics, but all must have vigorous growth habits to cover the ground. Plants that are aesthetically pleasing and hardy make the most desirable "carpeting" for properties. The right plant can be lush and virtually maintenance-free; offer fragrance, flowers, berries and colorful foliage; and help control weeds naturally. Vigorous low-growing plants that persist perennially and drop leaves or needles, adding organic material to soil, are excellent choices.

Below are 20 practical ground covers -- 10 for sun to partial sun and 10 for partial shade to shade:

Sun to partial sun (more than six hours)

-- Virginia sweetspire (Itea 'Henry's Garnet') -- Arching deciduous shrub, spreads by rhizomes, forming colonies. Fragrant creamy white flowers late spring, red-purple fall foliage.

-- Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) -- Perfect as woody ground cover because it is a fast grower; has tiny yellow flowers in spring, dark green shiny foliage in summer turning orange-red in fall. Grows readily in all types of soil, including clay.

-- Blue rug juniper (Juniperus horizontalis 'Blue Rug') -- Ultimate in prostrate plants (eight to 10 inches tall); has blue stems that hug the ground, spreading up to eight feet in diameter. Good for holding slopes. Plant at least three to four feet apart.

-- Blue star juniper (J. squamata 'Blue Star') -- Slow-growing, low-habit, drought-tolerant; will create a billowy, silvery-blue, evergreen, year-round carpet. Plant two to three feet apart. Grows up to three feet tall.

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