Nursery Notes: Many options available for ground cover on a bank

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I like to write standing up but realize I’m no Hemingway. I’m in the old office and while it’s sunny outside, there is still a chill in the air. Now that the frost has set in, I’ll have a chance to filter through all the catalogues and magazines that have piled into the nursery over the past nine months. I’d say that there is a file box full of them. Yesterday, I found a few unopened bits of mail (from March through June) but nothing marked Government of Canada. In any case, I now have some time to reflect on three years of startup and 10 years of full-time nursery, greenhouse and orchard business here in Erickson.

One of the most consistent inquiries I have coming through the door over the years has been, “What is it that we can plant on a hot, dry bank so we don’t have to mow it?” Some folks had lawn grass but couldn’t look after it anymore, while others only ever had weeds and were looking to dress it up a little bit.

This really is a little tougher scenario than a regular landscape planting. Often the soil is hard-baked clay and will need some amending. Compost, peat moss or any other organic matter added to the soil where you will be planting will help hold some extra moisture. Weed barrier, preferably with a felt backing for steep slopes, will help suppress the volunteers. One can use landscape pins to help hold the fabric in place while the plants get established and fill in. To plant through the fabric, simply cut an X and fold the fabric back wherever you need to work the prepared soil. Once your plants are in place, refold the fabric to get maximum weed suppression. Air and water still move through the fabric but weeds won’t germinate and grow through it.

I would like to suggest native plants for these problematic areas. Almost all plants are native somewhere, but the ones that grow here in Southern B.C. are well adapted to the hot and dry summers. I like these plants so I’ll mention them first then move on to some more traditional ground covers.

Bearberry or kinnikinnick is a sturdy, drought-tolerant evergreen creeper growing to about six inches in height. It carries white to light pink flowers in spring which will turn to red berries by fall with some help from the bees. Mahonia repens or creeping mahonia will only grow eight to 12 inches in height. Mahonia aquifolium, or the regular Oregon grape, can grow two or three feet in height. Both make excellent drought-tolerant ground covers. They have glossy green leaves often confused with holly. New growth can be bronze-coloured. Yellow flower clusters give way to very attractive blue berries, which will remain on the plants through winter and could be made into very nice jelly.

There are low-growing varieties of mock orange remaining under three feet in height. These plants have wonderfully fragrant white flowers reminiscent of orange blossoms and tolerate poor growing conditions. You will see regular mock orange in flower through early summer growing along the highway usually on a dry bank, to a height of about six feet.

For a little brighter flower colour, Gold Star potentilla will grow to about 16 inches in height. This is a shorter selection of a native potentilla that will flower all summer long. Gro-Low fragrant sumac has small yellow blooms turning to red, hairy fruit in late summer. Spectacular orange-red fall colour is a bonus. It works well for mass plantings, slope and erosion control. It will grow to about seven feet wide and three feet tall on its own.

Various juniper cultivars also grow low and spread out quite nicely. Some of the lower-growing varieties are green or blue in colour, while the yellow or gold varieties tend to get a few feet taller and perhaps not quite as wide. Most horizontal varieties will fill out to about six feet wide in time.

There are a couple of grasses and plants that will tolerate drought worth mentioning. They creep out into the landscape to fill it in. Blue bouma grass and Blue Dune lyme grass are two tough grasses with some foliage colour, and are good for erosion prevention. Other grasses will only grow in clumps but can tolerate drought conditions.

More traditional ground covers like cotoneaster are worth mentioning. Bearberry cotoneaster looks a lot like the native bearberry. I like to bring in a variety with coral-coloured berries. These are some of the hardiest ground cover types and really thrive in heavy clay soils.

I would like to suggest planting low-growing varieties of Japanese barberry for a punch of colour all growing season long. Further, I would suggest the ground cover types of roses, including the super hardy Pavement series — flowers without the fuss. Dwarf Norway spruce is an alternative evergreen ground cover to juniper for those of you with an aversion to them. Herbaceous perennials like creeping phlox, thyme, and snow in summer could also be incorporated into a bank for texture and colour.

There are two types of cistus common enough and worth mentioning: yellow and purple broom, which are very drought tolerant, with flowers and fragrance. They really aren’t the weeds you think of that grow along the railroad tracks up the lake.

In short, there are a number of ornamental plants that can be used to landscape those tough spots.

Evan Davies owns Beltane Nursery at 2915 Highway 3 in Erickson.