November 17, 2011

Why I Don't Weed

When I began digging new gardens all around our half acre, weeding all the bare spaces was daunting.  So much new, disturbed earth.  So much empty space for weeds to fill, and they did, immediately and speedily.

I thought a fact of life was that you had to be out in the garden almost every day, in the summer heat, in the humidity, on your hands and knees, weeding around the shrubs and perennials.  So I weeded.  I mulched.  Then I weeded the mulch. 

But not now.  Now, five years into this project, I spend very little time pulling up unwanted stuff.  Why is that? 

Groundcovers.  Groundcovers are the secret weapon.  I planted low spreading plants in every border and bed.  Once they spread, I eliminated almost all weeding in the areas they cover. 

Here are my favorites for:
  • weed suppression, 
  • ability to spread quickly and nicely (no thugs), and 
  • sheer good looks:

Himalayan Fleeceflower, Persicaria afinis 'Dimity' (or 'Superba').  It forms a low, tight mat that nothing grows through.
Rosy pipecleaner spikes bloom from summer through late September.  Clean green leaves are red tinged.
Scarlet 'Dimity' between soft yellow dwarf amsonia and a border of liriope in fall.  Some years it's more maroon or rust red.

Yellowroot, Xanthorhiza simplicissima.  It's a taller, woody shrub that gets to about one foot high and loses its leaves in winter, but only the rare tall weed grows up through the woody stems, and is easily pulled.
In April, before the leaves appear, yellowroot has hazy purple blooms
Celery-like green leaves in summer . . .
. . . give way to soft wine tinged foliage in October . . .
. . .  turning bright gold in November.  Some autumns it's more bronzy, some years multi colored like a Persian carpet.

Fragrant sumac, Rhus aromatica 'Gro Low'.  Another low woody shrub that loses its leaves in winter.  It can get more than a foot tall but is easily pruned lower.  It spreads widely and densely and very quickly.  My plants just went in this summer.
Fragrant sumac leaves are glossy green.  They bring a shine down to the lower level of the garden.
This is how dense a mature patch of rhus aromatica gets.  No weeds grow in here. This is on a slope at Arnold Arboretum
Rhus aromatica in fall.  This is not mine -- my patch was just planted this summer, but I can't wait to see it turn to this next fall.  Photo is from Fine Gardening, credit Karen Bussolini

Geranium, there are many good spreaders --- mine is Geranium wlassovianum.  Geraniums smother absolutely everything under them.  They are kind of weedy themselves, needing to be cut back and trimmed each season, and they leave bare earth in winter, but they are so pretty.
Geranium wlassovianum fills a corner in front of bushy upright amsonia tabernaemontana.
It turns winey red in fall.

Kinnikinnik, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi.  I've written a lot about this groundcover before.  It's a favorite of mine.  The occasional bittersweet seedling pops up in the woody branches but can be pulled.
It's evergreen, it's glossy, it has sweet pink bells for flowers.  I love this groundcover.

A few plants spread easily to make this mat, and will keep going into the bare areas up to the brick wall.

Thyme, the low mat kind, mine is Thymus serpyllum 'alba'.  A few grass strands want to grow in the mat, but the dense competition keeps them stunted and I can pull them out when I get to it.
Creeping Thyme is dense and spreads easily.  The white blooms go on for a month in early summer.

Groundcover Sedums (mine are 'Angelina', 'Red Carpet', and the mouthful 'Weihenstephaner's Gold' but there are many others).  All nice.  All easy.  All low, and nothing grows through them.  If you do nothing else, plant these and you will not weed.  I have them everywhere.

Some other groundcovers that are nice but are still problematic for weeds:

- Cranberry Cotoneaster.  It's glossy green with red berries and it spreads low and wide, but tenacious bittersweet and slender grass shoots get established in open areas under the arching stems and they are hard to eradicate.
Cotoneaster apiculata

- Epimedium.  Lovely, and a mature stand in dry shade under a tree is awesome, with beautiful foliage.  I love them, but they take a good four years to establish and spread.  That leaves a lot of weeding to do before they get going.
Epimedium 'Frohnleiten'.  There are many varieties.

- Salix yezoalpina.  A groundcover willow.  Really.  It has very attractive wide glossy leaves and it stays low and spreads out many feet.  The leaves turn buttery yellow in fall.  It is too new for me, I have no experience yet to know if it will keep weeds down, but it is great looking so far.  More to come on this one.
Groundcover willow, newly planted last summer

There are so many choices, including the low mounding hakonechloa grasses, and liriope, and other plants that fill in at the feet of more upright perennials and shrubs.

For every plant that I put in the garden, I stuck a groundcover below it and hoped they would get along.  To my delight, my weeds fled, very sorry that they tried to grow in my gardens.


  1. Great advise. Not only do they prevent leaves they are pretty.

  2. Thank you sharing you're experience with all of these great groundcover plants. The photos from the different seasons are especially helpful!

  3. Beautiful examples of form and function, Laurrie. I'm with you on weeding by groundcover, including my favorite: mosses.

  4. Wow, these are all so gorgeous in the fall! I have lamium in my shade garden that also works well as a groundcover; my other "trick" is to plant everything close together, but that can cause some problems later on, as I've quickly learned:) This is excellent advice, Laurrie, that I should practice more of. The older I get, the less I like to get down on my knees and pull weeds for half the day!

  5. Great post, Laurrie! I have never heard of Kinnikinnik. But it reminds me of one of my faves, Pachysandra. I am too far north to get liriope to grow, sadly. I absolutely love how orderly and easy it is!
    I planted the sedum once before and I cannot bring myself to do it again, it was so invasive!
    Off to research the Kinnikinnik, now!
    I would love it in my border...

  6. I too ADORE groundcovers. Most are pretty good about avoiding pests too.

  7. Lisa, thanks. The groundcovers are some of the most interesting parts of my gardens I think.

    Curtis, I like seeing all my plants, not just the groundcovers, morph during each season.

    Lee, I wish I had the shade and moisture you do for a mossy patch.

    Rose, I also plant things way too close together and that helps with the weeds, but as you say, it creates more problems!

    Sissy, pachysandra is the horribly invasive plant for us here, so I stay away from it. I hope you end up putting some kinnikinnik in, if only to get the chance to pronounce it to visitors in your garden : )

    Donna, except for the ground willow, which got some aphids, all the other groundcovers I showed have no pests.

  8. Your groundcovers look fantastic! I'll have to see if any of these do well in the Southeast. Unfortunately for us we have that dg Bermudagrass -- great for pastures and an absolute pest in gardens.

  9. PS I know Yellowroot does well here -- I've seen it at the NC Botanical Garden. I'll have to try that one.

  10. I don't get many weeds because my beds are so thickly planted but I do love a good groundcover. I also grow geranium, epimediums, and thyme. They're both so easy. Aster divarcatus (heart leaf aster), lamium, ornamental oregano and oregano 'Rotkugel', sweetbox shrub, and creeping plumbago are effective, too. So is a big fluffy mound of catmint. You've got me curious about the ground willow. :o) Your garden looks beautiful in the photos!!

  11. Great post. I have a lot of groundcovers, but most of them don't prevent weeds very well. So then I have to trample all over the groundcover to pull out the weeds. I think I need to think it out again.

  12. I have only a small patch of flower gardens, new this season, but I put in some groundcover sedums (ruby glow, red carpet, angelina), creeping thyme and my favorite interplanting and border -- alyssum. Lots of alyssum. (Next year I'm buying alyssum seed in bulk and scattering it over everything!)

    Like Casa Mariposa, my bed is thickly planted, and before planting last spring, I put an underlayer of newspaper which worked like a charm!

    I do have a question, though -- I'm going to put a layer of leaves on all my beds -- will it hurt the sedum to be mulched over? Any thoughts?

  13. Sweebay, I hope yellowroot does well for you if you plant it. Mine thrives with no care, but other people have said it disappears on them.

    Tammy, thanks! You have some great groundcovers going. I love the sweetbox (sarcococca, right?) but am afraid it would not survive zone 5. I might try it though.

    Lyn, definitely rethink the groundcovers if they are not keeping your weeds down!

    Tricia, Alyssum is another wonderful groundcover, I love it. I would not put leaves over the sedums. They typically like dry conditions, and a leaf mulch might keep too much moisture in. Maybe try a section covered in leaves, and another with the sedum uncovered... and then see how they do!

  14. What beautiful fall color and cover! Well done!!

  15. Very interesting, Laurrie! I have never heard of several of these groundcovers, even though I use the same philosophy. I've got pachysandra (not a problem, vinca minor, and ivy. The ivy may have been a mistake--it grows over everything in its path. Your seasonal photos are wonderfully helpful.

  16. Great advice Laurrie. I put down mulch in a couple beds this year only to find myself weeding the mulch as you say. I'm hoping ajuga chocolate chip will help remedy some of these issues.

  17. Gloria, Thanks so much!

    Lynn, You have the classic beautiful groundcovers but all three -- pachysandra, vinca and ivy -- have proved to be too aggressive here and have become big problems. I like experimenting with others.

    Marguerite, I planted ajuga chocolate chip this fall too. I'll have to see how it spreads, and I'll look for your posts on it : )


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