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Growing outdoor walls and floors

Vines and groundcovers for the southern garden.

When I think about vines and groundcovers, I remember my favorite childhood book -- “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It’s the story of Mary Lennox, a not-too-nice orphaned girl who is sent to live with her uncle in England. She discovers an overgrown and neglected garden that is locked behind an ivy-covered wall. This discovery opens her eyes to the wonders and miracles of nature and transforms a spoiled child into a thoughtful, loving young lady.

I envision Mary’s garden with walls and paths full of trailing and climbing foliage, arbors drenched in roses and spongy moss underfoot. While ivy is not my vine of choice, there are many vines and groundcovers that produce the same effect—a cool, protected haven.

Vines and groundcovers are wonderful additions to every landscape. While, by definition, vines are vertical and groundcovers are horizontal, similarities exist between the two. Most that are suitable to the South are tough plants, adapting well to our seasonal extremes--high humidity; dry summers and wet winters; fickle weather and tough clay soil. Vines and many groundcovers creep, trail or climb in some manner. Many varieties serve both purposes—ivy immediately comes to mind!

Besides the romantic allure of these plants, they are extremely practical. Groundcovers are often planted in lieu of turfgrass—most are evergreen and produce a solid mass of foliage. These tough plants require little in the way of maintenance. Closely planted groundcovers choke out weeds and little if any fertilization is necessary.

Vines offer many of the same benefits. Another plus is that using vines in the landscape adds another dimension--up! For a gardener who has little ground space, vines offer the tremendous possibility, creatively casting shadows and decorating fences and trellises, bare walls and mailboxes.

Things to consider when choosing vines and groundcovers

  1. Deciduous or evergreen?  Do you care if your landscape has bare areas in the winter?  Also, will falling leaves from a deciduous vine cause a mess?
  2. The right plant in the right place?  While an arbor or pergola covered in roses is a wonderful vision, do you have enough sun to encourage flowering?  Or the reverse—glossy green pachysandra quickly fills an empty sweep in the yard but will wither away in too much sun.
  3. How about size and scale?  Mosses and herbs such as wooly thyme look terrific growing between bricks and pavers in the walkway, but will quickly get lost on a hill.
  4. How does it grow?   Growth habit is important—for less maintenance, choose slower growing varieties. Groundcovers such as creeping liriope (L. spicata) spreads by underground stems and can rapidly grow out of bounds. Is the vine a clinging, twining or winding vine? Clinging vines use rootlets to adhere to walls and fences; twiners will encircle supports such as lattice to grow upright; vines that wind grow tendrils that wrap around anything they come in contact with. Clingers can damage mortar and wood on houses and other structures—winders and twiners can quickly smother surrounding vegetation.
  5. To flower or not to flower?  Most vines and groundcovers do flower—for some, it is what makes them desirable while others have insignificant flowers. Flowers and fruit that drop from vines can cause staining on furniture and decks; and if you are planting groundcover to walk in barefoot, do you want to land on a bee?  Once again, think about where you are planting and the use of that area.

Fall is the best time to plant groundcover and perennial vines, so test that soil, till it up, amend it correctly and start planting!

Favorite perennial vines and groundcovers for Atlanta area gardens

Evergreen/semi-evergreen  vines:

  • Large-Flowered Clematis (Clematis hybrida)—full sun/part shade
  • Carolina Jessamine—full sun/part shade
  • Confederate Jasmine—part-shade
  • Cross Vine—full sun/part shade
  • Sweetbox—shade
  • Armand Clematis—full sun/part shade

Deciduous vines:

  • Lady Banks Rose—full sun
  • Five-leaf akebia—full sun/part shade
  • Trumpet honeysuckle—full sun
  • Passion vine (maypop)—full sun
  • Japanese climbing fern—shade
  • Climbing hydrangea—part shade (pictured above)
  • American wisteria—full sun

Groundcovers:

  • Blue Star Creeper (Laurentia)—full sun/part shade
  • Wooly Thyme—full sun
  • Liriope cultivars—full sun/part shade
  • Cotoneaster—full sun
  • Evergreen candytuft—full sun
  • Mondo grass—full sun
  • Pachysandra—shade
  • Perwinkle (vinca)—shade
  • Juniper cultivars—full sun
  • Daylily—full sun
  • Lenten rose—shade
  • St. Johnswort—sun/part shade
  • Hosta cultivars--shade
  • Moss--shade

Photo credit: Gary Wade, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org


About the author

Mary Kay WoodworthMary Kay Woodworth is Executive Director of the Georgia Urban Ag Council. In her spare time, you can find her digging in the dirt, pulling weeds, and writing garden-related articles for publication.