The Highs and Lows of Gardening: Vines and Groundcovers

Plant gorgeous vines and beautiful groundcovers to solve some common problems in your garden.
The Highs and Lows of Gardening: Vines and Groundcovers - News


Lady's Mantle, Photo by Pamela T. Hubbard

Grow vines to provide shade, to give privacy with a living screen, to cover a stark wall, or to make a small space seem larger. Use groundcovers to crowd out weeds or control erosion; plant them in an area too shady for lawn grass or in a narrow, oddly shaped space. I will explain how to select and maintain vines and groundcovers that will add grace and charm to your Pocono landscape.


For best effect, display vines on a framework, bearing in mind that vines attach themselves to a support in one of three ways:

  1. With small root-like holdfasts along the stem, for example Virginia creeper.
  2. With tendrils, for example clematis.
  3. By twining, such as wisteria. They don't all turn in the same direction, so it is important to know in which direction to start winding a new, young twining vine around its support.

Types of structures include arbors, gazebos, pergolas, trellises, walls or fences as well as trees and tall shrubs. I use arbors to provide transition from one distinct area to another and pergolas to give shady, resting points in my garden. I disguised a dull stockade fence with a climbing hydrangea. Consider strength and stability in addition to appearance when choosing supports for your vines.

Selecting Vines

Suitable annual vines include moon vine (Ipomea alba), morning glory (Ipomea tricolor 'Heavenly Blue') and Spanish flag (Mina lobata.). Select these three vines for full sun locations, sowing seeds directly into the ground after the first frost. Follow the instructions on the seed packet for depth and spacing. Morning glory will reseed to return the next year, but the seedlings are easy to pull out if they appear where you don't want them.

Top of the list of perennial vines for me is clematis (Clematis sp.) probably the most popular and most often planted vine. Clematis prefers a full sun to part shade location. Prepare an area 18" x 18" x 18" and work in plenty of organic matter such as compost. Plant clematis lower than it is growing in the container to encourage it to send up more stems, making a denser plant. Add two to four inches of mulch, keeping it away from the stem, to maintain the cool soil temperature preferred by clematis.

Favorite woody ornamental vines are climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), and Japanese hydrangea vine (Schizophragma hydrangeoides 'Moonlight'). The latter is not a true hydrangea but produces lacecap hydrangea-type blooms in July. Like climbing hydrangea, it should be planted in a shady area. Climbing hydrangea has exceptional flowers and glossy green foliage. Virginia creeper is a vigorous vine with leaves that change through the seasons from purple in the spring to green in summer and brilliant red in the fall. Also use Virginia creeper as a groundcover if you wish.

Maintaining Vines

It is important to prune your vines to produce better blooms. Prune most vines in the spring to control growth and to remove old wood. Prune early flowering clematis after it has finished flowering; prune early-to-midseason large-flowered clematis prior to new growth; cut back last year's growth on late flowering clematis to a pair of strong buds, 6" to 8" above soil level, in early spring. When pruning clematis you may need to make several cuts to each stem in order to untangle them.


Groundcovers are any low growing plants that cover the ground so you don't see the soil. We use the term 'groundcover' to refer to plants other than lawn grasses. If you have a slope where lawn grass is difficult to maintain, try planting a groundcover that will control erosion by holding the soil in place with its roots. Its leaves will cover the soil and lessen the impact of wind and falling rain, at the same time conserving soil moisture, reducing heat and preventing dust. I grow groundcovers to give unity by tying together the various elements of my landscape. A favorite use of groundcovers, however, is to impede the development of weeds.

Selecting Groundcovers

When choosing a groundcover remember to pick 'the right plant for the right place' by noting its soil and sun requirements. Consider color, texture, height and needed maintenance. The following plants will perform well in full sun and some will thrive in part shade: lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis) with its large light green-gray leaves that sparkle with rain drops; white heath aster (Aster ericoides 'Snow Flurry') has mounding dark green leaves and white flowers in the fall; liriope (Liriope spicata) is grass-like with summer flower spikes of light purple to violet; and moss phlox (Phlox subulata 'Emerald Blue') will tolerate drought. Interweave patches of color and texture using sedums such as two-row stonecrop (Sedum spurium 'John Creech'). Sedums, with their succulent leaves, thrive in poor soil; their blooms, usually white, yellow, purple or pink, grow in small, star-like clusters.

Planting Groundcovers

It is important to eliminate all weeds before planting. Test the soil (kits are available at the Extension office) then add organic matter and other amendments as needed. Make a hole big enough to spread out the roots, placing the plants in a staggered pattern to give a natural look. On slopes, apply a three-inch layer of mulch to control erosion until the plants fill-in all the spaces. Soak the plants well at planting time.


Groundcovers are tough and require significantly less maintenance than lawn grasses, but while they are becoming established hand weed, fertilize, and water them carefully. Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses that allow moisture to slowly seep into the soil. Once established, you will not need to mulch each plant, but mulching the margins will discourage weed encroachment. When planting under trees, consider the maintenance needed to remove leaf debris. Vines and groundcovers provide fast solutions to some simple problems. They add character to any garden.