Each of your clients wants their property to have year-round eye appeal. You want to provide that in a maintenance package that fits their budget and your profit requirements. Plants in the non-turf portions of your maintenance sites play a critical role in meeting both objectives.

This view of field production at Walters Gardens helps visitors visualize the impact of mass plantings in vibrant colors, as well as gauge plant performance.

A year of weather extremes prompts the need to analyze plant performance. What changes can you make to solve problem areas and trim maintenance time? Often, groundcover is the answer to both questions, if you make the best match of plants to site-specific conditions.

There are multiple options to consider as new plants, the revival of robust native plants, and new ways of looking at plant combinations all hit the market.

To better identify resources for you, we joined in tours of the test and demonstration gardens and facilities of three major growers.

Peter and Irma Orum founded Midwest Groundcovers LLC in 1969 to broaden the selection of plant offerings. Its St. Charles, Illinois, location now features display gardens and trial beds and serves as the sales and distribution center for plants produced at their Glenn, Michigan, and Virgil, Illinois, sites. The tour included presentations highlighting new introductions and a walking show-and-tell session in the gardens with Kevin McGowan, sales and market research director.

Proven Winners’ Media Day included stops at two growers. Walters Gardens, Inc. of Zeeland, Michigan, has been growing perennials since 1946. A walking tour of display gardens was guided by a detailed map of plants featured in each area, with staff assistance along the way.

Spring Meadow Nursery, Inc. in Grand Haven, Michigan, has opted to concentrate on shrubs. Under the leadership of president and founder Dale Deppe, they work with a worldwide network of plant breeders to develop new varieties. High-tech production facilities and equipment combine with a staff passionate about plants, including Tim Wood, new product development manager and plant breeder. Wood recently introduced the Bloomerang Purple Syringa, a lilac that blooms in the spring, then again in summer and fall.

Tours like these provide opportunities to view new plant varieties growing in real-world conditions and evaluate their performance. As you consider new options, check out local trial and demonstration gardens and confer with suppliers to gauge each plant’s adaptability to specific potential site conditions.

Great info on the Web

A lot of media coverage focuses on “branded” plants, selected for superior performance in specific categories, such as Proven Winners, Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs, Flower Carpet Roses, Easy Elegance Roses, Endless Summer Hydrangea, Jeepers Creepers Ground Cover and Nordic Carpet Cotoneaster.

Sometimes the best way to ornamentals in production greenhouses is using a handheld trimmer, such as this example at Spring Meadow Nursery, Grand Haven, Michigan.

Midwest Groundcovers recently introduced Midwest Solutions Plant Partner combinations, groupings of plants “chosen based on sun exposure and soil type to create a long lived plant community.” They worked on selection and testing in conjunction with Roy Diblik, expert plantsman, owner of Northwind Perennial Farm, and author of “Small Perennial Gardens, The Know Maintenance Approach.” They also collaborated on the Garden Artistry plant combination program developed in conjunction with Chicago’s Lurie Garden in Millennium Park.

All three growers are licensed growers for several lines of branded plants and programs.

Growers’ websites provide plenty of possibilities in formats designed to help you make informed choices. Check the policies of each company you explore.

Midwest Groundcovers’ website offers a quick search option to find plants by botanical or common name. The site’s advanced search option can pull up plant information by category, in a chart format, and it shows a photo of each plant, along with blocks for botanical name, common name, height, spread, flower color, bloom time, foliage color, light needs, soil needs, native region and zones. Underneath the grid is information on its key characteristics.

Midwest Groundcovers maintains a retail outlet at its St. Charles site to serve local customers. Spring Meadows works closely with local retailers, and also offers online sales.

The Walters Gardens’ website has links to regional sales representatives and brokers and a grower locator service.

These websites list over 2,000 varieties of perennials with “over 100 plant characteristics including: flower and foliage color, bloom time, critter resistance, garden style and many cultural characteristics and plant uses.” They also feature photos of the plants and suggestions for companion plants. There’s a “Wish List Tool” you can use to compile the plants you’d like to consider that you can email to your computer to share with your plant supplier.

The Spring Meadow website is packed with information to assist in plant selection. You can browse by: plant type/botanical name, height, width, color, common name, bloom time, zone, exposure (sun or shade factors) and keywords.

Once you pick a plant, a quick review of “Plant Details” covers the height, spacing, exposure, hardy temperature, uses, features, soil, pruning, type (deciduous, evergreen, etc.), bloom time, flower color, foliage color and zone. An “About the Plant” section goes into greater detail about its key attributes. Multiple photos of the plant are provided along with a “Growing Tips” section.

Broad categories, specialized choices

Explore the options in newer varieties in all categories, even long-time favorite groundcover choices such as Pachysandra, Liriope, Vinca and Euonymus fortunei (Wintercreeper Euonymus). You’ll find recent introductions offering new colors and variegated patterns, showier flowers and extended blooming times, greater heat or cold tolerance, and compact growth characteristics that require little or no pruning.

An advanced search of the groundcover category on the Midwest Groundcovers website lists 124 plants. The six cultivars of Ajuga reptans for sun to partial shade include the 3- to 6-inch-tall varieties “Black Scallop” and “Dixie Chip,” “a small-leaved, tri-color that forms a mat of green, cream and rosy-purple foliage.” A search for ornamental grasses brings up 45 plants. Selecting only those at 3- to 4-foot heights narrows the options to nine.

Buddleia (Butterfly Bush) varieties in the seedless, dwarf Lo & Behold group are new options in groundcover shrubs. They bloom from mid-summer to frost and need no deadheading. The “Ice Chip” and “Lilac Chip” cultivars are just 18 to 24 inches tall and 24 to 30 inches wide.

Finding plants that do well in dry, shady conditions is a common problem intensified by the drought. The groundcover section of Spring Meadow Nursery’s website listed three Diervilla options to consider for these sites. Diervilla Bush Honeysuckle at a 3- to 4-foot height; “Copper,” with copper-red new growth, at a 2- to 3-foot height, and “Butterfly” at a 3- to 5-foot height.

Kevin McGowan, sales and market research director for Midwest Groundcovers, points out the new introduction for 2013, Allium “Summer Peek-a-Boo.”

Consider attention-grabbing groundcover shrubs that are low-growing, low-maintenance varieties of old favorites. Forsythia “Gold Tide” grows to a height of 2 feet; spacing is 5 to 6 feet. Bright yellow blossoms appear in the early spring, and it’s deer-resistant and seldom needs pruning. Rhus aromatic “Gro-Low” is a variety of fragrant sumac that is 1 to 2 feet in height. Planted on 8- to 10-foot spacing, it forms a mass of glossy green foliage that turns “superb orange-red in the fall.” Spirea “Magic Carpet” needs full sun and grows to a 1- to 2-foot height. Spacing is 2 feet. It features vibrant red leaf tips above bright golden foliage and flowers in the summer with pinkish-purple blossoms. Growing tips recommend trimming after flowering if you want to encourage repeat blooming.

The Walters Gardens website lists multiple cultivars of groundcover selections of Dianthus, Echinacea (cone flower), Hemerocallis (daylily), Heuchera (coral bells) and Hibiscus. It lists Hosta as “the most popular perennial for shade,” offering “an amazing palette of colors, sizes, textures and flowering performance.” With over 275 cultivars listed, there’s sure to be an eye-catching combination for any shady area.

Walters Gardens offers a range of Sedum, classifying them as “tough as nails” for water conservation with “thick, fleshy leaves that make it very drought-tolerant.” The Sedum Sunsparkler series of compact groundcover includes these options. Sedum “Cherry Tart” with “cherry red tinted foliage” that retains its color from spring through fall. The mounding plant ranges from 4 to 6 inches in height and produces large clusters of pink flowers. Sedum “Dazzleberry” produces a “compact clump of smoky blue-gray foliage completely covered with giant 6- to 8-inch clusters of vibrant raspberry colored flowers.” It ranges from 6 to 8 inches in height. Sedum “Lime Zinger” has “apple green leaves edged in cherry red” in a “tight, weed-suppressing, low-growing (4 to 6 inches) carpet of foliage” that produces “large clusters of light pink flowers.”

The extensive range of offerings by growers and the informational resources they provide are valuable tools you can use to benefit your clients. Growers’ passion for plants will ensure your choices will continue to expand, with solutions for every landscape maintenance challenge.

Steve and Suz Trusty are partners in Trusty & Associates, Council Bluffs, Iowa. They have been involved in the green industry for over 40 years.