Plants I Love and Deer Ignore: Ajuga

Ajuga reptans grows with a mix of vines, perennials and ferns to form a living ground cover in this shady border

Gardening should be fun and bring joy to our lives.  That is why I am always happy to share a plant that thrives in our climate, grows beautifully without a lot of fuss, and that won’t attract the attention hungry deer looking for the salad bar.  Allow me to share one of my favorites….

A living ground cover provides key benefits other choices do not.  It won’t decompose, harbor fungi, or wash away like shredded wood mulch. Living ground covers sequester carbon as they grow, while wood and pine straw release carbon back into the atmosphere as they break down.  Over time, organic mulches may also make the soil they cover more acidic.

Unlike lawn grasses, living ground covers don’t require regular mowing or chemical maintenance.  Once planted, many ground cover plants look out for themselves with minimal intervention from the gardener.  They hold soil against erosion, particularly on banks, provide beauty under and around shrubs, and offer year-round color and texture.

Ajuga is a member of the mint family, providing nectar rich flowers for pollinators

Ajuga, or bugleweed, offers a wide range of foliage colors and textures.  The plants hold their leaf color year-round, though newly emerging leaves may be more intense.   Each plant remains around 3” tall until it blooms in mid to late spring.

Brilliant lavender-blue flowers cover each 5”-6” stem with nectar rich flowers, attractive to pollinating insects and hummingbirds.  Like other members of the mint, or Lamiaceae family, Ajuga flowers nourish native bees and other pollinators over a long season.  No maintenance is required, but a string trimmer makes short work of cutting back the stems once flowers have faded and prevents reseeding.  Ajuga makes a stunning combination with Narcissus and other spring flowering bulbs.

Ajuga grows wider with stolons, much like a strawberry plant. In some areas they can become invasive.

Bugleweed forms a dense, weed suppressing mat of rosette shaped plants.  Its growth pattern resembles strawberry plants, with new plantlets emerging on the ends of short stolons.    Space new plants 12”-18” apart, with the expectation that they will fill in the space within two years.  When grown in a hanging basket, new plants will colonize the coco liner and hang around the edges suspended on their stolons.

Native to the Mediterranean region, Ajuga tolerates heat, cold, drought, ice, torrential rains, and a variety of situations from shade to nearly full sun.  Most varieties are hardy from Zone 3b-9.  Ajuga has relatively shallow roots and thrives on a wide variety of soils.  Waterlogged, heavy clay soil is the most difficult situation for Ajuga, which makes a beautiful ground cover under mature trees.  It won’t compete with trees for moisture and nutrients to the extent lawn grasses do.

Hybrids and named cultivars of Ajuga reptans are available in most garden centers.  Leaf colors range from tri-color variegation of cream, pink and green to bronze, purple, green and near black.  Ajuga ‘Black Scallop’ is a favorite, as its leaves are glossy and highly crinkled to reflect available light. 

Newer varieties coming to market include the golden Ajuga ‘Parrot Paradise,’ the much slower spreading Ajuga pyramidalis ‘Metallica Crispa Purpurea,’ and the tiny Ajuga tenorei ‘Blueberry Muffin.’  If your garden is small, or you are concerned about Ajuga spreading too much, look for the Italian Ajuga tenorei selections, which may only spread 12”-18” after three years. 

Ajuga mixes well with Japanese painted ferns, spring bulbs and other ground covers.

Ajuga is tough and persistent, tolerating limited foot traffic.  Deer, squirrels and rabbits leave it strictly alone.  Many hybrid varieties are sterile.  If new plants stray too far, dig them easily to transplant or share with friends.  Ajuga is unlikely to escape cultivation or create problems in our region. Rely on bugleweed to give many years of beautiful coverage in problem areas. 

Ajuga may be the most affordable and desirable ground cover option I’ve tried.  It grows better each year, pleases in every season, and requires little effort to establish.  Anyone interested in sustainable, wildlife gardening may find it useful.

Ajuga has grown together with Saxifraga stolonifera, which will bloom a few weeks after the Ajuga.

For More Information:

Reducing Erosion and Run-off – Virginia Tech (pdf)

https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/ajuga-reptans/

Plant Delights Nursery– Ajuga

Missouri Botanical Garden– Ajuga

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore

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