Friday, November 26, 2010


            Thanksgiving was quiet, as usual. Unlike much of the rest of the country, the weather in southeastern North Carolina stayed mild and calm. Rain threatened but never materialized. I spent the afternoon working outside, excavating the flagstone path that periodically goes missing underneath my groundcover lab.  
The re-excavated flagstone path

A little background: I can’t count the number of times Tim and I have fielded requests for a plant that reduces or—better!—replaces mulching. It must be evergreen, fill in quickly with little or no effort on the part of the gardener, and not be too rambunctious or messy-looking; flowers and/or fragrance would be nice too. It must take full sun and/or dry shade, boggy and/or arid conditions and be impervious to deer, rabbits, insects and diseases. A single specimen that covers about a hundred square feet in six weeks without supplemental water or food would be ideal.

            Well, wouldn’t it ever just! If hybridization of such a paradigm was within our grasp, Tim and I would retire in the style to which we’d just love to become accustomed. Out here in the real world, though, we have to make do with what we’ve got.

            Say the word “groundcover” and most of us immediately envision a mass of low-growing evergreen perennials. We imagine it filling voids where grass won’t grow, covering slopes to prevent erosion, and repressing—or at least hiding—weeds. We think in terms of foliage; flowers are a bonus, but not necessary. In our minds, groundcovers embody the quintessence of low maintenance, something to plant and forget, unlike almost everything else in the usual suburban landscape. No wonder we fantasize about perfect ground-covering species.

            Me being me, fantasy turned to action. An inveterate experimenter, I plopped low-growing prospects in on the south side of our house, a place reputed to resemble one of the lower circles of plant hell. It gets too much shade, too much water, too much competition in the way of weeds (and other groundcovers) and ’way, ’way too much traffic. It’s where we warehouse plants slated for jobs we haven’t gotten around to yet, serves as nursery to trial plants and orphans I’ve collected over the years, and is the main route between front and back yards. It's like the New York City of song: if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. 
            Here’s the list of survivors, roughly in order of their appearance.

Wintergreen euonymous
Euonymous fortunei
 1.      Wintercreeper euonymus (Euonymus fortunei) This one went in first, back in 1998. An evergreen, woody-stemmed vine (occasionally tripping me up as I shuffle through it) with dark green  leaves, the straight species has stood the test of time. It spread slowly but inexorably, and without any maintenance at all creeps by rooting stems under, over, up, through and into obstacles. My  specimen is leggy, but a little more sun and a little less water would probably render it denser. Trendy variegated cultivars, ‘Emerald Gaiety’ and ‘Aureomarginata,’ didn’t make the cut.

2.      Mint (Mentha x piperita) Evergreen, highly tolerant of traffic and deliciously scented as you yank out its runners by the mile, mint likes sunny, shady, wet and/or dry places. It produces little spikes of pinky-blue flowers in summer. Mine is plain ol’ peppermint, but spearmint and any other flavor of the square-stemmed genus Mentha behave the same way. My honest assessment? Use this stoloniferous thug only as a last resort. If you leave the front door open too long, it'll establish itself in your living room. Perhaps its best application is as soil-holder on slopes, but don’t say I didn’t warn you if it makes a move on your lawn. What if you crave a little patch for juleps? Plant it in a container, leaving a quarter of the pot above ground, to corral it.

Golden creeping jenny
Lysimachia nummularia  'Aurea'
3.      Golden creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ or ‘Goldilocks’) The greeny-gold half-inch-diameter roundish leaves of this little charmer really light up shady spaces: I acquired mine in its groundcover incarnation by accident. Usually found trailing from hanging baskets, ‘Aurea’ escaped its pot one year as it overwintered on the ever-useful south side of our house. Come spring, when I yanked the pot up to replant it, some creeping jenny stems had rooted in the ground, and it took off from there. It took three or four years to settle in before spreading enthusiastically. I think if you planted it (on purpose) in dappled shade with less daunting competition and provided a modicum of care, it would take off sooner.
English ivy
Hedera helix

      4.     English ivy (Hedera helix) Almost everyone has spent time digging this thug out from somewhere it’s no longer wanted, so plant it with that fact in mind. Ivy not only covers ground, it covers trees, whole houses and dogs that sleep too long out in the yard. About the only thing other than constant vigilance and a sharp shovel that slows ivy down is exposure to full sun. The myth that it’s a strangler of trees and a destroyer of masonry is not true. However, its dense growth does hold moisture against wooden supports, providing footholds for rot and disease. Consider ivy the final fall-back position of the terminally unimaginative, desperate, or unbalanced.

Fragaria spp.
5.      Strawberry (Fragaria spp.) No, really, I mean it. Any plant that allows me to graze as I garden rates high in my book. I have patches of evergreen ever-bearers in both sunny and shady locations, and they’re all doing fine. In fact, the ones I put at one of the “clematis poles” (a story for another day) have crept quite a ways along under the dwarf yaupon hedge in two directions and are poised to out-compete the centipedegrass in their immediate vicinity. Some non-berrying ornamental cultivars have been bred, notably 'Pink Panda' by Blooms of Bressingham. But what’s the point of fruitless strawberries?
Ajuga reptans 'Caitlin's Giant'

      6.      Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans cvv.) I once lumped the ajugas somewhere beneath butterfly bush in the ranks of second-rate plants. Then one year, desperate for anything except the same old tired pansies to add color to winter containers, I impulsively bought a flat of ‘Caitlin’s Giant.’ They didn’t work so well in pots—too flat—so eight orphans languished on our south side. During one of my periodic garden extreme makeovers, I plunked the leftovers in a west-facing bed and hoped they’d die. Well, not only did they not die, they rooted in and flourished. To my utter amazement, the two-to-three-inch-wide chocolatey-green leaves stayed glossy and healthy-looking all summer—even producing spikes of blue flowers that first September. The plucky evergreen foliage sailed through winter and blooms appeared again, on schedule, in late March into May. The second season it spread with a vengeance. Give these guys regular water and some shade (morning or afternoon, they aren’t picky), and they’ll cover ground for you. There are at least 16 cultivars of A. reptans and two additional species. As for me, I’m sticking with Caitlin. I have seen the Ajuga light and am now a true believer.

These six genera are proven performers at our house, despite south-side conditions, sandy soil, salt spray and near-total neglect. There’s another whole article in the list of my groundcover failures, and yet another in ground-covering shrubs. But as I’m trying to keep posts under 1500 words, perhaps we'll go there later, if readers express any interest.

            This is probably a good place to remind everyone that gardening is not the best hobby for instant-gratification addicts. Any groundcover, even if it likes where you put it, is going to take time to establish, and it’s going to have to establish before it can spread. Obviously, using the largest number of the biggest plants you can afford will help hurry things along. Still, patience—and the right plant for the site—conquers all.

            Thanks for dropping by. Next time: the month-end round-up.

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