The Do’s and Don’t’s of Groundcovers

Lots of plants are designated as “ground cover”, because they do in fact cover the ground. If the whole object is to prevent weeds from falling on the soil and germinating, almost anything dense will do. But my own definition is limited to plants that are essentially living mulch (and you all know how much I love mulch!).

Do choose low growing plants.

So I don’t use spreading junipers. Or cotoneaster. Or anything else woody. Or most ornamental grasses. All these have more “character” than I desire in a “living mulch”. I prefer my ground covers to almost disappear into the background (unless they don’t, as you will soon see…), and allow the taller, bolder plants to really shine. A bit like a subtle frame for a picture–usually it’s the picture you want to feature, not the frame.

Do choose plants that are not too aggressive but will still spread in a civilized manner

I include in the category of “too aggressive” things like Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis). It’s got a lot going for it, but it self-seeds like crazy, and tho’ fairly easy to pull out even when it’s pretty large, it does make for a lot of pulling. On the other hand it you’ve got a lot of space to cover, and this would include dry shade like under conifers, Lady’s Mantle is the thing for you.

Ajuga is a pretty vigorous spreader, but can be controlled. Ditto for Creeping Thyme or Wooly Thyme. Both of these grow into my lawn, but if I had a wider edging, like 12″ flagstone instead of 4″ bricks, the runners of ajuga wouldn’t go that far.

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Ajuga growing into the lawn. Click on all pictures to enlarge them.

Do choose plants that will give all season interest.

First of all, evergreen. Herbaceous perennials (plants that lose their above ground growth at the end of fall) do not meet the need of ground covering. Large patches of daylilies or columbine or Sedum spectabilis (the tall ones) will indeed cover a lot of ground, but only until winter, when all above ground greenery dies off (needing to be cleaned up), and the ground is again open and subject to weeds blowing in, to compaction by winter rains, and to squirrels digging up bulbs and burying nuts.

Secondly, colour. Either foliage colour or flower colour.

Heuchera 'Purple Palace'

Heuchera ‘Purple Palace’. An “evergreen” that still needs a little spring clean-up.

Another Heuchera--it was already here when I moved in, so don't know what cultivar it is.

Another Heuchera–it was already here when I moved in, so don’t know what cultivar it is.

Both these heucheras have strong colour–not what I’d call subtle. But I find they don’t compete with their mates–I have them located mainly where the plants that grow up around and through them have a much shorter season–like spring and summer bulbs.

Veronica repens--Creeping Speedwell

Veronica repens–Creeping Speedwell

Finally, texture. I keep referring to Lady’s Mantle, and positively in this case:

Alchemilla mollis. Tiny hairs on the surface of the leaves creates "ultrahydrophobic" effect.

Alchemilla mollis. Tiny hairs on the surface of the leaves creates “ultrahydrophobic” effect.

Do choose plants that your native garden visitors (like pollinators and insect predators) will appreciate.

This would include anything native that still fits into all the other requirements: Mike’s top 5 include Tiarellas, Heucheras, Epimediums, and I’d add Salal (Gaultheria shallon)–the dwarf varieties.

Gaultheria shallon

Gaultheria shallon

Don’t choose plants that are considered invasive in your area

Here it’s English or Boston ivy, Periwinkle, Lamium, Goutweed…

Don’t choose plants that need a lot of cleaning up. 

Poor Lady’s Mantle, she gets a bad rap from me. She’s not “herbaceous”, in that she doesn’t lose all her leaves in winter. But most of them will dry up and shrivel. So they are still covering the ground, but need cutting off in the spring when new growth starts. Hellebores have a similar need: they really are evergreen, but by late winter or whenever the particular cultivar begins to produce flower buds, the foliage is looking a little tatty, and may actually hide the flowers. So I usually cut off old foliage as new flowers begin to sprout.

Hellebore in flower with last year;s leaves removed

Hellebore in flower with last year’s leaves removed.

Hellebore after blooming with full spring growth. Both pictures taken same day.

Different Hellebore after blooming with full spring growth. this one blooms much earlier than the previous pic. Both pictures taken same day.

Now neither of these chores is particularly onerous–unless you have acres of them, in which case they will be onerous.

Don’t choose plants that will compete with other plantings.

This would include plants that have a bold character on their own–like Blue Fescue. Blue Fescue is a brilliant plant–love its colour, its shape, it texture, it’s minimal clean-up. But it definitely doesn’t meld into the background. So as a feature plant, especially when mass-planted, it’s wonderful. But not “groundcover”.

Other ornamental grasses however have a more subtle presence, and are fine for groundcover: Carex caryophylla ‘Beatlelmania’ is one of my faves, altho in my garden it’s hard to keep it happy.

Here are a few more options:

Most low-growing sedums

Most low-growing sedums

Another sedum. Most flower in the early summer. Most can be walked upon without damage. most have spectacular texture. Hard to beat.

Another sedum. Most flower in the early summer. Most can be walked upon without damage. most have spectacular texture. Hard to beat.

Wooly thyme.

Wooly thyme.

Iberis sempervirens

Iberis sempervirens. 

Strawberries!

Strawberries!

Saxifraga x urbium --London Pride, also called "None-so pretty"!

Saxifraga x urbium –London Pride, also called “None-so pretty”!

Aubretia.

Aubretia. 

Most of the above plants are mainly sun-lovers, but will tolerate some degree of shade. Those like Iberis and Aubretia that put on a carpet of bloom would seem to be a bit bold to “meld into the background”. But when they’re in bloom, there’s not much else around them. But the time other perennials or shrubs are growing and sprouting, the groundcover is a lovely carpet of green. Background green.

So you have LOTS of suggestions here. No excuse for not having your soil safely covered and protected from weeds, critters, compaction. Unless you prefer wood chip mulch!

Comments? Questions? Concerns? What are you using for ground cover? Leave them all in the comment box.

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Fall Clean-Up–What NOT to Do

Fall Clean up–What not to do.

It’s pretty late to be talking about fall clean up, but today it’s still sunny, and pretty cold for coastal BC (-1 right now), and it’s Sunday. So there might be a feeling that it’s now or never to clean up the garden.

Make it “never”–or at least make it “minimal” until late winter (andI’ll get to that in late winter).

When you look outside, you see fallen leaves, dead flower stalks, faded (or rotting) flowers,  and all manner of “unattractiveness”. You want to clear it all away. Have a fresh canvas for spring growth. You want it tidy. Neat.

Octavia Hall Rose looking the worse for wear

Octavia Hall Rose looking the worse for wear

But nature is never tidy, never neat, so I’m going to try to relieve you of the need to make it “nice”.

Dead flower stalks.

There are a few reasons to leave them where they are:

1. If they have seed heads on them, they are food for our local over-wintering birds. Chickadees, juncos, sparrows, towhees, bushtits, house finches… The more you can provide them the better they’ll survive the season. Coneflowers (Echinacea), Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia), Shasta Daisies (Leucothemum), even sunflowers (Helianthus)–leave them all.

Rudbeckia seed head

Rudbeckia seed head

Crocosmia seeds. Beautiful to look at, but I wonder what bird has a big enough beak to crush these. They're probably 3-4 mm diameter.

Crocosmia seeds. Beautiful to look at, but I wonder what bird has a big enough beak to crush these. They’re probably ~3 mm diameter.

2. They are a reminder of what you have planted so that in spring, when you HAVE to get back out again, and nothing is sprouting yet, you’ll know NOT to dig in that bare spot that Oh, has a flower stalk in the middle of it. You may think you’ll remember where your beloved plants are, but trust me, you won’t!

Daylily (Hemerocallis) flower stalk reminding me when it's all bare and inviting that something is really there.

Daylily (Hemerocallis) flower stalk reminding me when it’s all bare and inviting that something is really there.

3. Hollow stemmed flower stalks provide a nesting place for cavity-nesting native bees like Mason bees. That’s a very good thing in our bee-challenged but bee-dependent environment.

Leaves:

Mostly let them lie where they fall.

Leaves will not only compost-in-place, they also provide habitat for a lot of beneficial critters in the meantime.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis) leaves will stay there until they compost. Besides, they're a vivid rich brown, quite pretty close-up.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis) leaves will stay there until they compost. Besides, they’re a vivid rich brown, quite pretty close-up.

There are a few exceptions to this however. If the leaves had any disease–powdery mildew, black spot, rust, etc– get rid of them. I’ll be cleaning up all the rose leaves today because they are full of black spot. The disease will overwinter because it’s not cold enough here to kill it. And will still be there next year to re-infect. Now having said that, these disease-causing organisms are all around anyway, and if a plant is susceptible, will be affected to some degree, given the right conditions. So is there really any benefit in clearing away the disease-bearing leaves now? Maybe I’ll do a barely-controlled experiment in my “research lab”–aka garden…

Rose leaves kind of indistinguishable  from surrounding wood chip mulch. maybe I'll leave then there after all...

Rose leaves kind of indistinguishable from surrounding wood chip mulch. Maybe I’ll leave then there after all…

Another exception is large leaves. Especially the larger maple leaves. They can create an almost impenetrable mat over the ground potentially causing damage to turf grass, and hindering water movement. But an easy solution is to rake them onto the lawn, and mow over them with your mulching mower. The small leaf bits will provide nutrition to the lawn just like the grass clippings have done (and I know you leave your grass clippings on the grass).

Habitat:

All that decaying matter is habitat for beneficial insects, birds, bees, all the things you want to encourage in your garden. It’s true, you are also providing habitat for some things you’d rather not support–like slugs– but the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. And if the odd toad or frog turns up, it’ll deal with your slugs anyway. Win-Win.

If you  feel the need to tidy things up despite all this, maybe just neaten the edges a bit. Take off those rotting rose blooms, the daylily and hosta leaves that are turning to mush, and of course weeds–getting them now will save some work in March. But keep it simple, and remember, there’s always Spring cleaning soon enough.

5 Effortless Edibles

Every garden design should include some fruits and vegetables. Here’s 5 “effortless” (OK, maybe a little effort) fruits and vegetables that will stimulate your appetite for more. This isn’t an exhaustive tutorial on growing these 5, you can find out more details online. But it is enough to actually succeed!

1. Garlic.

Garlic--wish I know what variety.

Garlic–wish I know what variety.

Who doesn’t love garlic? (Well, I do know a few people who REALLY don’t love garlic…) You can plant garlic in the container that held your summer geraniums. Or in the ground underneath your creeping thyme ground cover. Or of course in a bed all its own. It’s planted in the fall and harvested next summer. Best to use garlic that comes from a farmer’s market, or from the garden retailer, not what you bought at the supermarket, which if what I heard on a Youtube video that is too tedious to link is correct, is 73% likely to have come from China.

Use the larger cloves for planting, keep the smallest for the kitchen. They go 3″ deep, cover over, then mark them somehow so you’ll remember where, and what they are.

2. How ’bout Strawberries.

Strawberry basket

Strawberry basket

Making a nice sunny area ground cover, everbearing or day-neutral strawberries will last a few years. Let just a few of the runners “run”–cut off the rest– and your patch will be almost self-sustaining. And they’re evergreen here in coastal BC.

If you’re growing in pots/hanging baskets (nothing growing in pots is really “effortless”, because they’ll need more watering and feeding than ground-based growing) feed with a balanced fertilizer (same first, middle and last number) to start the season, then a high last number to get fruit going. In the ground, your strawberries will be happy with just your yearly compost layer.

3. Kale.

Kale is a love-hate kind of plant. It’s a Brassica, like cabbage and brussels sprouts, so it does have a cabbage-y-ish flavour. But it’s SO GREEN!, has an abundance of all the heath-benefiting antioxidant vitamins and minerals, almost no calories, and is very versatile. I’ve been trying kale smoothies! You can start winter kale now, and it will be harvestable all winter long.DSCN1922

Choose as sunny a spot as possible, because of course even in the best spot, there won’t be much sun come October. A little compost added to the spot is all kale needs. In the spring when it warms up, the kale will begin to put out flowers; the older leaves may get a bit bitter, but the flowers are lovely, like really mild broccoli.

Container growing is very practical, just remember the feeding/watering rule–more of both than in ground-based growing.

4. Lettuce.

Everyone should be growing lettuce, because it’s so easy, so many different varieties available, overwinters like it loves the cold, and is pretty to boot. Especially if you  plant a combinations of reds and greens. Add a little compost to your planting spot now, wait a few weeks for the weather to drop a couple degrees, then direct sow a few seeds every week or so until the temperature is consistently below 10 (C).

5. Raspberries.raspberry

I can hardly call raspberries “effortless”, but for the joy of picking your own, the little work is truly worth it. Raspberries. can be grown against a sunny fence, taking up little space if you carefully cut out 2-yr old canes and keep the fresh ones wired up against the fence–like espalier, but less work. The fruits grow in the second year of an individual cane’s growth, so don’t expect fruits the first year you plant. After fruiting (“everbearing” raspberries fruit in summer and fall, so wait until second harvest) the cane should be cut down to the ground, making room for more canes next spring. Some varieties to look for: Autumn Bliss, Autumn Britten, Caroline.

And Surprise! Surprise! There’s no reason not to try growing raspberries in a container–the bigger, the better.

There you have 5 “easy-care” (if not strictly speaking “effortless”) edibles that you can enjoy with minimal input. Are you growing any of these? Would you like to? Don’t wait, now’s the best time to try some of these.

If you find it a bit intimidating getting started with such “serious” gardening, just post a note in the comments, let me help you with it. After all, I’m your Garden Coach!

Grass Solutions

Googled “Garden Solutions” (still haven’t found RLGS after 17 pages :-(), and found a great Pinterest Board called “Garden Solutions”.

…on which was this picture:

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Evangelizing the gospel of Long Grass + Long Roots =Unhappy Weeds.

Unfortunately the link was just to the picture instead of the article, so that’s all you get here as well. But then you’ve also got my article, so you’re all set!

Let the grass grow!

Tips For Low(er) Maintenance Lawn

Image

This lawn is maintained by a landscape crew

The pictures of turf on the package of grass fertilizer is ultra-high maintenance, and unless you’re a golf-turf manager, you’ll never achieve it. It needs watering, weeding, fertilizing, liming; top-dressing with compost, overseeding; receives lots of harmful chemicals to weed-and-feed (golf course turf isn’t subject to the same restrictions as homeowners), and needs a team of care-givers to accomplish all this.

Also a lawn managed by maintenance company

Also a lawn managed by maintenance company

If you’re determined to have a turf lawn, but still want to try for “low maintenance” here’s a few tips:

Summer Dormancy

The first thing to know in planning your low maintenance lawn is that cool season grasses (“cool season” is what we have here in BC)—fescues, perennial ryegrasses, bentgrasses—naturally go dormant in hot weather. So not only is watering them through the summer a lot of work and environmentally unsound, it’s also illogical. The grass’s nature is to go dormant, so let it do so. Yes, it will look brown and sad, but it’s doing what it’s meant to do. And we have watering restrictions (increasingly restrictive!) requiring you to get up at 4 am. if you want to water your lawn during dry season! When the rains return so does the green—and very fast! And so does the mowing again. And now it’s getting colder and wetter, but you’re still out there mowing until winter. If you make that lawn a smaller portion of a greater concept garden, it will diminish in impact while the rest increases in impact. And be a lot less work.

Location, Location, Location!

In our location—coastal BC— we have acidic soil. Turf grasses prefer neutral soil. So the lawn needs liming. I’m not going to go into the details of liming, just that it should be done in spring and fall. The alternative is to have a yard full of moss and buttercup.

And grass that is walked on—what grass isn’t? It is inviting bare feet to enjoy it!–gets compacted and needs aerating every year or two.

Sun exposure and moisture levels determine not only what seed to use, but whether grass will grow at all. If you have cedar trees (Chamaecyparis, Thuja, Juniper), you will constantly fight to establish grass nearby, both because of the shade, and the fact that the trees are VERY THIRSTY. There’s not much water left for poor little grass plants. Douglas firs are similar, and they have a wide canopy. Ditto most large maples.

DSCN1049

You can see the cedar trunks on the left, about 10′ from the edge of the grass. When I moved in, that’s the line–well beyond the drip line of the trees–where grass stopped growing well. That’s where I edged the lawn–then tried to figure out what else might be happy there.

Don’t try for a “picture-perfect” lawn.

As I pointed out in a previous post  the weed-free, golf-course-looking home lawn is a pretty recent development. If you lower your standards a bit and allow some other, non-grass plants (sometimes called “weeds”) to co-exist, you’ll reduce your workload exponentially. I’m all for Dutch White Clover.

lawn sown with Dutch White Clover

Lawn sown with Dutch White Clover

Here are some pics of my backyard grass today:

Lots of Sphagnum Moss

LOTS of buttercup

LOTS of buttercup

Yet, unless I'm down at nose level, it looks pretty good. To me at least.

Yet, unless I’m down at nose level, it looks pretty good. To me at least.

Bottom Line Tips 

  1. Don’t fight with what you can’t change. Unless you’re willing to cut down large thirsty trees, plant something other than “lawn grass”.
  2. Don’t expect to reproduce the lawn picture on “Weed and Feed” fertilizer bags.
  3. Let lawn go dormant in summer.
  4. Make your lawn space small. Let other plantings dominate.
  5. Invest in shares of Dutch White Clover 🙂