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Dear Friend and Gardener

Groundcovers for a Lawn-less Garden.

Barren strawberry

Waldstenia, barren strawberry

One of the goals we had for our new Greenfield garden was to make it  lawnless. We certainly did not want a wild lawless garden, but we did not want large areas of grass that would need mowing. To prove his devotion to this goal my husband bought an inexpensive power lawn mower and said that it would probably last two years. He was giving me two years to design and plant a garden that would not include lawn that needed mowing.

In Heath I made small efforts to use ground covers. After I realized that the common thyme in my herb garden, and at the edge of the piazza was seeding itself in our field, I began dividing the exuberantly growing thyme and replacing a patch of grass with a shovelful of a thyme division. It took very little effort, and a generous post-planting watering to make sure the thyme roots were making good contact with the soil.

Elegant English gardens often feature a section of thyme garden, allowing it to bloom before mowing it down and waiting for another bloom time. Thyme does fine in ordinary soil and doesn’t mind being walked on. Thyme lawns work equally well in New England. We did mow the Heath lawns, but the thyme sections got fewer mowings so we felt we were taking a step in the right direction.

I did remove the turf of two lawn sections planting Waldsteinia fragarioides or barren strawberry in one area, and tiarella or foam flower in another. Both are hardy, native to the United States, bloom in April into May, and  tolerate sun or partial shade. I never needed to water these plants.

Barren strawberry with its frilly scalloped leaves bears sunny golden spring flowers on stems no more that eight inches tall in the spring. A single plant will soon cover a two foot square area, more quickly if the soil is good. It spreads by runner.

Tiarella, foam flower

Tiarella, foam flower

Foamflower  can tolerate partial to full shade. The creeping heart- shaped leaves cover the ground and the stems can reach up to 12 inches and are covered with airy, one might say foamy, white flowers in May.

Epimedium rubra

Epimedium rubra

It is sometimes difficult to find plants that will thrive in dry shade. I was not very confident when I planted my first Epimedium rubra with delicate pink flowers because I thought it was very tender. But it proved happy in Heath, and spread into such a good clump that I was able to give divisions to friends. I later planted Epimedium x versicolor ‘Suphureum’ which had spurred yellow blossoms held above the foliage and was an equally strong grower. These delicate looking plants are actually hardy, the dainty flowers borne on wiry stems are often called fairy hats.

The Epimedium world was a lot larger than I imagined and there is an excellent epimedium nursery in Templeton, Massachusetts which offers scores of epimedium cultivars. You can view the online catalog at www.epimediums.com which also gives the only dates when you can actually visit in May and see the plants in bloom.

Epimedium sulphureum

Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’

I have never grown wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, but I have seen it growing in the shady woods. It prefers acid, moist but well drained soil. This plant is no more than six inches tall, with shiny dark green leaves and red berries. When you crush the leaves you will get the sweet wintergreen fragrance.

It is possible that many of us know partridgeberry, Mitchella repens, from its appearance in Berry Bowls during the Christmas season. This is a real creeper, only one or two inches tall with tiny leaves, white flowers in the spring and red berries in the fall and winter.

Barren strawberry, foam flower, epimediums, wintergreen and partridgeberry are all good choices for a shady woodland garden which is one way I am hoping to have a lawnless garden.

Pachysandra is a common groundcover beloved because it attractive with glossy toothed foliage, as well as hardy and dependable, happily growing and spreading under trees. However, the pachysandra that is available at most nurseries is Pachysandra terminalis which has been known to be invasive. The alternative is Pachysandra procumbens, otherwise known as Allegheny spurge. This pachysandra does not have the glossy leaves, but it does have more distinctive flowers in the spring, fragrant bottlebrush spikes rising a few inches above the foliage.

So far, I have only mentioned low growing groundcovers that will grow in the shade. However, shrubs can also be an answer. I have a friend who has planted a tapestry of creeping junipers. Many junipers grow rapidly, covering a six foot square area in a year or two. My friend’s junipers were planted to cover the space she wanted in two years, but she said they are amenable to pruning and easy to keep under control. Junipers prefer full sun and a well draining soil. They do not like to be wet.

Low growing junipers do not limit themselves to a dull green. Juniperus horizontalis Wiltonii, has a blue-green tone and creeps along, only eight inches high. Golden Carpet is even more mat-like at for inches high, with charteuse-gold foliage.

Groundcovers are only one way to have a lawn-less garden. I’ll explore other methods in future.

Between the Rows   February 20, 2016

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