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Cover Your Ground

                                                “Green your garden” sounds like an unnecessary admonition, but as the discussion about global warming heats up (pun intended) gardeners are looking at ways to lower their gardens’ carbon footprint.

            Because digging the soil releases carbon into the atmosphere no-till cultivation methods have gained new advocates.  In addition to saving human energy, sheet composting/lasagna gardening has become more popular.

            Another way of reducing the carbon footprint of the garden is to reduce the size of the lawn.  Gas powered mowers are the most common mowers and produce those polluting greenhouse gases that we are all worrying about. They also use gas and oil that we are trying to cut down on.

            However, it is possible to eliminate, or reduce mowing by planting ground covers.

The term ground cover is a large one that includes shrubs, vines, and perennials like pachysandra that we are all familiar with.

            It’s easy to call up the names of a few ground covers: pachysandra, vinca and ajuga, but then I start to run dry.  Barbara W. Ellis has no such problem. Her book, Covering Ground: Unexpected Ideas for Landscaping with Colorful, Low Maintenance Ground Covers (Storey $19.95) is full of ways to cut down on lawn and labor while making your garden even more beautiful.

            Ellis is an engaging writer with enormous experience and knowledge. She begins with an inspiring examination of the kinds of sites that might benefit from groundcovers from steep slopes, to wet areas to stream edges and border areas.

            The second section of the book is a particularly useful reference, with clear photos, of groundcovers for various areas, sunny and dry, shady, boggy, and for different types of soil from sand to clay.

            Since we all know that putting the right plant in the right place is the best guarantee of success this section is a valuable and useful reference

            She organizes other lists for types of ground covers from shrubs like flowering quince which will be 2 to 3 feet high, forsythia, and a host of cotoneasters which can be as low as 4 inches or as high as 3 feet.

            We usually think of vines growing up, but they can also be used to spread over the ground. Ellis suggests which vines like ‘Dropmore Scarlet’ honeysuckle and clematis can be used this way, and how to manage and care for them.

            She also has a section on using ornamental grasses that will not need mowing, as a groundcover. She reminds us that ferns and moss are other sorts of groundcovers.

            Ellis even has a section about hardscaping and other ways of covering the ground. I am making my own new garden paths with wood chips, but gravel and various pavers are mentioned.

            I appreciated all the information she gives about the size and spread of the plants she describes, the soil and amount of sun they prefer and the hardiness zones. She also notes which plants are natives, and has a section on invasives which are to be avoided, even if you see them for sale at a nursery.

            A final section Planting, Growing and Propagating gives basic advice about preparation of planting different sites, renovation, and how to grow plants from seed and take all manner of cuttings to increase your stock.

            The headings in the table of contents are so well worded that it will help you when you want to look up a particular type of plant, but there is also an excellent index that lists plants by common and proper name.

            Ellis notes which ground covers are natives, but I called Ron Wik, the Nursery Business Director at Nasami Farm in Whately, for some suggestions.  Nasami propagates native plants in their large greenhouses and is open Thursday through Sunday 10 AM til 5 PM until mid June. The complete list of natives they sell is on their website www.newfs.org, but Wik gave me five suggestions.

            “Carex pensylvanica is a clumping grass,” Wik said. “You can plant it 8 to 10 inches on center in mulch to get them started and to outsmart weeds. Once it is established it will outcompete weeds and within five years the clumps will touch. In a breeze it looks like moving water.”

            Gaylussacia brachycera is known as box huckleberry. “This is a versatile shrub. We can barely grow enough, but this year we have a good supply. It is useful for dry shade areas, has little flowers and huckleberries.  You can eat them, but this is not the variety that a farmer would plant,” Wik said.

            Even though Sibbaldiopsis tridentate translates as three tooth cinquefoil, Wik said, “We call this shrubby five fingers.  It has shiny dark green leaves, about 10 inches high and is good for dry slopes. It grows high on Mt. Monadonock.”

            Woodland or creeping phlox is familiar to all of us with its dense mats that produce pink, blue, white and red flowers in the spring. It’s good for shady areas.

            “Cliff green is another low evergreen shrub that won’t grow more than 10 inches high. It’s a good substitute for junipers, but it’s less abrasive. It’s not a conifer, but it is similar in texture,” Wik said.

            If you are considering reducing your lawn area Ellis will give you some great suggestions, and a large array of natives will be there for the choosing at Nasami Farm. 

          This is naative Waldsteinia or barren strawberry (note the brilliant strawberry like flowers) that I am planting to cover a strip of ground I no longer want to mow. Ron Wik said they have more for sale at Nasami. I think daffodils will look very pretty coming up through it in the spring. 

3 comments to Cover Your Ground

  • Peter

    The Common Weeder is a Mind Weeder, too! We’ve just been pondering how to lessen some of our lawn with ground cover of some sort, but could not face the prospect of planting quite so much pachysandra. Your book review appeared in the nick of time – I’ll order it immediately. We have several steep banks that are difficult to mow and a thick ground cover (of sufficient height to also corral our two dachshunds somewhat) would end our mowing woes and perhaps shrink our hefty carbon footprint. Thank you.

  • admin

    Peter, This book will give you a million ideas. You may need another house to use them all.

  • Kristin Sherman

    I have been researching and mulching for 2 years and am now ready to replant the ‘lawn space’ in front of my house. Thank you for all the guidance!! Happy winter planning!

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