I remember the first time I heard the oft repeated gardener's maxim, “First year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap”. It was told to me by a friend's mother, who is an avid daylily breeder with a mind-boggling New Hampshire garden. I've since enjoyed reassuring myself and others (namely clients) with this saying - I love that it is basically true, but find it amusing that because it rhymes I think people seem to put more stock in it's truth.
I continue to simplifying my own garden and streamline its maintenance. I am filling spaces with things, that over time, won't require weeding and I am contantly looking for plants that are beautiful with easy care.
This has me thinking a lot about ground covers and I wanted to share with you some expert advice from garden designer Joanne Neale, who, like me, has reservations about the overuse of mulch. Mulch is expensive and time consuming and with more plants, it is easy to take less is more stance on mulch use. Mulch is a necessary tool that can and should be attractive... but it is not a celebrated design element in any self respecting garden. How to use less mulch?
“First year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap”
Top - Galium odoratum (also known as sweet woodruff) is delicate in appearance but vigorous and drought-tolerant. It is excellent paired with Viola labradorica. Image by J.F. Gaffard CC BY-SA 3.0
Lets hear from Joanne on how to get them going:
I promise, ground covers will make your gardening life easier - but only if you do it right. Here are some important things to remember before you start replacing your boring old mulch with fabulous new ground covers.
- Check your soil and site conditions. Is the area sunny, shady, or in-between? Wet, dry, or in-between? Make sure you understand what is going on below ground, before you start planting.
- Eliminate all invasive weeds before starting! If you have a stand of the dreaded Bishop’s weed. (Aegopodium podagraria) or other invasive, eliminate it first or your ground cover will never succeed. Digging burning, spraying, and smothering are all options—use whichever you prefer.
- Prepare the soil to ensure success. I like to dig in a healthy addition of compost or leaf mold to each hole when planting my new ground cover plants. It’s best not to rototill or dig up the entire bed, as this will expose weed seeds which will sprout; it may also damage shallow roots of neighboring trees and plants like azaleas and rhododendrons.
- Plant at the best time for success. Give your newplants a month or more ofcool, rainy weather to start and they will do fine without a lot of extra attention. For New England, this means no later than the middle of May for spring planting, or the middle of October for fall planting. Remember to water during dry spells and don’t stop until the ground freezes in winter.
- Space your plants properly. It is worth doing a little research before choosing a ground cover, to ensure you are spacing for optimum coverage. Many nurseries will provide a suggested spacing table. Reading about the plant will also give you an idea of ultimate spread. Woody plants should not be spaced too close, as they will resent future crowding - plant according to their mature width. For perennials and spreaders, spacing can be adjusted to suit your patience level.
- Mulch (sorry, yes) until it is no longer necessary. Finish up by mulching the entire bed with 2-3” of nutritive material (compost, shredded leaves, fine aged bark mulch) to conserve moisture and encourage plants to spread.
- Don’t forget to weed early and often to prevent your new plants from being crowded out by more aggressive undesirables
Middle - Iris cristata forms a mat and is perfectly suited as a spreading blanket beneath ericaceous plants such as azaleas and rhododendrons. Image by Ryan Somma by CC 2.0.
Bottom - Microbiota decussata turns a rich brown in winter. For a lovely winter effect, mass it on a hillside or under red twig dogwoods. It demands excellent drainage. Image by KYMI CC BY 3.0.