Ground Cover

One of the things I really don’t like about winter is MUD, and what’s more, it can be avoided with the right plants. The right plants are those that are both evergreen and ground-covering.

We were blessed with not much more than a 2” top-soil above pure blue, alluvial clay, so we were restricted with our choice of plants. But because we have added mulch every year, our top soil deepens year on year, the quality of the soil improves, and our choice of plants has increased and continues to increase year on year. This means that I’m always looking for new plants and ideas to try. Some fail, some struggle and others thrive, but because our soil is still improving, it’s always worth trying some of those failures again.

One plant that has never failed us, and flowers from about September right through to June is Pulmonaria ‘Bowl’s Red’, and an excellent ground cover plant it is. From our first year this plant has survived despite our clay and as I look out of my window now, I see fresh plain green foliage with masses of pink flowers. If fact, many of the pulmonarias are evergreen, and well worth growing for their foliage as well as their flowers. Another good variety is Pulmonaria ‘Mawson’s Blue’. This is another pulmonaria with plain rather than spotted leaves, and right now, it is starting to put up wonderful blue flowers, and will continue to do so for two or three months. I need to propagate a tray of them specifically for the blue garden that we’ll start this autumn. Plan ahead!
Pulmonaria 'Blue Ensign'Pulmonaria ‘Mawsons Blue’

Another real champion for us is the genus Epimedium. The new, delicate, veined foliage appears in Spring, then lasts right through the whole year, becoming tough glossy, deep green ground cover particularly good in light shade and moist soil. I’ve planted many of them from the car park down through the top garden. Delicate starry flowers stand above the foliage in most species in colours ranging from pure white through yellows, pinks, oranges and violet . Another month, and I’ll remove all of last year’s leaves to get the best from the new foliage. I’ve got E.macrantha, Sulphurium,   Lillafee,  and a host of other varieties, each having their   own charms, but I’m missing a good   white for the ‘White Garden’ It’s on my wish list!

Epimedium frohnleiten        Epimedium frohnleiten

Of course, everyone knows that hardy Geraniums are great ground cover, particularly for light shade. But many are deciduous, so for spring, summer and autumn no problem, but I don’t like winter mud, so this is when I rely on the smaller flowered ‘Endressii’ types of geranium because they are evergreen. However, under our specimen C.leylandii tree it is quite dark and very dry. As Margery Fish said, “If all else fails, plant a geranium”. The best geranium for very dry shade is Geranium nodosum, and what a bit of luck, the Leylandii is on the edge of the white garden, and G.nodosum ‘Silverwood’ has a very bright white flower, so that’s a must. As with the Epimediums, although they are evergreen, it’s always worth pulling off last year’s old foliage just when the new leaves start to grow.

While I’m talking about shade, I can’t miss the Polystichum ferns. Being evergreen, and generally smaller, these ferns really do help to hide the mud through the winter. And then as spring starts to warm the soil, and the days lengthen, I’m always fascinated to see the new leaves uncoil from their central clump. We have P.setiferum in one of our shade beds, and gradually, they are spreading randomly along the path. A little gem, Uvularia grandiflora is one of those transient plants that only appear for a few weeks each year, putting up delicate, drooping, yellow flowers before its foliage appears. Then it’s gone. Fortunately, it grows right next to one of my evergreen ferns which act as a guardian against it getting disturbed whilst asleep. That has worked for the last 8 years.

Omphalodes cappadocica is yet another plant that fulfils my needs for ground cover and evergreen foliage. With fabulous electric blue flowers, Known as the perennial forget-me-not, I think it’s better that forget-me-not in every way. Fully hardy, evergreen, better flowers, ground covering, dappled to deep shade. Need I go on?

Another real champion at this time of year for my campaign to hide the mud, is the evergreen campanula, C.isophylla. I know it’s not in flower now, and I’m not that enamoured with the slightly purple tinge of blue in its bell-flowers, but in the depths of winter, the foliage holds up to the worst of our winters, and looks great right now. Then, early spring it is so easy to pull off all the winter foliage revealing the new leaves, clean and fresh to start all over again.

Campanula isophyla     Campanula isophylla

I did plant a Vinca diformis, thinking it would be good ground cover, but what a mistake! Yes, good ground cover, then Hebe cover, then Centaurea cover – need I go on? Within just a couple of years, this single plant had progressed 20 feet smothering everything. In the end, in desperation, it was given a ‘Roundup’ bath. It’s so important to keep your eyes on how well plants grow in your own garden. What is a treasured, hard to grow specimen for some, is the world’s worst thug for others. I don’t use Vinca anymore for ground cover, it likes our soil too much.

But one plant I do like is the marbled foliage of the Arum italicum. This is a brilliant little ground cover plant for us. Just when the world is starting to look like mud, up comes this lovely foliage looking clean and fresh. Doesn’t flower that freely for us, but I grow it for the leaves. It performs right through the winter and spring, then just when everything else is starting to look great, Arum italicum goes to sleep for the summer. Couldn’t be better.

Arum italicum    Arum italicum

Another good ground cover plant is the hardy form of Osteospernum – ’Paleface’ for example. This is a good evergreen, ground-covering plant with the added bonus of throwing up flowers even in the depths of winter. Remember, plants respond to the weather, not the calendar and with Osteospernum, we only need a couple of warmer, dry weeks, and it will flower. Right now, third week of January, I have a dozen flowers on my plants. Many of the darker flowered forms are less than hardy, so those are kept in a tunnel over winter to be planted out in the spring.

Well, there’s a few ground covering gems to be getting on with, but I have yet to mention so many others like Pachysandra terminalis. The list seems endless, but the gardens are open free of charge, so pop over some time.

If all else fails to cover the mud, we have an inexhaustible supply of good wood chip. Although there are a few problems associated with incorporating fresh wood chip into the soil, it has been proved that using it as a top-dressing eliminates these problems but goes a long way towards helping us in other ways. Firstly, any good mulch will drastically reduce weed seed germination. As we have 3 acres of gardens, and a real shortage of volunteers, this gives us a fighting chance against the weed. Secondly, over time, the wood chip mixes with the top soil helping with drainage and deepening the top soil. Third and  most important for me, it hides the mud! Success!

white gardenBuilding the White garden, (December 2017)

Perhaps a coincidence, but the day after the big ‘snow-event’ up country, we had a skein of 14 canada geese fly over early in the day, then later in the day, possibly as many as 25 grey geese went past. First time we’ve seen geese this winter. Had they come down to West Dorset because of the snow, or have I simply missed them this winter? And what happened to the sparrows? We’ve had 27 species of birds on the feeders this winter, but not one single sparrow. Odd that!!

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