In my gardens, groundcovers probably feel like Rodney Dangerfield. They get no respect. That may be partially true given their carefree nature and they are something I’ve put off adding to the garden. My garden “methodology” was to get in the big stuff–trees, shrubs–then fill in with perennials and annuals for their color and punch. Perennial groundcovers weren’t the stars of the garden I so desired. But I’m all about groundcovers now.
They are exceptional plants to fill in the nooks and crannies, provide a lovely carpet of green and crowd out the advancing weeds that seem to want to take over. I kept putting off the ground cover purchase, except for happy accidents like the cranesbill Biokova Karmina (geranium x cantabrigiense) pictured above. I thought it was a perennial. But it’s also a groundcover.
One of the first plants I added to the edge of a bed, this hardy plant has shoots of pretty pale pinkish-purple flowers in spring. Looking at its serrated, lobed leaves, you see it’s related to the geranium (Geraniaceae family). It is in just the right spot and gets just the right amount of sun and is carefree and seemingly happy when neglected. That makes low maintenance cranesbill a winner in my book.
I hadn’t considered cranesbill is a groundcover until it started slowly advancing a couple of years ago. In my untrained mind I just thought it was filling in. No, it’s creating a lovely carpet.
Creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia) is another favorite. Chartreuse and seemingly indestructible, I have moved this groundcover from the front yard where it got too much sun to my shade bed where is it beginning to spread and mingle nicely with ferns, heuchera, hosta, and astilbe. I like the bright green contrast of this versatile plant and have seen it in hanging baskets. In too much sun, however, it loses its green gets too yellow. Its roots are very shallow; division is easy because you scratch the surface of the soil and pop the plant right in.
In the front yard I planted three small containers of sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) beneath a tree. I had struggled to find plants suitable to this rooty space, and although I had planted a flat and a half of impatiens for a few years, they became hard to find due to downy mildew and I really wanted something perennial in this space. This spring (it’s 3rd year) we’ve had plenty of rain and it’s runners have really gone to town.
Like cranesbill, this is a mat-forming perennial that has taken off in no time. You can see that it still needs to fill in a bit, but I have no doubt this circle will be unbroken by the end of this season. Sweet woodruff gets lovely small white flowers in spring–in fact, it just finished blooming–and is well suited for the shade.
And, then there is wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei). I am not sure I would call this my favorite ground cover but it is worth mentioning here. Is it a ground cover, a vine or a shrub? Maybe all three. In my last home, I spent a long hot summer pulling it out of a garden bed it took over. It was in abundance in a raised bed when I moved in this home and while it doesn’t look like it now, I trim it religiously. In the last year, I decided that the fence would be much prettier covered in green and have stopped cutting it back. You can see the result, which I really like, but I keep a watchful eye and shears and pruners nearby.
The Missouri Botanical garden warns that wintercreeper has been identified by a task force of the Missouri Botanical Garden as one of the top 20 plants known to be spreading into native plant areas and crowding out native species in our region. Naturalists recommend against planting this plant.
And finally, not in my garden but certainly admired is baby tears (Soleirolia soleirolii). An alternative to a lawn, baby tears carpeted the courtyard of the Airbnb I stayed at in Rome recently. I have read that it is somewhat invasive and needs to be consistenly watered, but I have no first-hand experience with this plant.
What are your favorite groundcovers?
I’m not a vegetable gardener. I think I have made the clear in the three or four years I have been blogging. I’m into flowers and shrubs.
But that’s not to say I don’t appreciate vegetable gardening or gardens. I’ve tried my hand at tomatoes, lettuce, spinach and peppers and have had a few good results and a fair amount of bad results. The truth is vegetable gardening intimidates me. I’d like to say that I don’t have the right space for a vegetable garden but a recent visit to Italy dispelled that notion. Small space gardening isn’t just for flowers.
I stayed in an apartment in suburban Perugia. One day I locked myself out of the apartment but thought my sister might be in the apartment and could open the door. However, she didn’t answer her cell phone. But I was sure she was in there. So, I walked around to the back of the building to call up to her window and that is when I discovered the garden behind the apartment building next door.
And as luck would have it I got to meet the gentleman who created this lovely space. We had a lively conversation even though he did not speak a word of English and I do not speak Italian. But that did not stop us from discussing his garden.
What immediately struck me was the confined space for this garden and his joy and pride for this small space. It literally butts up to an athletic court. Fennel, table grapes, sage and rosemary grow up against the fence. It is long and narrow, running the length of the apartment building and is terraced. Its depth is probably no more than 10 or 12 feet. And it is abundant with vegetables.
He invited me around the fence where he was proud to show me his insalata, pomadoro, artichokes, beans and, yes, they are for his family only. A cherry tree sits on the edge of the garden. He pointed out that the garden that abuts his is his neighbor’s. Its small space includes an olive tree. Making the most of his space, the garden extends into the backyard next to the play set for his grandchildren. Or maybe it’s the other way around–the garden extending beyond his yard into the common space by the athletic courts.
Either way, the garden speaks to the ability to grow vegetables in small spaces. And its tidy appearance speaks to the owner’s deep pride in this space.
Discovering local foods is one of the joys of traveling. Just ask Anthony Bourdain. He makes his living bringing the joys of local foods to viewers from around the world in his program “Parts Unknown.”
Well, I didn’t check in with Tony but I did put a visit to the Mercato Trionfale, a subterranean fresh market in Rome, to the top of my “must do” places to visit on a recent trip to Italy. And I am glad I did because it’s artichoke season in Italy. These wonderful vegetables can be found on menus, in markets and gardens.
Now, the outside of the market doesn’t look all that appealing but that view quickly changes when you enter. Stall after stall is filled with colorful fruits and vegetables and our visit at 9 in the morning found the market abuzz with shoppers.
But it was the artichokes, or carciofo in Italian, that really drew my interest. Canned, steamed, marinated, fried or fresh, I have always enjoyed artichokes but I’ve never seen them in the market or grocery store in St. Louis unless they are in a can or jar, no doubt because our climate is not ideal for growing this Mediterranean native. And I was surprised to see that they were purple, as I the only fresh artichokes I have every seen were green.
My research tells me that Italy, Spain and France are the top artichoke producing countries and here in the U.S., California is king for producing this perennial. In some areas, artichokes are a biennial. One plant can produce up to 20 artichokes per year.
It’s one thing to eat them and then to see them in the market, but I had the full experience of seeing them on the plant. On a walk around the neighborhood where I stayed, I spied a garden in the back of the apartment next door. And yes, there were artichokes growing! You can see looking at the plant that it is a thistle.
On the plane to Rome, I sat by a young woman who had lived in Italy for a six months and she told me it was the tail end of artichoke season and truffle season and to be sure and not miss these local delicacies. I’m glad to have seen and enjoyed them.
I awoke Saturday morning and sent a 10-character text, “Let’s dig!” A few hours later my walking buddy Mary rolled up in her Ford Explorer. We’d thought of everything. Mary laid old towels in the back so we wouldn’t mess up the car; the spade rested on top. I brought the gloves. We had bags. We were ready.
Under the cover of gray skies threatening rain, at high noon, we commenced our work: digging up what at one time would no doubt have been someone’s prized peonies, shade-loving trillium and Virginia bluebells. A woodland spring delight.
I kept watch while Mary went to work with her short-handled spade and dug and dug and dug. The plants gave way easily in the soft, wet ground, and we quickly filled our bags until their handles nearly gave way from the weight of our treasure. We almost got away with the deed, when I looked up and saw a man standing in the barren lot at the top of the slope looking curiously at us.
Uh-oh. We’d been caught.
Before I go further, let me provide some context. For years, Mary and I have walked the many graceful streets of St. Louis County. For several months we have commented on the empty white Century home with the For Sale sign in the yard. The lot next door is barren and recently cordoned off with a developer’s sign promising to build a new home. A parcel of the main property? We aren’t sure.
A couple of months ago we ventured onto the property to look around. The house, red outbuilding and pool need repair. The surrounding yard is large and wooded and overgrown with understory brush and lots of bamboo. The grounds meander down to a ravine. It is graceful, shady and quiet. A far cry from suburbia in which it is located. We were surprised there was so much land behind the house.
Like anything that’s been around for more than 135 years, there are stories to tell. In a twist of odd luck, I was talking about this house at my book club and one of my friends mentioned that her home was once occupied by the man who built the white house in the late 1800s. She sent me a write up describing its history and sad demise of its builder (he set fire to the home and original barn and committed suicide on the property). According to the history, he relocated the light above the front porch from an antebellum plantation in southern Missouri.
A couple of weeks ago we ventured back for another look around. Why, I don’t really know. We wended our way past the bamboo to a clearing. Overgrown and neglected, the ground slopes down to a ravine and traces of a garden can be seen. We had missed this on our mid-winter walk through when there was no trace of any emerging plants. We’d also missed the remnants of plant stakes and markers littering the ground, their type faded, the metal ones bent and corroded. Black plastic garden edging has been pulled up and thrown in a heap. All that remains of a small round pond is its faded molded plastic form.
This time everywhere we looked something is growing. Peonies are emerging from the grass everywhere. Daffodils in shades of creamy yellow and white. Muscari. Wild geranium. Iris. Variegated trillium. Clumps of blue and pink Virginia bluebells. A rock garden covered by overgrowth edges the pond and makes a path down the slope to the edge of the yard by the ravine. A mass of flowering yellow ground cover carpets much of the area.
This is someone’s forgotten love.
And by the looks of it, it is soon to be turned under by a bulldozer. The property, which is slightly less than an acre, is staked with bright orange flags marking its borders. On the walk home we talked about how sad it would be if it all got bulldozed under. The garden gone with the history of the house and all the stories of this lovely ground.
To be sure, this was a premeditated act. We had no permission to be on the property. And you can be sure that no one gave us permission to dig up any plants. Mary’s sister, who is a realtor said it would definately be a no-no to take any of the plants.
Make no mistake, I would not–never have–go to a property that is for sale and just dig up their garden. I will vouch that I am a law-abiding citizen who obeys the rules. I am not a plant theif. (Am I?) But this felt different. This property feels abandoned. On borrowed time until it is turned over to start a new story.
We dug quietly and I urged Mary to hurry up. “This is the last one,” I said three or four times. I did not want to explain to the neighbors what we were doing. We filled several bags with tender plants but many, many more remain.
Then I saw him. Up the slope in the foreground of the yellow house. I felt certain our unexpected visitor would have a few questions.
“Mary, look up. There’s a man up there and he’s watching us.” We stopped digging the trillium and headed up the hill. He did not look angry. Just curious.
Turns out he was looking through the lot, past the ravine and over to the next street to see if he could see a house he is interested in. He knows a developer interested in tearing the property down for him and builing anew. We talked for about 15 minutes and shared the origins of the white house with him and told him it has been empty for so long that we wanted to rescue some of the lovely plants before they were turned under by heavy equipment. He seemed to understand.
As we loaded the back of the Explorer, Mary said she felt certain the gardener who planted this woodland garden would thank us. I don’t know.
Was it theft or was it a rescue?
We’ve been in a bit of a holding pattern with average temperatures around 41 degrees F and the skies gray. Day after day after day after day. Yesterday we had a couple of hours of sunshine but it was colder, finally getting up to 41 around 3 in the afternoon. I took advantange of the weather to rake out a couple of beds.
The rhodos want to bloom, something they typically accomplish in March. Their buds are still tight and just beginning to give a peek at their pink and purple hues. But I yearn for this:
Yawn. I am trying to get motivated for the season but, well, it’s gray and wet. And tonight after it plunges below freezing it may snow. Sigh.
I tell myself, it will be here soon enough and I will relax and enjoy this:
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