The Arch City Gardener

Journeys In St. Louis Gardening and Beyond


Filling in with Groundcovers

20180525_150859In 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.

20180525_150939Creeping 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.

20180525_164304In 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.

20180525_151241And, 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.

20180512_200438And 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?


1 Comment

A Gardener’s Dilemma

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.


DSCN5924DSCN5927I 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.

DSCN5941This 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.

DSCN5947Then 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?




It’s 41 Degrees F and Gray

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:

Rhodo in bloom March 20 (1024x768)

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:





Green is coming through the gray

If this were a Facebook status update I might write, “I’m feeling…sunny and dry.” St. Louis has received 13.2 inches of rain this month and a walk in my backyard now has a sound track: Squish, squish, squish. The lower end of the yard has a bit of ponding. Leaves still cover most of the beds. And accompanying all this rain has been cooler than normal temperatures. On a sunny day, we won’t discuss the gray, drab skies that are predicted to be back tomorrow.


Even though I cannot get in the garden today, I am celebrating for a couple of reasons. First, and the most obvious, is that it is sunny and dry. Yes! This condition is not expected to last, as our forecast calls for rain for the next 10 days. Second (really first) is that I am off work today! Woo hoo! Third (but truly first) is I will spend the afternoon with my eldest daughter.

Before the day gets away from me, here’s an Arch City Gardener pictoral status update of my plants and beds at the end of March. Oh! And thanks for reading.


In the front yard spirea begins to leaf out.

DSCN5872Penstemon’s lettucy looking red leaves. I love this plant, which has been happy in this spot for five years.DSCN5873Karl Foerster grass is coming upspring clean up18Just a couple of gumballs to deal with. This is Round 3 of the rake up.

DSCN5887Cranesbill Biokova Karmina (geranium x cantabrigiense). What a wonderful groundcover. And talk about easy care!DSCN5870The oakleaf hydrangea “Alice” looks deceptively docile. My pet name for her is “Godzilla.” The blooms are incredible.DSCN5886Planted about six years ago, this low-growing juniper (Juniper horizontalis) is a slow creeper and provides lovely texture with a green-yellow tint. Behind her are stella d’oro day lilies.DSCN5864The fiddleheads of Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) begin their graceful unfurling. Ferns are my favorite plants to observe.

DSCN5863Peonies–Eden’s Perfume, Shirley Temple, and Sarah Bernhardt–peek through the leaves. The peonies were a new additions last year to the bed below the paperbark maple.

DSCN5861Creeping jenny groundcover is vigorous and advancing. It had better dry up so I can get out there and rake.

1 Comment

Clever or Clueless?

DSCN5738Saving time, energy and resources are important to me, as I have a finite amount of each. And I like to try clever tips in the garden to help me achieve this. But I’m not sure any of these tips are actually worthwhile. For example, I bundle up my acid-loving azaleas in the winter with trimmings from the Christmas tree. I like to think this lovely stole of greenery protects them when winter temps drop and that maybe they even benefit from the acid in the boughs. Clever or clueless? I’ve done this for a few years now and I have really have no idea if this is a waste of time. My soil is relatively acidic and I feed the the azalea each year, so I’m thinking that perhaps I could be clueless. On the other hand, they are not protected from wind and leaves I rake beneath them in the fall blow away, so the boughs could be a clever idea.DSCN5834To help save time when cutting back grasses such as my variegated maiden grass (miscanthus sinensis variegatus) I tie them to keep them upright while I saw them back chunk by chunk. That way they aren’t flopping all over the place while I’m cutting them. Clever or clueless? I think I’ll score this one as clever. DSCN5838I use diluted solution of bleach water to wipe my clipper blades when pruning rose bushes. I wipe the blades clean between each rose bush so that I don’t transfer any pathogen to another shrub. In fact, I generally clean my tools after I use them. Clever or clueless? I think clever.

Of course there are a host of other time and money saving tricks I haven’t tried but consider such as smashing up eggs shells and incorporating them in the garden soil. I’ve read that buring a banana peel in the soil is good for roses. And of course, many swear by adding spent coffee grounds to the soil as well. Really? Are these clever or would it be better to incorporate them into a compost? I’m thinking these might be clueless manuevers.

What do you think? What are your clever tricks?



Flight of the Blue Morpho

blue morphoThere’s nothing like a tropical vacation. Needing a little heat and humidity, I dashed off to west St. Louis County on  Saturday–two grandchildren in tow–to take in the fluttering wonder of the Blue Morpho butterfly in the tropical environs of the Sophie M. Sachs Butterfly House.

DSCN5789The morpho is a brilliant blue butterfly who lives in the tropical rainforests of Latin America. And the Butterfly House is involved in conservation efforts of this butterfly with Costa Rica. Before entering the conservatory, the docent told us the butterflies were particularly active because it was a bright sunny day. She wasn’t kidding. Nearly 1,500 blue morphos are taking flight throughout March and they were everywhere. They are fast fliers so it was hard to capture them flying.

blue morpho 2

We learned a few things about these colorful creatures:

  1. They can have a wingspan of up to 8 inches. We were surrounded by butterflies, but I don’t think we saw an 8 incher.
  2. Adult morphos spend their time on the forest floor with their wings folded.
  3. Their iridescent blue color comes from microscopic scales on the back of their wings, which reflect light.
  4. They drink their dinner. Their diet consists of sap and fruit juices.
  5. Best yet, the morpho symbolizes joy…the feeling I had on Saturday.


Why I Love Paperbark Maple (or the Simple Pleasures of an Early Sunday Morning)


I’ve been on a bit of a bender about my mid-winter ennui. But that is changing now.

I awoke early Sunday and shuffled my way to the kitchen for my slog of coffee–no doubt a scenario many of you are personally familiar with. Awaiting the coffee pot to finish brewing, I gazed out the window into the backyard.

Five years ago the view would have been barren except for the exceptionally large and looming sycamore on the other side of the fence. Today I can keep watch on the row of leatherleaf viburnum planted to shield a low-lying, deeply shaded corner of the yard where nothing grows. Grasses, rose shrubs, and perennials line the edge of the patio. Last spring I replanted (for at least the 5th time) to the edge of the patio two azaleas that I hadn’t yet managed to kill. I’ve got my fingers crossed that they will thank me with fuscia-colored blooms this spring.

And then there’s the paperbark maple (acer griseum), planted in spring 2016, and chosen for its peeling bark feature. From the window she was ablaze from the backlighting of the early morning sun. I mean she was glowing cherry red around the edges of her peeling branches. Beautiful.DSCN5744When I bought the tree, the guy at the nursery told me they are slow growers and that it might take a few years for the tree to really exhibit the peeling bark feature. Paperbark a0218This is a view of the bark facing west with the sun at its back As you can see there is lots of peeling going on. What a cool tree.

And yes, dear reader, there is winter interest…in my own backyard!



Winter Attractions

I know I’ve mentioned this a time or two, but I am not a fan of the St. Louis winter. I’ve said it, you’ve read it and as my dear sister–and thousands of others–is fond of saying, “It is what it is.”

That’s why I seek color in the winter landscape. Yes, I’ve planted winterberry…it gives a paltry yield on its berries (more on that later). And I leave my grasses in place for “winter interest,” even though they aren’t very colorful. I delight at the bright red cardinals that frolic throughout the cold landscape.

Outside, I hang a lovely holiday wreath chock full of pretty ornaments, pine cones, seed pods and a colorful ribbon.

And I love my pot with the red-twig dogwood and birch branches. I fill it with winter greens from my yard and Christmas tree. My friend and walking buddy Mary invites me to her yard to cut holly, boxwood and other greens to fill in the container. As the winter wears on, I remove the brown sprigs.


Soon, I will empty the container which will remain bare until spring. The dogwood twigs and birch come from a farmers market in Kirkwood and are a pricey, so I keep the birch and the dogwood twigs in the garage and will reuse them next year if they are in good shape.

Inside, I turn to winter bulbs such as amaryllis and paper whites. I am not a fan of the overpowering scent of paper whites so I try to buy the ones with less scent to them, but I’m a sucker for their flowers. And I don’t mind the flopping over; a pretty ribbon can help keep them in place.


My friend Chris is not a fan of our winters either. Her solution is to head to Mexico for the winter. This year as she was dashing out of town, she gave me an amaryllis bulb a friend gave to her. I gladly took it. And I am grateful for its lovely flowers. I took picture and sent them to her during its growing cycle.



I love the way a plant unfurls from its bud. It evokes a sense of anticipation within me and I find myself checking back regularly.

Amaryllis 2018

Before you know it, the plant has a cluster of bright red blooms.


How do you get through the winter doldrums?