Cover the Ground

We sold our lawn mower and eschewed a grass lawn after downsizing to our cottage, which rendered my garden a veritable petri dish of ground cover experiments. Two years later, the pros and cons are beginning to emerge.

The first year I planted a small collection of plants across the slope in our front garden – coreopsis, lithodora and three small evergreen shrubs scattered evenly. I also transplanted cuttings or divisions of liriope, peppermint, oregano, sedum, lavender and a Montouk Daisy from the garden of our then current home to finish things off.

June 2018
September 2018

Later that same year I added a dozen or so day lillies and mums, and buried one piece of creeping jenny, which I didn’t actually think would survive the winter. It was the first of many experiments. But the following year the garden had matured nicely. The daisy dominated the fall, the creeping jenny survived, the day lillies were stunning, and everything had room to breathe.

September 2019

Coreopsis auriculata produces some of the happiest flowers from early spring through mid-summer. In the language of flowers, Coreopsis means to be always cheerful, and it’s not hard to do when you see these flowers. It’s a moderate spreader that can tolerate some dryness, but doesn’t like wet mulch underneath. This year I’ve sheared every plant back to see if they’ll bloom again before fall. The verdict is out.

March 2020

Lithodora is the first to bloom in the front garden with delicate blue flowers and a spread of 24 to 36 inches (61-91 cm.), but from the original plant rather than by runners. This means the underside of all of that growth lies on the ground and will turn black given the right amount of moisture, which we have had this year. It’s why you often see lithodora growing long over the edge of a wall or across rocks, except I didn’t know this when I planted it. One gardener’s solution is to use a gravel mulch underneath, and it’s on my ToDo list for this week since otherwise I may eventually lose every plant.

The day lillies were more beautiful than ever this year, but they do not always spread where you may prefer. There’s a major relocation project scheduled to de-clutter and even things out a bit.

July 2020

In the Victorian language of flowers, the red Chrysanthemum stood for I Love, and yellow symbolized Slighted Love. It is the flower of November, and the official flower of the city of Chicago since 1966 thanks to Mayor Richard J. Daley. Mums are also excellent slow-moving ground covers, but my favorite part is that the cuttings root so easily.

Left unattended, mums would bloom in early summer – which is why we’re told to pinch them back several times before the end of July. Each time I pinch them back, I plant the small tips – either directly in the ground or in pots in the shed. The cuttings I stuck in the ground last year are decent sized plants this year. Just keep them moist until the leaves no longer droop.

Liriope is typically prized for its evergreen foliage and those beautiful spikes of purple flowers. But the question is how do we pronounce it?

Common pronunciations include: /lɪˈraɪəpiː/ lih-RY-ə-pee (US), and /lɪəˈriːoʊpeɪ/ lee-REE-o-pay (British), or in the southern United States where I live, it may be pronounced /ˈlaɪroʊpiː/ LY-ro-pee, /lɪəˈraɪoʊˌpiː/ leer-EYE-o-pee, or /ˈlɪərioʊp/ LEER-ee-ohp. I have always said it the British way, but you could almost say anything goes.

I’ve been grooming flower beds by the fence on both sides to fill up with liriope as a way to provide cover for various bulbs that bloom through the spring. As the purple spikes bloom on the liriope they give good cover to the fading leaves of the bulbs. It’s a little chaotic this year, but give it time I think.

Sedum, also called stonecrops, has about 400-500 species. Sedum plants have water-storing leaves and are preferred roof covering for green roofs. Ford’s Dearborn, Michigan Truck Plant has a living roof with 454,000 square feet (42,200 m2) of sedum. The Rolls-Royce Motor Cars plant in Goodwood, England, has a 242,000 square feet (22,500 m2) roof complex covered in sedum, the largest in the United Kingdom. Nintendo of America’s roof is covered in some 75,000 square feet (7,000 m2), and the Javits Center in New York City is covered with 292,000 square feet (27,100 m2) of sedum.

Last year I put sedum into the basket of our St. Christopher statue in the side yard and it grew there all summer even with no added soil. And it’s maybe the easiest plant to propagate. Just pinch off a stem and stick it in the ground.

June 2020: sedum peeks out from underneath the larger-than-ever montouk daisy.

My favorite plant of the summer has been the Greek Oregano that I’ve allowed to bloom. It just seems so wild yet beautiful. Although it has shown me the effort of flowering depletes its energy, I’ve simply loved the flowers and the pollinators. Today I’m going to cut both the oregano and the peppermint back by half to let them recover through the fall and winter. Then we can start over again next spring.

I read a quote recently about democracy that is oddly reflective of my gardening journey.

But the bigger thing is that we have to give up that idea of the perfect design. We have to understand that democracy is an aspiration. It’s not a thing that you can build and then move in and live there. It’s a constant negotiation. Democracy is the conversation about how we want to live together today and tomorrow, and then we have the conversation again, and then we have it again.

Author, Masha Gessen

There’s a constant negotiation with these plants about what works and what doesn’t. About my aspirations and the reality of what they are willing to do. I have this idea of the perfect design. They have their idea of the perfect life. We have the conversation again, and then we have it again.