Allegedly, it is the lawn, not the garden, that eats up most of our time, energy and natural resources. You couldn’t prove it here – ours never gets watered, or fed, and gets mowed only when the antique Cub Cadet is having a good day. But that neglected lawn does lead to other problems in the yard – like when it decides to invade the flower beds, or grow up between immovable rocks so that it can’t be pulled or mowed at all.
Supposedly, if I create little trenches, two inches deep and two inches wide, around the perimeter of the beds, the grass will be unable to make the leap into the flowers. And if you can manage this, it is an invaluable trick that not only saves labor in the end, but makes the beds look very neat.
We can’t do that there. Much of our land is right on the mountaintop. We are lucky in some spots to be able to dig a full two inches before hitting the top of the mountain. And where the soil is deep, there are still large boulders that would need to be pried up before a neat trench could be dug. So I’ve found other tactics to help combat the invasion of the turf.
One is to edge the beds with a mowing strip. This is a strip flat enough for the lawn mover to be able to pass over it, but wide enough not to endanger the garden. It can be a narrow path of brick or stone, or merely a wide edging of gravel fines – the ones that compact well and form a nice, non-skid surface if you roll them. As long as the paving/path is wide enough that the mower can get to all the grass without touching garden plants, this means you won’t have to go out and edge things, and the grass won’t have much chance of taking over the garden.
An easier, and for me more successful tactic is to plant a dense groundcover at the edges of the bed, letting them creep out onto the lawn. A dense groundcover smothers weeds and grass, looks great, lends an interesting texture to the ground and – if you choose carefully – is extremely low-maintenance. This is also a great way to deal with trees – it’s hard to mow close to them without hurting the roots – so do away with the grass and plant a wide circle of groundcover there. Voila. Problem solved, more visual interest in the landscape – and less lawn to mow.
Groundcover is also the ideal solution for areas where you have to coax and wheedle in order to get the lawn to grow at all – and it is an absolute necessity in areas that are difficult to mow. Groundcovers don’t need mowing. Good ones need very ask very little from you. And the mowing that you do anyway is sufficient to keep those groundcovers from overtaking areas where you don’t want them.
My favorite groundcover for shade is Galium odoratum – sweet woodruff. It stays green all year, and in spring is covered with starry, magical looking white flowers. When dried, it gives off the aroma of vanilla. The Germans use it as an essential ingredient in May Wine. Plus – it has a nice texture, and is quite vigorous in shade – even (despite what the books say) in dry shade. It gets shy in the sun, though – which makes it perfect for shady areas where grass is hard to grow. The grass can flourish until it gets too dark for it – and the woodruff will flourish until things get too bright. Perfect companions! Woodruff only gets about 4-6 inches high and tolerates light foot traffic. It grows vigorously, but I wouldn’t call it invasive – it is quite easy to pull out if you decide it has overstepped its bounds.
Hostas also qualify as shady groundcovers – and I can think of few plants as easy to maintain as hostas. Oh, slugs will nibble the leaves, to be sure – but you can learn to love that lacy texture. Or you can simply restrict yourself to hostas with thick, waxy leaves. Slugs are lazy, and won’t bother things that they really have to work at chewing.
They come in all sizes and shapes, and a surprising variety of colors, from yellow and gold through chartreuse, every imaginable shade of green, and even blue – and in variegations that include many of the above colors. They have leaves in varying shapes, too, from heart-shaped to round to oval to lance-like. They aren’t too fussy about where they grow – although all but the gold ones can suffer sunburn if planted in too bright a spot. And they never complain if you don’t get around to dividing them. With hostas you can achieve any look you want, from a fine textures one to something bold and almost tropical – or you can mix colors and shapes for a varied and interesting picture. They divide easily and make a quick recovery, so with a bit of patience and a few healthy starter plants you can cover a lot of ground with these plants in a relatively short period of time and with minimal expense.
The leaves of hostas are so fascinating that we often forget that they flower – usually in spikes of bell-shaped white or purple flowers. Many of the white ones are sweetly fragrant, especially in the evening, which is an added bonus.
Ferns also make good groundcovers. Most prefer shade, many prefer moist shade, but a few will grow vigorously even in bright sun. And ferns, like hostas, come in many shades of green from nearly chartreuse to deep glossy, holly green – not to mention the lovely silver and burgundy of the Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum). Like hostas, many of these go dormant in colder climates, but some are evergreen – thus giving you season long interest. And you have a choice of textures here – from the fairly coarse and uncomplicated look of the sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) to the truly lacy look of the maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum).
Actually, I could go on forever talking about groundcovers I have known and loved. Ajuga is one that also works for me in shade. Some say it is invasive, but it has been quite well-behaved in my yard. In sun I love lemon-scented thyme, because it tolerates drought and smells heavenly when you walk on it.
In other sunny areas I have used heaths and heathers, catmint (nepeta), creeping phlox, creeping speedwell, the smaller sedums – even low-growing junipers. Common yarrow also makes an interesting, silvery sort of lawn – and it doesn’t mind being mowed occasionally if you’d rather not let it get to flowering stage.
Using groundcovers for all the tricky-to-mow or hard-to-grow-grass spots in the yard has cut a few hours off of my husband’s mowing time, and sweetened his temper on mowing days. He no longer has to waste time trying to maneuver the mower into little cul-de-sacs, and we’ve almost eliminated the need to get out the weed wacker. And it has saved me a lot of time kneeling at the edge of the flower beds trying to eliminate unwanted grass – which up to now was probably the biggest pest in my garden.