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The "Perfect" Ground Cover
by Fred Davis, MG, Hill Gardens, Palermo, Maine (To view other articles, click
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Welcome through Fred's Garden Gate! Every growing season at least a half-dozen people ask about ground covers for difficult locations. Descriptions of their conditions almost always run along the same line and, more often than not, these descriptions can be quite comical.

Most of these gardeners are looking for that "perfect" ground cover—one which doesn't need mowing (mostly because it'll be on a steep bank where there's no footing)—that'll grow in very poor soil and is very fast growing. Yet, it mustn't be invasive—they don't want their perfect ground cover to take over their yard—and it has to perform well in both blistering-hot sun and deep shade.

They say it's got to be able to handle both very wet and very dry soil—if any real soil at all—and they don't want it to attract insects, vermin or snakes. Oh. . .and they want it to have flowers all season long. Did I mention that it must tolerate lots of road salt and car exhaust? There's more.

It has to look really great without fertilizer or watering, and it's got to be thick enough to prevent weeds from coming up through and around it. As if all that's not enough, because they don't want to have to go to the trouble of digging out all the weeds, brambles and poison ivy, they want to just be able to scatter a few seeds or stick in a few little plants here and there, and have them grow so fast and so lush that these "perfect" ground cover babies will crowd out blackberries, goldenrod and dandelions.

Then comes the requirement that never fails to bring a smile to my face: ". . .and my bank is about 75 feet long. You think six or eight plants'll be enough? And I don't want to spend any more than about $25!"  

"So, let me get this straight," I might say, "you've got a bank in the sun that has no soil on it; you aren't planning on clearing it of weeds and berry vines; you don't intend to add any compost, fertilizer or water; you'll not be mowing it or pulling the weeds out of it; you want it to grow like gang-busters but not get too far out of hand; and. . .let's see. . .eight plants in 75 feet. . .how wide did you say it was?. . eight feet? Well, that's one plant for about every 75 square feet. . .and you want all this for $25?"

"Excuse me? Did I hear you say it's got to look good for a wedding reception next June?" File THAT under never!

Ok. . .ok, so I exaggerated a little—but just a little! Believe it or not, that totally unrealistic set of demands is heard more often than you think. . .certainly more often than I want to hear.

So, is there such a "perfect" ground cover? One which meets all those difficult criteria? No.

            There are a few incredibly tough plants that don't mind desperately poor soil. Creeping phlox is one; ajuga is another; creeping thyme doesn't do too bad, either. And there are some pretty rugged sedums that'll grow just about anywhere. I've got all of these growing in 100% pure, bank-run, compacted, driveway gravel. But, I tell them, even these remarkably tough types need a bit softer start in life. A scattering of compost or old manure; some fertilizer tossed on the bank a couple times each season; a sprinkler set out there during the first 6 to 8 weeks; and climb up there and pull some weeds once in a while.

            "Oh, no. . .no," they often say, "Now just you hold on a minute there mister. I don't like ajuga, it's too common. . .like a weed. Creeping phlox has some nice color but it only lasts a couple of weeks. Creeping thyme is way too short. And sedum? E-e-e-u-u. . .it's yellow! Practically everyone has yellow! It's too far to lug water, and I don't have a hose long enough to reach. Besides we just have a shallow well and can't waste water on plants. And another thing: I haven't got time to do all the stuff you tell me I gotta do."

            So, they go to WalMart, K-Mart or one of the other big box stores that'll sell them just about anything to move merchandise. Then, two years later, they're back in the neighborhood nursery buying trays of ajuga, creeping phlox, creeping thyme and yellow sedums. Hosta, daylilies, geraniums and pachysandra—they've learned the hard (and expensive) way—really don't care for the brutal and totally unrealistic abuse of rocky, gravelly, dry, sunny banks.

 
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