The Big Cover-up By Mike Klingaman

THE REAL DIRT

July 26, 1992

There is a bare spot in our front yard where almost nothing will grow. We planted shrubs there. They died. We tried flowers. Same ending. In desperation, we planted bulbs. Certainly they would live. Bulbs grow anywhere. They even grow in Iraq.

We waited two years. The bulbs never came up.

The bare spot had won.

There was no reasonable explanation for this bizarre phenomenon. The site, a shady area which measured 2 feet in diameter, passed a soil test. It was never a dump for nuclear waste, or a privy for the family dog. Still, nothing would grow there.

This was discouraging. For months I walked past that bald patch of ground, which resembled Michael Jordan's pate, shaking my head in dismay.

The dead zone bothered me. I began to doubt my gardening abilities. Were neighbors laughing at me? Another thought: Perhaps the spot was bewitched. Egad. Should we cover the area with a large clay pot, or a "For Sale" sign?

We did neither. Instead, as a last resort, we planted pachysandra, a hardy evergreen ground cover. Then we watered it and crossed our fingers.

Not only did the pachysandra survive, it thrived. The plants began to multiply, spreading by their underground stems. In several years, the bare spot had become a thicket of the deep green, scalloped leaves that make pachysandra so popular in hard-to-plant places.

I was elated. Ten years later, our yard is awash in pachysandra and other low-growing ground covers like ajuga, periwinkle, lily of the valley and snow-on-the-mountain. Moreover, the plants have blanketed our most difficult terrain, creeping across rocky slopes and into the deep shade beneath shrubs and trees where lawns have a tough time growing.

The truth is, ground covers boldly go where no plant has gone before, which makes them indispensable aids for hassled homeowners. Planted on hillsides, these plants literally anchor the earth and protect against soil erosion. Prettier than wood chips, they serve as living mulch. Do remember to water them, however: Rain washes quickly off of ground covers that are planted on slopes.

Most ground covers are perennial, disease-resistant plants and shrubs with prostrate habits. They spread horizontally, choking out weeds in their inexorable march across hard-to-mow areas. A single creeping juniper, with its handsome blue-green needles, may blanket an area 12 feet in diameter.

What is a ground cover? Any plant whose growth reduces yard maintenance. It's a loosely defined family that includes shrubs, perennials and even herbs such as creeping thyme, with its purple flowers and heady fragrance, and sweet woodruff, prized for its dainty white flowers and rapid growth.

English ivy, immune to smog, is a popular ground cover among city homeowners. Periwinkle, another old-fashioned creeper well-known to early Colonists, boasts glossy green leaves and tiny blue flowers. It flourishes in sun or shade, and also in poor soil.

Ground covers are expensive. A flat of 50 periwinkle plants costs about $25; a single juniper, as much as $20. The cost can be prohibitive for gardeners with grandiose plans.

Most ground covers can be planted in fall. Explore the neighborhood before making your choices; see what works best for others. Knock on doors and ask questions.

We were introduced to pachysandra by a family friend who insisted we take a bucketful of her plants. She had thousands of them. Now we have thousands, and we're spreading the new ones around the yard as fast as they reproduce.

Once a ground cover gets started, it's like having your own nursery. But be patient. Most plantings take several years to explode.

There is an old saying about pachysandra: "The first year it sleeps, the second it creeps and the third, it leaps."

The same holds true for most ground covers.End of realdirt

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