The art of ground covers. Open Garden.Q&A with Helen Young.
Social geographers and garden historians alike have become increasingly interested in the information relayed by the front garden, A beautiful, ordered, well kept garden speaks, perhaps, of the success of the householder and the care with which he conducts his life. The front garden is replete with information about aspirations, economics, demographics, fashion and taste.
There are several green choices more easy-going, requiring less maintenance than thirsty lawn, and often more suited to shaded areas, that will, nevertheless, ensure your garden looks smart. Such groundcovers will also soften stone steps and courtyards.
Cotoneasters have a bad reputation in some gardening circles, as some species can become ‘‘garden escapes’’ smothering native bushland. Some are sterile, however, so are not a threat to the environment. Among the genus, Cotoneaster dammeri is perhaps the star. It is drought tolerant, spreading quickly in most climates, and bears small, white, fragrant flowers in spring and summer. C. horizontalis also makes a stunning groundcover: its horizontal branches look particularly effective trained along a rock retaining wall. Its pink summer flowers are followed by a showy mass of red fruit and orange, red and pink autumn foliage.
Many of the conifers make great groundcovers, with the bonus in winter or exciting berries. Juniperus x media is often used as a groundcover in large areas in public places, as it is tough and fast growing, but it has a most unpleasant smell: there are many other kinder species available. Arrange Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Carpet’ as a mass planting: it provides a summer cover of emerald green that turns to bronze in winter, and is an effective foil for other colours in the garden. Juniperus procumbins and its smaller growing form ‘ Nana’, from western China, is a spreading groundcover with soft, blue green leaves. In Japanese gardens you’ll find it backed with a swathe of pre-historic looking cycads.
Winter sees the hellebore take centre stage. Surely nature’s savior in the coldest months, this easy-toplease, charming plant blooms in a range of colours and shapes, from dazzling white, to pink, to black-purple. Some are intricately marked with speckles or splotches, some are double. Some hellebores have jagged leaves, or foliage that is deeply veined; some foliage is the deepest forest green, others blue to steel grey.
Hellebores are native across much of the globe, from Britain to the Balkans, Turkey, and into Russia and China; there is a species suited to almost every climatic zone in Australia, therefore. The most common, Helle
borus orientalis will multiply in anything but the poorest soil, and copes with hot summers and winter rains. The promiscuity of the hellebore is perhaps what makes this species so exciting, for the offspring bear differing markings and colours. Try the almost-black Hel
leborus o. ‘Pluto’ and ‘Plum Purple,’ which looks particularly smart flowering under shrubs and trees with dark red to black foliage, like Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’.
Take care, however, some people have an anaphylactic reaction after touching any part of the hellebore.
Any of the matting thymes, such as the lilac flowering woolly thyme, Thymus ‘Mauve,’ make excellent alternatives to lawn. Try a combination of a dozen different matting thymes for a ‘ Persian carpet’ effect: stunning, but not maintenance-free. Mass out the blue flowering bugle flower, ( Ajuga repans), the attractive periwinkle ( Vinca minor) — a saviour in many a large country garden — the native violet ( Viola hederacea).
Winter sees the hellebore take centre stage. This charming plant blooms in a range of colours and shapes, from dazzling white, to pink, to black-purple
The gorgeous, white flowering snow in summer, ( Ce
rastium tomentosum), is also an excellent choice to cascade down, and soften, a retaining wall.
And, for coastal gardens, which often cope with saltladen winds, the beach bean, ( Canavalia rosea), from the tropical and sub-tropical coastal regions of the world, and with luscious, large leaves and pink, pea-like flowers, is a vigorous groundcover, often used in the stabilisation of sand dunes. Hibbertia scandens scrambles and climbs and makes a yellow-flowering ground cover that will also thrive in salty, sandy coastal gardens.
Lippia ( Phyla nodiflora) is an excellent grass substitute that blooms with tiny white or pink flowers for much of the year, in sun or shade, and is salt tolerant. Take care when buying lippia, however, as some members of the genus can invade waterways and wetlands.
Scaevola aemula, the fan flower, forms a coarseleaved, ground-hugging matt with blue flowers from early spring to late summer. Native to coastal areas it copes with salt winds and humidity, and even light frosts. Use it also to cascade down a retaining wall.
There are plenty of species native to Australia that make effective ground covers. Adenanthos pungens ‘Green Carpet’ is a low prostrate, spreading groundcover. It has green deeply divided leaves along the stems, which spread horizontally, and red flowers that are most attractive to native birds. The ground covering native moss, Scleranthus biflorus, masses out with a lime green oval leaf and tiny white flowers, but dislikes humidity.
At Lanarch Castle, in the south island of New Zealand, on a site overlooking the Pacific Ocean and buffeted by salt-laden winds, Azorella trifurcata and the easy going succulent Aeonium undulatum spread out to form a tough-but-gentle-looking groundcover.
The most exciting example of a ground cover must be at Kyoto’s Moss Garden at Saiho-ji Temple, however. There, more than 100 species of moss thrive. Possibly the world’s most serene landscape, this two hectare, cathedral-like garden has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1994.
Groundcovers Azorella trifurcata, above; Leucogenes leontopodium, top left; the moss garden in Kyoto, bottom left