A Living Carpet

Perennials and annuals are useful for preventing winter weed growth and regulating the microclimate of the soil, as well as creating a delightful green tapestry over the bare earth of winter

By Jennifer Gay

Athens News

Whenever I set about creating groundcover, I often tend to think first of using the toughest plants, those that will endure the worst possible scenarios such as hot, exposed slopes, or dark, dry shade. They are especially useful where low maintenance is required, after all, One of the main reasons for covering the ground with a dense carpet of plants is to minimise weeding among ornamental plants.

Groundcover also successfully reduces evaporation from exposed soils; a dense planting of drought-resistant plants such as Rock Rose (Cistus), Rosemary or Oleander will shade the soil and keep it Cool. Or, steep banks might be planted with spreading Juniper (Juniperus squamata 'Blue Carpet' is a good one), the succulent Aptenia cordifolia, or ever-reliable ivies; all-have a low spreading habit, evergreen foliage and vigorous rooted layers which combine to form a stable layer that prevents erosion of topsoil and prevents nutrient leaching.

The silver-trimmed leaves of Deadnettle
make an attractive groundcover

However, with the arrival of a Mediterranean winter, annual and perennial groundcovers appear, which reminds me that other options exist, albeit seasonal ones. Encouraged by the rainfall and relatively mild temperatures, their freshness and buoyancy reflects periods of burgeoning growth; their behaviour is the exact opposite of perennials in northern temperate zones where most disappear with the onset of cold and enter dormancy.

Perennials and annuals are just as useful for preventing winter weed growth and also play their role in regulating the microclimate of the soil. Filling every available patch of bare soil with their atttactive foliage, they create a delightful green tapestry. Many a groundcover perennials prefer shady position as their natural habitat is the understorey of woodlands, and they are therefore perfect for planning among roses, or young trees and shrubs which have yet to reach their full potential. While you wait for these plants to bulk out, the ground can be covered with early flowering perennials or annuals such as Violets, Irises, and Honeywort (Cerinthe retorta).

A green tapestry of Geranium

Many varieties are at hand for our use. Carpeting plants produce surface runners that root where they touch the soil and include Alpine strawberries, purple-leaved Bugle or silver variegated deadnettles, all good colonisers, often covering large areas after a few years. The native woodland bugle, Ajuga reptans tolerates dry shade very well, however, in a light soil, even if shady, it will show distress in severe drought; plenty of humus helps. In heavier soil, it thrives, and where you have room, the coloured forms make attractive groundcover. Like Periwinkle (Vinca - a tough evergreen with distinctive purple flowers), it helps if you mulch in the first year to avoid weeding between the runners. Ajuga 'Variegata' will do well in deeper shade where it creates a mat of pale green and white leaves, enlivening a dull patch.
Ajuga 'Burgundy Glow' is the most colourful form, its fresh leaves suffused rose and magenta and edged with cream. Deadnettles (Lamium), shade-loving perennials from Europe and Asia, are found in open woods and along hedges and will grow in light or heavy soil, providing attractive dense cover. Tolerating considerable drought in shade, as long as the soil is quite humus-rich, it will die down in summer, " however.

Try. Deadnettle (Lamium moschatum) with its silver-trimmed leaves, Spotted Deadnettle (Lamium maculatum), or Yellow Archangel (Lamium galeobdolon 'Variegatum'). They seed themselves everywhere but are effective performers under the shade of large trees and look very pretty on a sunny winter's day.

Honeywort is a joy, and though on the verge of invasive, I virtually never mind. With pretty white mottled leaves, Violet Honeywort (Cerinthe retorta) has narrow, tubular flowers, dark purple-brown filding to yellow cream, with purple bracts, while Honeywort (Cerinthe major) has very striking flowers, distinctively half yellow and half chocolate brown. Comfrey (Symphytum ibericum), well known for its healing properties, grows in the wild with Siberian Bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla), making impenetrable weed cover under shrubs. It forms carpeting mounds of creeping, dark green, rough leaves, the shoots surface rooting as they grow in spring before the new leaves are fully developed. Useful among large shrubs, in early spring small cream bells appear as an added bonus.

Some groundcovers are better weed suppressants than others; the most valuable establish themselves quickly, have dense foliage that blocks out light to prevent weed germination, and retain their leaves during the summer season. Elephant's Ears (Bergenia cordifolia), is one such; spreading slowly by means of woody rhizomes, they make clumps of large, leathery, rounded, glossy leaves and markedly crinkled edges. The large sh.owy flower heads are soft pink. Again they tolerate drought well if given enough humus, but they don't like to be in really deep shade. Bergenia 'Purpurea' flowers in early spring and sends up huge, heavy heads of magenta supported on rhubarb-like -stalks. The beautiful leaves provide much needed contrast among smaller-leaved plants, and while at the end of the summer; their leaves look bedraggled by the ravages of the sun, they quickly refurnish after rain.

Some of the true geraniums, notably cultivars, of Geranium macrorrhizum (flowering over a long period), have scented foliage and provide autumn colour. From southern Europe, it will make weed-proof groundcover in fair conditions, ie with shelter and good soil, and in such a situation, it is easily divided and rooted. Left to its own devices, it creeps about on its rooting stems, covered with small, lobed or deeply cut leaves.

Foam Flower (Tiarella cofaifolia) and Epimedium x versicolor are both sturdy groundcover plants renowned for their drought tolerance in northern Europe, but may not stand up to conditions here. I would like to try them in a shady place with a soil rich in leaf mould, to see how they do. I suspect they won't be too happy with alkaline soils, but in woodland areas or in some mountainous areas inland, they might be worth a shot. In summer, Tiarella will almost certainly wither away, especially if exposed.

Highly reliable as a native of Greek mountains, Narrow-leaved glaucous Spurge (Euphorbia rigida), a clump forming species bearing low, spreading stems, and its close relative, Euphorbia myrsinites very quickly and extensively cover surrounding soil. Lilyturf (Liriape muscan), a shade loving plant from China and Japan, grows well in well-drained soil, especially useful for dry shade. They like their site to be well prepared and take a little time to settle down but when established make low robust clumps of dark evergreen strap-shaped leaves and bear spikes of small, bell-shaped, mauve-pink flowers in autumn.

Two other foliage plants I must mention which are highly suitable for the Mediterninean garden are: Catmint (Nepeta x faassenil), a valued plant for edgings, with flower spikes of pale lavender; and Lamb's Ears (Starchy byzantina and Stachys "olympica). Growing naturally from the Caucasus to Iran, both species do well in light soil and light shade, but in summer they need water to maintain their appearance.

Virgin's Bower

While walking on the eastern side of Mount Hymmetos on the first weekend of January, I saw Clematis cirrhosa flowering in the soft winter sunshine. Foiled by almost fern-like, shiny, evergreen leaves, the nodding bell flowers are cream, surrounded by green bracts often red-spotted inside, and gloriously honey scented. Found growing in woodland and maquis, it flowers from December to April. Grow it in your garden for a lovely winter display, allowing it to scramble over a large shrub as you might find it in the wild. It can grow to 4 metres.

HCS readers can view other excellent articles by Jennifer Gay in the News & Issues and especially the sections of our extensive, permanent archives at the URL http://www.helleniccomserve.com./contents.html
. She is a journalist and writer for the English-language Athens News. Readers enjoying her articles may wish to view other fine selections or to subscribe to this publication by visiting the website http://www.athensnews.gr.

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