Sunday, March 11, 2007

Ground Covers

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium, kalanchoë; honeysuckle and ivy geranium buds.

What’s reviving in the area: Daffodils emerged down the road; green leaves appeared on lance-leaved yellowbrushes. Saturday, three men in the village were burning weeds along the road: one worked the gas burner, while another raked over the charred plants. Nearer my place, one man was burning weeds a second was dropping on his pyre. Two patches in the village were plowed this past week; an alfalfa field down the road was turned over, as was the yard where the sheep ate last summer.

What’s reviving in my yard: Crocus and hyacinth bulbs planted last fall poked through; new leaves on flax, caryopteris and Mexican hat; some chrysanthemum leaves pushed up, as did Autumn Joy sedum and one species daylily; June and needle grass are greener at their crowns; more moss appeared in the bed west of the garage.

Animal sightings: Small birds built a nest in the eave of my front porch, and now consider the peach to be their territory; ant hills sprouted in the drive.

Weather: Waning moon, with frosty nights and warm afternoons; a little rain on Thursday.

Weekly update: Ground covers, so beloved by my mother, do not exist in this part of New Mexico. When she reinforced her yard lines with barberry hedges, she filled the dug up ground with lavender-flowered moss phlox. Here that area under shrubs would either be bare or colonized by adventitious grasses and weeds.

It may be the heritage of fire. The Cerro Grande taught those who had forgotten how dangerous plant life can be when houses with no trees and wide expanses of concrete were more likely to survive in Los Alamos than those that melted into the landscape. We’re reminded of the fire’s wiles every time we drive up the hill and see dead trees far from the front which had their moisture sucked by the heat, ready to immolate themselves when the flames arrived.

The preference for bare ground may arise from an atavistic memory of some family farm where the ground was cleared in the spring, and only the orchard had a grass covering or an even older, inherited European aesthetic. Pictures of Italian villas show areas around houses were paved with stone.

Old Mediterranean gardens used low hedges to define their boundaries. The dense outer plants redirected the winds away from the interior herbs which pictures usually show stood isolated from one another. Both ornamental beds and vegetable patches assumed virtuous tenders who made sure nothing competed with the specimens for food and water.

The lack of ground covers here could simply reflect the realization that vermin and grasshoppers take advantage of matted plant life to nest. My mother’s cat may have found the occasional field mouse, but they were nothing near as dangerous as our disease carrying rodents. In Michigan, I never heard a spring report of the first diagnosed case of bubonic plague.

For whatever reason, people here favor a view of the homestead untouched by William Robinson’s late-nineteenth century English impatience with bare ground and his recommendation that one "let the little ground plants form broad patches and colonies by themselves occasionally, and let them pass into and under other plants" in mixed borders.

I’ve been trying to establish ground covers for years, if for no other reason than to countermand nature’s choices: the harmless, but sparsely leaved knotweed, and the attractive, but vicious goat’s head. Along the soaker hoses, between taller, more dramatic flowers, I want inconspicuous plants that spread over the drier soil and keep it from blowing away.

I’ve found a few species that can colonize barren areas, but winecup and rockrose are too aggressive to function as the lowest level of Robinson’s domestic adaptation of the four layers of forests. Sweet alyssum is an annual which can only defend the soil against early spring winds if dead plants are left to winter, and possibly nurture disease and deer mice.

Probably because wholesalers see no market, it’s difficult to find plants in local stores, and mail order nurseries often don’t offer them because they have to ask higher prices than customers will pay who need masses of plants. Amos Pettingill didn’t offer my mother's moss phloxes because "they are difficult to ship."

Last summer I may finally have found some viable snow-in-summer in the local hardware. Plants I’d bought before were either root bound or had rootballs encased in the hardened layer that sometimes forms inside plastic pots. They kept their leaves during the snows that alternated with thaws, and now are putting out new leaves. Last year they spread from 2" clusters to 6" mats. This year, they may finally prove that ground covers are possible here, even if they’re not popular.

Pettingill, Amos. The White-Flower-Farm Garden Book, 1971, page 290.

Robinson, William. The English Flower Garden, 1933 edition reprinted by Sagapress, Inc., 1984, page 47.

Photograph: Snow-in-summer in front of green pinks and a red-leaved coral bell, 10 March 2007.

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