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Gardening: Ground Force - David Wheeler

Blog | Jun 10, 2024

Herbaceous geranium ‘Rozanne'

Some gardeners, against Dame Nature’s better judgement, prefer a clean swathe of tilled earth between their plants. ‘There’s tidy,’ they say around here.

The Dame was occupying the ground long before we humans set foot on it; better, then, to do it her way.

And choice ground-hugging plants have an arguably better aesthetic than thickets of couch grass, creeping buttercup and invasive thistles – however beneficial their seeds might be to insects, birds and small mammals. Hark, though: cultivated weed-suppressing plants, if that’s our alternative, can also fill the critters’ store cupboard.

In one of the few books on the subject (now there’s an opportunity for a horti-scribe looking for a new project), the late Graham Stuart Thomas, former head of gardens for the National Trust, stresses the value of leaves. In his Plants for Ground- Cover (1970), he invites readers to follow him down a ‘realisable dream-path’. He asks us to consider that foliage is more important than flowers, and that green in its many variations ‘is a colour that deserves the closest attention and appraisal’.

That said, foliage can extend delightfully beyond the fabled 40 verdant shades, and most ground-covering plants are also floriferous. Think such old familiars as aubrieta and alyssum and that ubiquitous, award-winning herbaceous geranium ‘Rozanne’ with its untiring mid-blue saucer- shaped flowers from June to October.

Of course, a 50-plus-year-old book will not include the many newly discovered or ‘improved’ plants, prompting younger gardeners to go online where they’ll find websites listing hundreds of delectable, diverse weed-smotherers.

The periwinkles (Vinca) bestow fresh-looking year-round leafage and a throng of white or blue, single or double flowers. I coax the small-leafed V minor and its kin around small plants, saving the thuggish, larger-leafed V major to inhabit ground under macho shrubs and trees. All are good in shade, although I’ve seen them under hot sun, alongside rosemary and other heat-lovers in several Moroccan gardens.

The ajugas do much the same job – some introducing purple foliage and flowers to the scene.

Briefly, wearing my party- pooper hat, I must warn against some rampant spreaders that are too rampant, especially for confined quarters.

A few are outlawed. The beguiling cream-flowered but all too invasive Allium paradoxum is one, but seek out the similar A paradoxum var normale and you’ll have added a small gem to your garden.

A skull-and-crossbones sign ought to accompany the unspeakably beautiful three-cornered leek, A triquetrum. She’s a villain. ‘An absolute menace ... worse than Japanese knotweed,’ says one Instagram digger. They add that it is an offence in the UK to plant it in the wild and, like asbestos, should only be disposed of by a licensed waste-carrier.

But it’s Chelsea Flower Show month – let’s gladsome be.

Epimediums mostly keep themselves ankle-high. Best, though, to scissor their evergreen foliage to ground level in early spring, the better to reveal a galaxy of yellow or pinky mauve stars a little later.

Persicarias need careful research. A garden centre’s tiny pot might well harbour a brute. Some are low and mat-forming, others chest-high, with hooligan tendencies.

Many a geranium other than ‘Rozanne’ will oblige. ‘Johnson’s Blue’ and ‘Buxton’s Variety’ remain stalwarts and are easily sourced.

Euphorbia robbiae can run amok, but is invaluable in shade. The two different greens of its leaves and flowers triumphantly enhance neighbouring blue-flowered plants. Like most of the above, Mrs Robb’s bonnet, to give her the vernacular, spreads by underground runners. Astrantias, on the other hand, like those pesky wild geums, form seed-raised colonies.

Nor should we forget the ground- hugging woody plants – prostrate rosemary, willow, juniper, cotoneaster. Another day...

David’s Instagram account is @hortusjournal