The goal is super-low-maintenance
I’m sure you all recognize this 21 by 11-foot island bed around the GHI sign at Ridge and Hamilton Roads. It’s very prominent and as of yesterday morning, half-full of weeds.
And here it is after two hours weeding and mulching – by me, since I’ve adopted it. Is there anything as immediately satisfying as this act of garden maintenance? Okay, maybe lawn-mowing; I haven’t had a lawn in years, but I remember loving the immediate improvement, and the smell of fresh-cut grass.
But I’m frankly getting old and the gardens I’ve adopted are going to some day be too much. I need to turn them all into self-sustaining gardens – or as close to that ideal as I can make them.
To get off the weed+mulch merry-go-round once and for all (mostly) will require a great ground cover or two serving as “green mulches,” the new name for ground covers that replace mulch.
(In this I have some very good company. Local landscape architects Thomas Rainer and and Claudia West are huge proponents of ground covers instead of mulch, as they say in Planting in a Post-Wild World and in their talks.)
The Right Ground Covers
I’m often amazed at the ridiculously long lists of recommended ground covers, including all sorts of things that grow IN the ground but don’t actually cover it (including any old shrub!). To prevent weeds, ground covers have to create a thick cover and then stay that way, aboveground, all year. So we’re talking evergreen, and unless your budget is big enough to plant very closely, fast-spreading.
Speaking of budgets, there wasn’t one for this spot, so another requirement is that the plants be free and in abundance. Also they need to be super-drought-tolerant because there’s no water source nearby.
So one of the plants I’m using is rudbeckia, a/k/a black-eyed Susans, which is native and the State Flower of Maryland! In this photo from my own garden they’re nice and thick, with bluebells popping up among them, but very rarely a new weed.
The first year after I’d planted Susans in the island above, someone complained – rightly – that they blocked the sign, so I’ve replaced a few with the shorter lamb’s ear, another plant that likes full sun and can handle a drought with no pampering. Seen in this shot from last August, the lamb’s ears are surviving but the Susans are thriving and the blooms last weeks. So cheerful.
For the shady side of the sign I’m growing ground cover comfrey, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why I so rarely see it used.
And here it is blooming under a viburnum right now in my back yard. It spreads quickly and is evergreen enough. (Not gorgeous in February but it’s still covering the ground.)
In the Meantime, the Right Mulch
To further reduce my labor, I’m no longer using the free leafmold mulch from the pile on Northway or buying bags of the more
attractive pine bark fines I used to use. Instead, following another gardening mentor of mine – Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, the world’s leading proponent of wood chips as mulch. Wood chips simply last much longer and if you have access to an unlimited supply of it for free, why use anything else?
Click to download her fact sheet “Using Arborist Wood Chips as a Landscape Mulch.”
The only caveat is that wood uses up nitrogen in the process of decomposing, so a bit of supplemental fertilizer is recommended when chips are used around hungry plants like vegetables.
“Arborist’s wood chips” are what Dr. Chalker-Scott recommends, which means a mix of all the tree parts, not uniformly chopped-up timber. And it’s exactly what’s available behind the GHI administration building on Hamilton (the fence is open during office hours). It’s available to anyone – you don’t have to be a member to load up on this valuable resource.
Hey, how about GHI start using its own wood chips as mulch on its common grounds instead of buying pine bark mulch? That would save GHI money in two ways because currently, it has to pay to have wood chips hauled away! Also, then maybe more of us would learn that wood chips look just fine as mulch.
Extra: The Right Shape
This little island looks so nice not just thanks to its fresh weeding and mulching. Doing those chores revealed the island’s clear outline and nice shape. From my days garden consulting, I remember that creating a nice shape for borders and islands was often what clients’ gardens needed most. And now’s a great time to either sharpen the edge or create one for the first time. (Here’s an article I wrote about doing that for an island bed in the 5 Ridge Road common area.)
Really nothing spruces up a landscape like clear border edges, for some primeval reason – the reaction seems to be universal. And if you’re a pollinator gardeners, that bit of order can make otherwise wild-looking plantings in the middle look good to even the strictest of neighbors (or GHI inspectors).