Covering New Ground Or Old With Groundcover

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Mock strawberry covers shallowly but densely.

As the simple name implies, ‘groundcover’ covers the ground. Groundcover plants stay lower than shrubbery, and function something like mulch. They insulate shallow roots of other plants, inhibit weeds, and some groundcovers inhibit erosion. Besides all their utilitarian functions, they provide appealing foliage, and some bloom nicely.

Lawn is probably the most common groundcover, and is also the most useful; but that is an entirely different and involved topic! Other groundcover plants are spreading perennials, plants with sprawling stems, or vines grown without support. Most are evergreen, since defoliated plants do not cover much of anything too well.

Gazanias and iceplants are popular perennial groundcovers. Their old stems tend to die out and decompose as efficiently as new stems pile up over them, which is why they do not get too deep. Gazanias can eventually get bald spots that need to be patched with new plants, or ‘plugged.’

(The debris from pruning the edges of easily rooted perennial groundcovers can be processed into cuttings known as ‘plugs’, which can go directly into bald spots. Plugs can be taken from dense spots if no edging is necessary. They should be watered regularly, or plugged in autumn to take advantage of rain while roots develop.)

Groundcover forms of ceanothus (wild lilac), juniper and contoneaster are really shrubs that extend their stems more horizontally than vertically. Honeysuckle and both Algerian and English ivies are vines that spread over the ground until they find something to climb. Their stems root into the ground wherever they need to.

Since most groundcover plants are naturally understory plants that grow below larger plants, many tolerate considerable shade. Periwinkle and the ivies are remarkably happy in partial shade. However, vines, particularly the ivies, will climb walls and trees for more sunlight if they get the chance.

Many of the perennial groundcovers and some of the vines are neater if mown or cut low annually. Periwinkle does not need to be mown, but can get rather unkempt before new growth overwhelms the old through winter. Mowing eliminates the old stems, and makes the new growth fluffier. Dwarf periwinkle stays too low to mow.

Fan Aloe

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Some aloes should have more fans.

most aloes are tough perennials that do not need much water. Unfortunately, they do not have many fans. Maybe that is why fan aloe, Aloe plicatilis, makes it’s own. The plumply succulent leaves are distichously arranged, which is a fancy way of saying that they are either to the left or to the right, flaring out to form foliar fans.

Individual leaves are just as distinctive as their arrangement is. They are not tapered and pointed like those of other aloes. Instead, they are about an inch and a half wide from end to end, with weirdly blunt tips. They get almost a foot long. The soft gray color contrasts nicely with coral flower spikes that bloom at the end of winter.

It grows slowly, but fan aloe is one of the few aloes that eventually grows into a big shrub with several sculptural trunks on a flaring base. In their native habitat in South Africa, old specimens grow as small trees more than ten feet tall. Branches that need to be pruned away can be rooted as cuttings after the cut ends dry out a bit.

Dragon Lily

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Dragon lily is striking and stinky.

Dracunculus vulgaris make a sinister impression by botanical name alone. Common names include dragon lily, dragon arum, dragonwort, black dragon, snake lily, stink lily and voodoo lily. That makes it sinister enough to be compelling. Although rare in nurseries, dormant tubers are available in season by mail order. Alternatively, established colonies happily share a few dormant tubers.

Dragon lily is quite easy to grow. It appreciates rich soil and regular watering, at least until it gets established. Once settled in, it might be satisfied with only monthly watering until it goes dormant in late summer. Because it prefers humid climates, it wants shelter from wind here, and may like a bit of partial afternoon shade. It is so adaptable that it unfortunately naturalized in some regions.

The fragrance of dragon lily attracts insect pollinators that are drawn to dead animals. Those of us who enjoy unusual plants find it amusing. Everyone else thinks it stinks. Blooms that produce the fragrance are spectacular, with a big and flared purplish red spathe around a slender black spadix. They may stand nearly three feet tall, among lightly blotched and deeply lobed palmate leaves.

Bedding Plants That Defy Seasons

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Some seasonal annuals are really perennials.

Bedding plants that go into the garden in spring are generally warm season or summer annuals. They should perform through summer until the weather gets too cool for them the following autumn. Bedding plants that go into the garden in autumn are generally cool season or winter annuals. They should perform through winter until the weather gets too warm for them late the following spring.

That sounds simple enough. Each type of bedding plant performs best within a specified season. Since they are annuals, they complete their life cycles within a single season within a single year. Of course, it is not so simple here where seasons are as unique as they are. Winter is mild. Summer is arid. Some bedding plants that are annuals in harsher climates may survive as perennials.

For example, busy Lizzie and wax begonia are warm season annuals in most climates. They succumb to frost as weather cools in autumn. Locally, they can survive through winter if sheltered from mild frost. Any that survived through last winter can regenerate now. As bedding plants, they will not be as uniform as they were last year. However, their variability would be fine for mixed bedding.

If sheltered and warm enough, wax begonias may actually continue to perform right through winter. If they dislike the aridity of summer, they can even perform slightly better through winter than they do through summer. Their best performance is often about now and again in autumn, between the two extremes of summer and winter. They challenge their designation as a warm season annual.

Even some of the bedding plants that really are annuals may not behave as such. Alyssum and nasturtium can disperse seed to replace themselves before they finish. They are not true to type, so their progeny eventually revert. Nonetheless, simple yellow and orange nasturtium and white alyssum are splendid for many relaxed gardens. Nasturtium might perform better in summer or winter.

Bedding plants usually know more about what they should be doing than those who are managing and manipulating them.

Bugle Lily

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Bugle lilies are like lean gladioli.

It would be accurate to guess that bugle lily, Watsonia pyramidata, is related to gladiola. It is not as impressive as gladiola is, but it is much more reliable. The relatively simple blooms become more abundant as bulbs multiply each year. Conversely, after blooming so flamboyantly in their first year, only a few gladiola bloom for a second year.

New bugle lily bulbs (corms) that were planted early last autumn grew through winter to bloom about now, in white and pastel hues of pink, rosy pink, lavender, orange and almost red. The small flowers are neatly arranged on narrow floral spikes that stand about three or four feet tall. The upright and narrow leaves get only about two or three feet tall.

After bloom, foliage slowly browns through warming summer weather, so should be cut to the ground when it becomes unsightly. While bulbs are dormant through summer, they do not need to be watered much, and can rot if soil stays too damp. Crowded colonies of bulbs can be divided and spread around as summer ends.

Pacific Coast Iris

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Bigger and bolder Pacific Coast iris.

Various species of iris that are native to exposed coastal hillsides are uncommon in nurseries. Even nurseries that specialize in native species grow only a few. Iris douglasiana was probably the most popular of these years ago. Its slender flowers are various shades of steely blue, like faded denim. Nowadays, most Pacific Coast iris are hybrids of various native and a few exotic species.

The color range of these modern hybrids is impressive. Many bloom with rich shades of blue, purple, burgundy, rusty red, orange, gold, yellow or rosy pink. Softer and pastel shades include coral pink, lavender, creamy white and bright white. There is even sky blue that is almost comparable to the color of well faded denim. Flowers are more substantial than those of their ancestors though.

Bloom is sometimes significantly early, or as late as May. Otherwise, it should happen about now. Each floral stalk supports about two or three flowers that bloom in succession. Floral stalks tend to lean outward from the center of mature plants, and curve to hold their bloom upright. Bloom typically stands less than two feet high. Their slender and arching dark green leaves stay even lower.

Blue Spruce Stonecrop

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This stonecrop seems to be coniferous.

It may not be as useful as those marketing it say it is, but blue spruce stonecrop, Sedum reflexum ‘Blue Spruce’ is a nice grayish component to pots of mixed perennials. It contrasts nicely with golden foliage, and looks great with the chartreuse foliage of closely related ‘Angelina’ stonecrop. The limber stems cascade a few inches over the edges of tall urns and hanging pots.

The succulent leaves are quite small, and as the name implies, look like plump blue spruce needles. The succulent stems do not stand much higher than six inches before flopping over. They do not get much wider than high initially, but have a sneaky way of rooting where they touch the ground to cover more area. Yellow flowers bloom just above the foliage in summer.

What blue spruce stonecrop does not do well is uniformly cover large areas of hard or dry soil. It can spread nicely, but is patchy, with thin spots and thick spots. It is really only reliable as ground cover over small areas. It prefers to be watered occasionally, even though it does not need much water. It also likes relatively loose or friable soil, even though it does not need rich soil.

Succulents Know Recycling and DIY

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Scraps of succulents can mix nicely.

There are all sorts of succulent plants, ranging from finely textured small stonecrops to huge suguaro cactus. Because aloes and agaves are succulents, the closely related yuccas, such as Joshua tree and Spanish bayonet, are commonly considered to be succulents as well. Even begonias and impatiens could be considered to be succulents.

Succulent plants are some of the most distinctive plants available. Foliage can be various shades of green, as well as yellow, red, blue, orange, purplish, gray, bronze, nearly black or variegated. Leaves may be thick and fleshy like those of jade plants, or thin and neatly arranged in tight rosettes like those of aeoniums. Cacti have no real foliage, but some have flashy flowers.

Except for the larger sorts of cacti and some yucca, most succulents are very easy to propagate. Jade plants and iceplants grow very easily from stems simply stuck wherever new plants are desired. Aloes and hen-and-chicks grow just as easily from pups (sideshoots) separated from parent plants. Technically, even leaves can be rooted, and will eventually grow into new plants.

Because scraps from pruning can be used as cuttings, there is rarely any need to actually take cuttings from desirable growth. Where more Hottentot fig (freeway iceplant) is needed on a freeway, it simply gets ‘plugged’ (as cuttings) from scraps of debris from where established growth needs to be cut back to an edge. There is much more debris than can be used!

Pots of mixed succulents are ridiculously easy to grow simply be filling pots with potting soil, and then plugging bits of various succulents. All sorts of contrasting colors and forms can be mixed. As plants grow, those that dominate can either be pruned back, or given more space by removing slower plants. The removed plants need not be wasted, but can be plugged somewhere else.

Small succulents are just as easy to plug into informal walls of stacked stone or broken concrete. Some small succulents actually stabilize loose stone. Their docile and finely textured roots are not likely to do any damage.

African Daisy

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African daisy excels as bulb cover.

They are more than just shrubbier and more colorful versions of the formerly stigmatized trailing African daisy. Modern African daisies are actually various hybrids of several other species. Extensive breeding complicated their lineages enough for them to be known by cultivar names rather than by species names. To one degree or another, most are probably related to Osteospermum ecklonis.

These fancier modern hybrids of African daisy grow as annuals in harsher climates. If planted just after the last frost date, they bloom splendidly for early spring, and continue to bloom sporadically through summer. If they grow and bloom a bit too well, they may like to be trimmed back to bloom some more. Locally, they persist through winter as short term perennials, to bloom as winter ends.

Bloom provides pastel hues of yellow, orange, pink, ruddy pink, lavender, purple or white. Early spring bloom is most profuse, particularly for fluffy plants that were not trimmed back over winter. The biggest sprawling plants should get trimmed back after bloom. Subsequent sporadic bloom, mixed with random profuse phases, is inhibited only by warm summer weather and cool winter weather.

African daisy wants full sun and regular watering. Mature plants get about two feet deep and broad. If pressed into the soil, outer stems can develop roots to grow as new plants, as the original dies.

Deadhead To Eliminate Fading Bloom

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Deadhead finished daffodils to conserve resources.

The need to deadhead so early in spring is one of the few minor consequences of spring bulbs. Long before it becomes necessary to deadhead zinnia, canna and rose, the first flowers to bloom as winter ends are already finished. Many are those of spring bulbs. Their lingering deteriorating bloom can be slightly unappealing. What is more of a concern, is that some will likely try to go to seed.

The process of producing unwanted seed consumes resources that could otherwise sustain more useful growth. However, for spring bulbs that have finished blooming, production of seed for a new generation is more important than their own survival. That is why it is helpful to deadhead bulbs and many other plants after bloom. If deprived of seed production, they divert resources elsewhere.

Deadheaded narcissus, daffodil, freesia, lily and tulip store more resources into new bulbs, which they generate to bloom next year. Snowdrop and grape hyacinth cultivars that get deadheaded are not likely to get overwhelmed by their own feral seedlings. (It is neither practical nor necessary to deadhead crocus or big naturalized colonies of snowflake, feral snowdrop or feral grape hyacinth.)

While it is important to deadhead most spring bulbs after bloom, it is also important to not remove deteriorating foliage prematurely. After all, the foliage produces the resources that are necessary to generate healthy new bulbs for next year. Such foliage starts to slowly deteriorate immediately after bloom, but may linger for many months. Bulbs will shed their foliage when they no longer need it.

Until then, bedding plants or low perennials can obscure deteriorating bulb foliage as it falls over. Trailing gazania and dwarf periwinkle work nicely for shorter bulbs. If they get shorn low for winter, trailing plumbago, common periwinkle and African daisy can work nicely for taller bulbs.