It’s timely, it’s gorgeous and it’s just released – Covering Ground by Barbara Ellis, whose work we’ve reviewed previously here.

Homeowners who are unhappy with their lawns need all the help they can get in finding plants to grow instead, and this book has ideas and inspiration to spare.  Call me overly visual, but photos by the likes of Jerry Pavia and Saxon Holt inspire the hell out of me.  After drinking in images like this one, I’m not just getting rid of something; I’m drawn toward totally new visions of what beautiful “yards” can look like, and exactly which plants I can use to make it all happen.  My question for Jerry, Saxon and the many photographers in this stunning book is how did you find all those amazing gardens?  Really, I’m curious, because you sure can’t just Google “gorgeous thyme garden” and find them. 

Photography like this reminds us why books still have a place, despite the plethora of free information on the Internet.  Gorgeous, high-resolution images printed on high-quality paper – it’s still a Good Thing.

I love that Ellis thinks outside the box, showing us that there’s no need to replace turfgrass with plants of similar stature.  Referring to mid-size shrubs, she says “for a large yard, consider a central planting of one or more of these wide-spreading species, perhaps surrounded by smaller shrubs.”  So don’t be surprised that her book covers 20-foot shrubs and has a whole section about azaleas and rhododendrons, which I’ was happy to see the author describe as  “far happier in partial shade south of Zone 5.”  Hallelujah.

I approached Covering Ground as a highly motivated reader desperately seeking ways to cover my own
ground, and found countless examples of information that readers like myself really, really need.  Some examples are:

  • How ground covers spread.
  • Sections about ground covers for every possible situation, and truly helpful tips about them (sedums are shallow-rooted, so not the best choice for holding soil on steep inclines).
  • Good site prep basics about removing weeds, sod, soil prep, even recommending a 2-week delay before planting to let soil settle and allow weed seeds and root remnants to sprout.  That’s some great advice I never see, and it comes from an author who’s clearly done her share of site prep.  And she tells us that smothering and solarizing of existing sod or weeds require a whole year before planting.
  • The truth about landscape fabric, that it should be installed when your site is being prepared, not later, and that it “has disadvantages and a great many gardeners avoid using it completely”.  She then tells us why. (Starting with the problem that weeds are difficult to remove because the roots become entangled in the fabric.)
  • Lots of good advice about how to avoid transplant stress, which “can be a killer”.  Yes indeedy!  One suggestion I’ll pursue is to shade newly moved plants with a spun-bonded row cover such as Reemay.  It rests directly on the plants and I want some!
  • As gorgeous as all these plants are en masse – huge drifts, swaths – they’re waaay more expensive than grass
    seed, and cost is an important factor limiting our ability to substitute creeping perennials for lawn.  So Ellis offers a slew of helpful suggestions about how to make it happen without a huge budget, like buying one of
    each and observing for a year before making a larger investment.  She devotes a lot of space to methods of propagation and urges us not to make the easy mistake that tightwad gardeners like myself have learned to regret – using the cheapest (often free) fastest-spreading plant. You know, the ones that end up devouring everything in their path.

Now I get to whine about what I would have done differently – as if I’d ever take on such a huge project as
writing this book or do nearly as good a job as Ellis has.  But reviewers don’t have to be doers, now do they?

  • There’s much discussion of the negatives of turfgrass – all the water, fossil fuels, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer required to keep it going – but no mention of going organic as an alternative.  Further, alternative ground covers are described as “labor-saving”, which isn’t always the case.  I was happy to see, however, a mention of new, better lawn cultivars that are more disease-resistant and need less frequent mowing.  After all, lawn is here to stay, so let’s all look for healthier ways to grow that damn stuff.
  • The now-ubiquitous generalization that “Locally native plants are best able to tolerate the heat, humidity, soil and exposure in your garden.”  Well, that depends on whether your garden has remotely similar conditions to where those plants grow in nature, right?  So why not say “many” and “depending on where you plant them”?
  • And like any gardener, when I’ve grown plants myself I have stories to contribute.  So I would warn readers that when Liriope spicata receives direct sunshine, it spreads so aggressively as to make  English ivy look positively mind-mannered.

Okay, I got that off my chest.  Now DO buy and enjoy this excellent book.