The Goal is Super-Low-Maintenance

Here’s a 21 by 11-foot island bed around the entrance sign to my co-op community.  It’s very prominent and as of yesterday morning, half-full of weeds.And here it is after two hours of weeding and mulching – by me, because I’ve added this island to my growing domain of adopted gardens in public spaces around town. 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 all these adopted gardens are going to some day be too much. So 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. 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 (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, my adopted gardens have none, 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 here and even our state flower. In this photo from my front 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 them in the island above, people complained online – 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. The remaining rudbeckias I’ll cut back a couple of times to keep low.

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, which for the life of me I can’t figure out why it’s so rarely used.

Here it is blooming under a Koreanspice viburnum right now in my back yard. It spreads quickly and is evergreen enough. (Not gorgeous in February but at least it’s aboveground and still showing some foliage.)

In googling “green mulch” I found a Maryland landscaper who’d also read the Rainer-West book and promotes green mulch as one of the services she offers as an “opportunity to substitute a flat of 32 or 50 Green Mulch plants for a cubic yard of shredded pine mulch.” Her site lists these plants as possible green mulches: heath aster, wild geranium, barren strawberry, Meehan’s mint, golden groundsel (another one of my favorites), creeping phlox, creeping raspberry, Cherokee sedge, palm sedge, blue wood sedge, wavy hair grass, purple love grass and poverty rush. Never heard of most of them.

Wood chip pile near me – it’s free!

In the Meantime, the Right Mulch

To further reduce my labor, I’m no longer using the free leafmold mulch my town offers or buying bags of the more attractive pine fines I used to use. Instead, I’m following another gardening mentor of mine – Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, the world’s leading proponent of wood chips as mulch. They simply last much longer and if you have access to an unlimited supply of it for free, why use anything else?

“Arborist’s wood chips” are what Linda recommends, which are a mix of all the tree parts, not uniformly chopped-up timber.

(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.)

See Linda’s “Wonderful wood chips,” or click to download her fact sheet “Using Arborist Wood Chips as a Landscape Mulch.”

I’m going to suggest that my co-op switch from pine bark mulch to wood chips, saving money two ways – by not buying mulch and by using up the wood chips that we’re now paying to have hauled away.  And the community might learn that wood chips look just fine as mulch.

Extra: The Right Shape

This little island looks so nice and ready for the season not just thanks to its fresh weeding and mulching. That work also revealed the island’s clear outline and nice shape. That may be what your garden needs the most, and now’s a great time to either sharpen the edge or create one for the first time.

Really nothing spruces up a landscape like clear border edges, for some primeval reason – the reaction seems to be universal. And for you pollinator gardeners, that bit of order can make otherwise wild-looking plantings in the middle look good to even the prissiest of neighbors.