New ground to cover and plenty of groundcover

Young native pachysandra from Lindera Nursery shows a variety of color and delicate flowers.

Dee Salomon

New ground to cover and plenty of groundcover

It is still too early to sow seeds outside, except for peas, both the edible and floral kind. I have transplanted a few shrubs and a dogwood tree that was root pruned in the fall. I have also moved a few hellebores that seeded in the near woods back into their garden beds near the house; they seem not to mind the few frosty mornings we have recently had. In years past I would have been cleaning up the plant beds but I now know better and will wait at least six weeks more. I have instead found the most perfect time-consuming activity for early spring: teasing out Vinca minor, also known as periwinkle and myrtle, from the ground in places it was never meant to be.

Planting the stuff in the first place is my biggest ever garden regret. It was recommended to me as a groundcover that would hold together a hillside, bare after a removal of invasive plants save for a dozen or so trees. And here we are, twelve years later; there is vinca everywhere. It blankets the hillside and has crept over the top into the woods. It has made its way left and right. I am convinced that vinca is the plastic of the plant world. The stuff won’t die. (The name Vinca comes from the Latin ‘vincire’ which means ‘to bind or fetter.’) Last year I pulled a bunch and left it strewn on the roof of the root cellar for 6 months and the leaves were still green.

Disposal is by bonfire, the least desirable method, but in this case the only way of ensuring it does not return.

2024 will be the year I begin to take it out, with sporadic help from hired hands. While they tackle larger areas of the offending plant, I have started from the fringes of the woodland interior and am working outward. Frankly it is not as boring from here as the vinca is less packed into the soil. It is an oddly satisfying task; this has to do with the vine-like nature of the plant. There is a knobby bit tethered to the soil by its roots; once this is lifted up (I use fingers but Norm, who is working in denser beds of the stuff, uses a hori knife) the vine runs to its next root knob about a foot or two away. It feels as if you have progressed quite a bit for one big tug. The same technique can be used on Glechoma, or ground ivy, although the vines are far thinner than those of vinca. I should be working on this well into the next decade.

While nurseries and garden centers continue to push vinca, there are native groundcovers that look great and can help to restore native habitats. Michele Palustra runs Lindera, a small outfit in Sharon that prioritizes local ecotypes of natives, meaning that she collects the seed herself from surrounding property, ensuring that the plants growing from them will serve local insects well. Spreading Jacob’s Ladder, Polemonium reptans, works in moderately shady circumstances, with its dense and deep green set of leaves and a truly beautiful pale purple or white flower. This plant comes to New England from south and west of the US but is hardy to zone 5. One of Michele’s favorites is native Allegheny pachysandra, Pachysandra procumbens.

Unlike the ever-present non-native Japanese pachysandra terminalis which is dying off thanks to Volutella blight, native pachysandra has a more delicate leaf and a showier flower. It is slower to spread than is the Japanese version but the use case is similar; as an underplanting around tree bases and to fill in around plantings in garden beds. I have recommended tiarella cordifolia as a pachysandra replacement for these purposes and suggest pairing either with a native fern such lady fern or maidenhair fern. Native ginger, asarum canadense, and the 200 or so native species of viola, or violet, work beautifully for groundcover; the former is excellent on hillsides where you can better see the shy burgundy colored flower, the latter spreads quickly which is a bonus and all sorts of insects feed on its flowers. Try to get the straight species of these native plants rather than a cultivar of them which may not benefit the habitat as well (this fascinating topic will be covered in the next installment of The Ungardener.)

I have purchased 50 plugs of Pennsylvania sedge, Carex pensylvanica, from the online consolidator Izel Native Plants to plant under cherry trees that have resisted any past attempts to have a downstairs neighbor. I also want to explore ways to encourage the growth of native moss which also makes an excellent groundcover.

Lindera, along with Tiny Meadow Farm, are having a pop-up spring sale in Sharon that I encourage you to visit. They will be selling truly gorgeous native plants including groundcovers.

This will take place Sunday, April 28 from 10-6 at Lindera Nursery, 60 Knibloe Hill Road in Sharon.
Dee Salomon "ungardens" in Litchfield County.

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