However, the typical approach to groundcover isn’t living plants. Owners opt to use mulch in front beds of houses and along the edges of office buildings. People even put it in rain gardens. Mulch is a mythical creature for most people. It’s supposed to help keep roots moist, define a bed’s edge, suppress weeds and stop erosion. Unfortunately, mulch usually does the opposite of those things.
Mulch is often stained with toxic dyes and holds too much water within itself never letting rain seep into the dirt where the roots really are. Not only will it starve plants of moisture, it can make soil too rich for many native perennials to grow. And as everyone who’s had mulch installed, it ends up getting tossed around by leaf blowers and washing away after rainstorms exposing the soil and making a big mess.
When you design a four-seasons bed, you are actually replicating how nature works. Winter interest and winter gardens are a vital part to replicating nature. All the things that are promised with mulch are realistically achieved with groundcover. It stops erosion, keeps the soil moist for roots and suppresses weeds. It gives you healthier soil (not just “richer soil”) that allows for a wider variety of plants to grow. It adds style and aesthetic. Take a look at the images below.
Groundcover IS what mulch is trying to simulate with little success. In nature, rarely find bare dirt. At some point in our history, we begin to think isolated evergreen shrubs planted in a row or as an individual bush were attractive. But you can’t isolate plants and just leave the naked dirt between them. If you do, something will grow…and usually that means weeds. The only way to maintain the look is to add mulch and lots of it over and over year after year. Sustainable landscape design totally breaks that convention. You can couple lots of different species that create dynamic colors and textures throughout the year, and you never need mulch. No mulch means money in your pocket.
Many of the perennials and grasses used for seasonal color are semi-evergreen. They aren’t evergreen in the same way that, say, a boxwood or mountain laurel is evergreen, but they do stay green and don’t go completely dormant in winter.
When sustainability is the central theme for landscape design, and entirely new approach and outcome await. There are two other factors that go into making your winter gardens, density and time. That’s for the next installment of the series.