A shady tapestry

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Pulmonaria Dianna Clare and Campanula poscharksyana in the former garden of Pamela and Harry Fowell, Sydney

When I was a youngster with a stark, bare garden, I was fortunate enough to have some amazing gardening mentors who nurtured my emerging passion for plants. I took (and still do take) such inspiration from visiting their gardens and trying to figure out the keys to their success. The varying layers of their gardens, with the canopy of trees above; the substance of mature shrubs providing the backbone of the layout as well as screening neighbours; the colour, form and texture of the foliage and flowers of perennials and small shrubby perennials; and the carpet of groundcovers that knitted the whole thing together and covered every inch of bare soil - all these factors seemed to play important roles.

I especially loved their clump-forming groundcovers in the shaded areas of the garden, under shrubs and trees. These plants generally expanded via rhizomes or stolons, and generous patches of different plants grew together to create a restful tapestry that looked good all year round (and deterred most weeds!). Some were foliage plants; others had flowers in their season. I have always wanted to reproduce that look in my own garden and now finally my groundcovers are starting to weave together in the desired fashion. It's a chance to play with colour, texture and form on a miniature scale and these areas are now some of my favourite parts of the garden.

Saxifraga stolonifera in the former garden of Pamela and Harry Fowell in Sydney

Brilliant gardeners, my gurus had success with cold-climate woodland beauties such as Pulmonaria (pictured at the start of the blog), Brunnera, Dicentra, Corydalis, Alchemilla and Epimedium, but after killing more specimens of these than I like to remember, I have turned to easier-to-grow groundcovers for my own carpets in shade. Saxifraga stolonifera was one that came from one of these enchanted gardens, and it has thrived from day one. With rounded leaves veined intricately in silver, this little plant steadily spreads as far as you will let it, without ever being thought of as a thug. In October, it sends up a mass of tiny white blooms, like a cloud of miniature moths. It needs some moisture to be seen at its best, but has no other requirements and will cope with some dryness.

A favourite silver rhizomatous Begonia in my Sydney garden

The Saxifraga looks good grown with silvery rhizomatous Begonia to echo its leaf markings. These Begonia are another fabulous groundcover for shaded spots. There is a huge array of leaf colours, textures, patterns and forms to be had. They grow well even in dry shade and are all very rewarding plants in the Sydney climate. There is an excellent collection of them to be found in the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney. They have pretty sprays of flowers in mid-spring.

Lamium White Nancy

Other silvery groundcovers include the various named cultivars of Lamium maculatum, which grow well in our climate. The silver variegation on the leaves varies in from stripes to an almost complete covering of the surface (as in the cultivar 'White Nancy', pictured at left); and there is the bonus of pretty, hooded flowers in spring, in hues of white, pink or purple. This plant does enjoy some moisture in the soil but is tolerant of dry times.

Geranium macrorrhizum Ingwersens Variety

Rhizomatous Geranium macrorrhizum forms a dense mat over time, without ever becoming a nuisance. It is one of the few species Geranium that flourishes in the Sydney climate. It has aromatic, rounded leaves and simple, pretty flowers in spring and early summer. The basic species has magenta flowers but there are cultivars in colours of white, purplish and various shades of pink. It will cope well in shade (even quite dry shade) and doesn't need any special treatment to do well. One favourite cultivar is 'Ingwersen's Variety' (pictured above), with soft pale pink flowers. Others include 'Album' (white) and 'Bevan's Variety' (crimson-purple).

Sedum makinoi Ogon

We don't usually think of Sedum growing in shade but I have had good success with some of the groundcovering varieties in shaded spots, spreading to form textured carpets that just beg to be stroked. Commonly seen Sedum mexicanum 'Gold Mound' is very easy to grow; whilst it will grow in sun, it also does very well in shade, where its tiny golden leaves take on a lime-yellow hue. Sedum makinoi 'Ogon' (pictured above) is another one that seems happy in shade, with minute lime-yellow confetti-like foliage that really lights up a gloomy spot. It makes a good contrast nearby the larger, plain green leaves of Campanula poscharskyana, which I find grows and flowers well in quite a shaded position; its blue flowers look delightful near the lime foliage of the Sedum. Yet another groundcovering Sedum I am trying is the cultivar 'Green Mound', with little rounded leaves. These Sedum plants can have little gold starry flowers in late spring.

The joy of all the groundcovers I have mentioned here is that they are so easily propagated by digging up a bit with a few roots on it and planting it directly into the ground. This is how I obtained most of mine!

Older, wiser gardeners can be an invaluable source of information, tips and wonderful cuttings! You will find them in garden clubs all over Sydney. To find a garden club near you, look here.

Reader Comments

  • By Maureen 2118 Monday, 15 February 2016

    Up early with view to beating the heat of the day and found your latest blog on ground covers inspiring especially silver tones which light up the garden. So very timely - know what I will be searching for at the CGC meeting this month!! Cheers Maureen Thanks, Maureen. Yes there are always good plants at the Cottage Garden Club and it will be on Saturday 27 February at St Alban"s Church Hall, Epping, beginning at 8.30 am. Deirdre

  • By Anne 2518 Monday, 15 February 2016

    thanks for another interesting blog. Love that silver begonia. must try and get to the begona sale next month - have missed it since moving out of Sydney area. Thanks, Anne. Yes the begonia show and sale is always great: Saturday 12 March 2016 10 am - 4 pm,Sunday 13 March 2016 10 am - 3 pm at 226 Annangrove Road, ANNANGROVE, NSW 2156. Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 Monday, 15 February 2016

    Thank you for your list of ground covers. I have had great success with two, at least, of those mentioned - Saxifraga stolonifera and Laminium maculatum, as well as varieties of Ajuga repens. Apart from the rhizomatous types of begonias, the trailing-scandent types eg., convovulaceae, solananthera and fagifolia, also make excellent ground covers. Thanks for mentioning those trailing ones, Margaret! Deirdre

  • By Susanne 4556 Monday, 15 February 2016

    Many thanks for this article. I have been looking for sub-tropical ground covers for a long time and all suggestions up to date have been the typical liriopes, mondo grass etc. I am trying to keep my garden "legitimately " sub -tropical so always research the country of origin and climate of any plant that I grow - with a few exceptions! I have a lot of research to do after your latest article.Thank you. Hope you will find some of these are suitable. I find many warm-climate groundcovers do very well in my Sydney garden. Deirdre

  • By Bren 2540 Monday, 15 February 2016

    Well I need very rugged ground covers for my place to swamp out very rugged weeds such as wan=dering jew (the usual moisture loving one and the blue flowered one that grows also in drier conditions, in fact anywhere it seems)and various other persitant horrors. I trial anything that looks effective; Plectranthus species are the most effective so far; what a wonderful genus this is! I also am experimenting with a number of Tibouchina/Lasiandra ground covers eg T. heteromalla. Yes, Plectranthus are also fab groundcovers for shade: very tough abd drought hardy. Thanks for the suggestion of the Tibouchina ones. Deirdre

  • By Robin 2045 Wednesday, 17 February 2016

    I"m going to hunt up that Saxifraga, hopefully at the CGC on Saturday 27, but I"ll add another to this list. Gloxinia sylvatica does great things in the shady parts of my garden, with flowers that look like gold fish swimming above the foliage all through winter. Love it. Thanks so much for that suggestion, Robin; I will look out for that one! Deirdre

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