If we photographed most gardens, we’d see plants that grow within a “knee-to-head” range, between two feet and about six feet tall. I have a gardening book that divides the “knee-to-head” range into three tiers … the first tier includes plants about two feet tall, the second tier plants three-four feet tall, and, finally, the six-footers at the back of the border. Voilá, you have a proportioned border!
Each page of the spiral book has photos that can be flipped so the gardener can see how the three tiers work together. It’s the same visual concept as children’s books where you flip through the heads at the top of the page and find one that goes with any of the many torsos in the middle of the page, and then you look through the legs/shoes at the bottom of the page and create your own character.
A missing idea in my gardening book, however, is not realizing there is a ground level tier and an even higher tier than six-foot plants. Generally speaking, we have given short shrift to ground covers and vines. They seem dull and appear as add-ons in catalogs where the royalty plants all fall within the “knee-to-head” range. We yawn a “Ho, hum.”
We tend to ignore a ground level tier covering the soil. If we do consider it, we think of pachysandra, English ivy and low junipers. (I think I’ll scream!) If we begin to expand our ideas, we might consider coastal strawberries or creeping thyme. I love to see how one homeowner in our Diamond Point area has an entire front yard of woolly thyme, punctuated with accents of a pond, logs and berms that add textural variety. I bet they don’t own a lawn mower.
In my own garden, there are several areas where I use ground covers. I have black Mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) spiking up between a tight mat of Irish moss. The contrast of the two colors is lovely. Likewise, in a small section of a rockery I have the same black Mondo grass amid golden sedums that bloom in a brilliant yellow. Guess how attractive that black spike is against the velvety bloom.
Ajuga reptans, the most common of the ajugas, with its 10-inch blue flower spikes in late spring, is not well-loved by all gardeners. It can die out in the center and can crowd out lawns. But several new cultivars are particularly attractive. ‘Alba’ has green leaves that turn purple in winter; ‘Burgundy Lace’ has reddish-purple foliage variegated with pink and white. ‘Rosea’ has pink blooms.
Other suggestions for ground covers can be herbs — catmint, oreganos, mints, thymes. Don’t think of an entire yard of these as much as planting sections of the garden, where several abut and they intermingle. You can work with contrasts, such as the black Mondo grass among golden sedums. It’s also interesting to see similar colors together — such as the similar greens and white of Lamium maculatum ‘Album’ and Hosta undulata var. univittata, both with bold strokes of white.
We can expand our vision of first tiers further. Think how a pond can be a first tier. In the recent Master Gardener Foundation of Clallam County tour, homeowners turned a huge section of their backyard into a first-tier pond. It became their ground cover and then they built up to include several waterfalls that cascaded down into the pool. Pavers also can be a first tier, with pansies or sedums peeking out. Gravel, too, can become a first tier, with softness added through a variety of plantings, an interface of textures.
When we look in gardening catalogs, vines usually are listed at the very end, kind of an afterthought, like inviting old cranky Uncle Joe to a family dinner. Yet vines can be visual cues that lift our eyes upward to the heavens where we might cease gardening a moment and take time to notice clouds scooting across the sky.
There are iconic classics that we all love: Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers, strawberries and cream, and climbing roses on an arbor. Just this afternoon my husband trimmed our richly bloomed climbing rose. Roses draping an arbor is a soothing vignette. ‘Cecil Brunner’ probably still is the most beloved rose on an arbor.
Likewise, a clematis growing on a fence is instant drama, especially one like ‘Bees Jubilee’ with its intensity of color and size. It’s also fun to plant clematis at the base of a tree and let the climber use the structure of a tree’s branches to rest its elbows.
Several other vines I’ve loved are the Passiflora caerulea (Passion Flower) that has one of the most intricate and exotic flowers I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately two of these vines I’ve lost to unseasonably cold winters. For several years I enjoyed the hardy kiwi (Actinidia arguta) that grew along an arbor and then I lost them to cold, too, but how I loved the mottled white, pink and green leaves.
The low tier in a garden becomes a palette where we can dabble and experiment with textures. We can plant bulbs, such as crocus, under a ground cover of gravel, of thyme, or wood chips or between Mondo grass or pavers. In each scenario, a different artistry emerges. Rather than only considering lawn grass as the first tier, we can begin to remove patches of it, replacing it with other plants or organic materials, such as rocks, pavers, water, wood chips and gravel.
We can let vines remind us of the ceiling of our garden … the heavens. Clematis can take our eye to the tip-top of a tree. With clematis growing in its branches, the tree delights us in the same way as when we see decorations on a Christmas tree. The low tier and the high tier of our gardens both ground us and expand our vistas. It’s fun to think of new possibilities they both offer.
The Tractor Man
Tue, Feb 14, 2012
A shift in our thinking
Tue, Oct 18, 2011
Ornamental grasses dance to their wind song
Thu, Sep 22, 2011
Divide … and have!
Thu, Aug 18, 2011
The low life and high life of a garden
Wed, Jul 20, 2011
Plants, problem solving and personality
Tue, Jun 14, 2011
From the sky: a look at our gardens
Wed, Apr 20, 2011
Time to plant a vegetable garden … with children
Wed, Mar 16, 2011
One New Year’s resolution
Tue, Jan 18, 2011
Blessed by the bounty
Wed, Nov 17, 2010
Diversity creates richness
Tue, Oct 19, 2010
The ruffled ladies
Wed, Sep 15, 2010
Wed, Aug 18, 2010
Keeping birds safe in our gardens
Wed, Aug 11, 2010
Living respectfully on the land
Wed, Jun 30, 2010
Prune, don't ruin, those shrubs and trees
Wed, May 26, 2010
Undoing deer's damage with new shrubbery
Wed, Apr 28, 2010
Treat water as our most precious gift
Wed, Mar 10, 2010
Northwest native mock orange makes good scents
Wed, Feb 3, 2010
Planting perennial blessings
Wed, Jan 6, 2010