Monday, May 13, 2013

All-In, All Over: Groundcover Week

            All the groundcovers are blooming. And spreading. And taking as much ground as they can get their little roots and stems and leaves into. And they're all running into one another. They can't help it, it's their nature. They have organizational problems. Or, more properly speaking, I do.
            These low-lying, ground-hugging plants have to get all they can while the getting is good because the taller perennials and the shade trees will in the next month or so grow tall, overtop them (to use the Elizabethan phrase), put them in the shade, put a period at the end of their sentence of seasonal growth.
            The groundcovers are blooming now because they have a direct line to the sun. If you're pachysandra, to take a large and prominent example, you have your little white thistle-like flowers ready to go in March and early April when you can be sure there will be no big forest of leafed-out shade trees to block the work of floral reproduction.
            If you're going to survive at ground level under the big guys, you better make hay when the sun shines. As it does early season. The pach pack puts out its vines, sends up flowers, makes its yearly statement, sets itself up to survive in the shady months follow.
            But it's not pachysandra fighting the little border wars that have me bent over, nose on the ground, trying to sort out who's who. It's the little guys that are giving me fits. I have many theoretical hierarchies I try to preserve as I try to keep the core territories (or homelands) between these species patches at least a little bit intact. I don't do clear definitions or straight lines. I reason that things growing over, on top of and through each other are the way of nature. Of course, we're not aiming for nature pure and wild here; we're aiming for a garden. I don't simply want to stand around mutely witnessing the survival of the fittest. I want to see a lot of different plants doing their thing. To keep the variety going, I'll step in.
            So here I am eye to eye with a very low-growing understory thyme patch. The groundcover varieties are wicked small. But there in the midst of a tiny green eden of Thymus Albiflora growing between two bricks is something else, with even thinner leaves, growing up through the thyme. It could be a blade of grass. It could be the start of a maple tree. It could be one of a couple dozen other species that I have either welcomed into this jumbled paradise or been unable to remove even though I have labeled them "weeds." Many of this latter category I know by sight but not by name. I remove them wherever I see them (that is, of course, when I get around to it).
            A middle category of desirability exists as well. Those tiny-leaved creepers that are kind of cute early in the spring when they hide among all the colonies, or between the bricks, and make even smaller whitish flowers. They trespass on the the "territories" of other tiny-leaved low-to-the ground, matted groundcovers we have invested some time and elbow grease in. When the invaders take up too much room, or run out of flowers, or stop being "cute," I pull them out. These are judgment calls.
            It's like life. Judgment calls all the time.
            The Mazus, to take an example from the small end of the size spectrum (yet not the smallest) probably give us more brightly flowering color per unit measure than any other groundcover we have planted, but their colonies consist of completely separate, very small plants with remarkably thin and shallow roots. You can pull up individual Mazus plants, especially when you don't want to, just by looking at them. Their roots are mere threads. So when you pull up the intruders in their midst-- violets,for instance, and any number of those nameless of "weed" varieties whose appearance and MO I am all too familiar with -- you're more than likely to get a few of the Mazus as well, no matter how carefully and surgically you manage these removals. Then you mutter to yourself, displeased with your effort, over the waste of pretty flowers.
            But remove -- extricate, eradicate, rescue, transplant, and just plain weed -- you must. We're looking at more border incursions and pure and simple territorial aggressions than ever this year. Anything growing in, among, or anywhere near the Irish moss spoils the effect. The delicate plant parts (they look like mini grass blades) are too vulnerable to sustain any sort of incursion. You can't pull a blade of ordinary grass out of the moss's low, shiny "mat" without taking some moss with it. But, where it flourishes, for however long, it has a bright fuzzy quality that makes you want to pet it. Think of the shortest-haired cat in the world. Or a guinea pig, maybe.
            We have a big hunk of sweet woodruff planting itself in the middle of a large island of low, thickly matted thyme. Our best thatch of thyme. The sweet woodruff is already up high and spreading; pulling it out will leave a hole. To complicate, the invader is already blossoming, holding up its white thimble-top blossom to the sky. The blossoms are delicate rather than broad, and not as showy as blossoms such as the Mazus.
            We have plots of speedwell blossoming now -- it's their season too -- along with the vinca, the violets, the phlox,the ajuga. But what to do about the sweet woodruff is the issue now, which has so altered its border (without any assistance from me) that I can barely anthropomorphize it as a country, a colony, a homeland with its own "natural" borders anywhere on the property. 
            These are cows in the cornfield, so to speak. I need to get them back into the corral. This year there are so many places where outsiders, whether weeds or visitors from another privileged species, encroach on the homeland colonies. You have to pick out the invaders -- once you've decided which are the invaders, and which might add a valuable "diversity" to the mix in a particular spot -- or else you will lose all order and separation and your garden will become a "state of nature" (an ironic phrase in the present context).
            All this, I say again, is a lot like life. The way the plant species blend into one another seems to resemble the way groups of people intermingle. Even very old places from the Old World are not homogeneously populated. So-called "nation states" are actually peopled by many nations, tribes, clans, "minorities," ethnic groups. England is not full of English. It has Celts, Britons, Saxons, Angles, Danes, Norsemen, Normans and people called the Welsh, Scots, and Irish, to mention some obvious contributors and, in more recent decades, people from all of the Commonwealth states. Russia, as we are learning from the headlines these days, includes national groups few people have ever heard of.
            This is far from an exact comparison, of course. Human beings are all one species. But plant migrations are fascinating subject, though they cause problems for gardeners. You can't help feeling you're "playing god."