Edible groundcovers

Grass is an expensive groundcover. Many homeowners love the calming look of a broad green carpet welcoming them home from work, but to keep their lawns looking their best, they turn to cartloads of chemical fertilizers, herbicides to control weeds, and pesticides to control the grubs and insects that try to coexist in the landscape.

This level of consumption comes with serious costs, both financial and environmental. Turf lawns individually consume 10,000 gallons of water each year, on average, on top of the rainfall they receive.  Unprecedented droughts and the water restrictions that often accompany them make maintaining a large turf lawn impractical and irresponsible. Expensive chemical herbicides and pesticides, whether applied by the homeowner or by a contracted landscape service, are thought to contribute to honeybee colony collapse disorder, which will have huge impacts on food availability and food prices if it isn’t curbed.

Why not try a more sustainable and innovative approach to landscaping this summer? Replace a portion of your lawn with attractive edible groundcovers and shrubs. You’ll have less mowing, more leisure time, and home-grown herbs and berries to enjoy.

Blueberries

Blueberries can be grown throughout much of the United States. In the South or on the west coast, try rabbiteye blueberries (Vaccinium ashei) like ‘Climax’ or ‘Premier’ or Southern highbush varieties like ‘Blue Ridge’ and ‘Legacy.’ In the northeast, lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) perform best, and in the Midwest and Pacific northwest, northern highbush blueberries (V. corymbosum; try ‘Bluegold,’ ‘Duke,’ and ‘Elizabeth’) can provide attractive groundcover and fresh fruit for summertime desserts. Blueberries need acidic soil (contact your county extension service to test your soil’s pH and get advice on correct soil amendments), regular water, and sun to produce the best fruit, although they will produce fruit in partial shade. The leaves turn beautiful shades of scarlet and crimson in the fall.

blueberry leaves

Blueberry leaves covered in frost

Lingonberries

What will grow in the acid soil beneath blueberries? Lingonberries. Hardy in Zones 2-8, lingonberries are a low-growing evergreen shrub related to blueberries and cranberries. They require the same acidic soil as their blueberry brethren, and lingonberries benefit from some shade in hot weather. Plant these low-growing shrubs at the same time as your blueberries, taking care to be gentle with both plants’ brittle roots. Depending on the variety, lingonberries may provide one or two crops per year, typically once in late summer and again in winter. They’re delicious in pancakes, or made into jam or sauces.

Lingonberry 'Koralle'

Lingonberry ‘Koralle’

Thyme

If your climate tends more to the hot, dry, sunny side, replace part of your lawn with low-growing thyme (Thymus sp.). This Mediterranean herb likes full sun, excellent drainage, and low water. Bees and other pollinators love the nectar from thyme flowers, and thymol, a natural compound extracted from thyme, has antimicrobial properties and helps control parasitic mites that stress honeybee populations. Thymus serphyllum, creeping thyme, grows 6 to 12 inches tall and will spread to 1 to 3 feet wide (depending on the cultivar), providing a tough, low-maintenance groundcover. Thymus serphyllum ‘Annie Hall’ is covered by tiny pinkish-lavender flowers. ‘Pink Ripple’ also has pale pink flowers and a lemon scent to the foliage. Culinary thyme (Thymus vulgaris), has a more upright habit, but you can keep it compact by shearing off handfuls to use in soups, sauces, salads, marinades, and to flavor meats and seafood on the grill. Variety ‘Silver Queen’ has attractive white edges to the petals. Lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus) is also edible, and has (not surprisingly) a bright lemony taste.

Savory

Slightly larger than thyme, but similar in appearance, winter savory (Satureja montana) is another herb that provides great groundcover and requires little input from the gardener. It grows 15 inches tall and wide, but harvesting the stems and leaves keeps the plant compact and thick. Like thyme, it appreciates full sun and well drained soil. It is hardy to Zone 6.

Purslane

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is an underused annual herb that tastes faintly of citrus. Its fleshy leaves are rich in Vitamin C and omega 3 fatty acids. Popular in Asian and Middle Eastern cooking, it spreads rapidly by seed, which can be good or bad depending on your landscape goals. You may wish to grow it in a container for a year to see how you like it, before planting it out in the landscape. Be careful not to confuse purslane with spurge (Euphorbia chamaesyce, prostrate spurge, or Euphorbia maculata, syn. Chamaesyce maculata, spotted spurge), which can irritate skin and eyes and can be poisonous. Buy purslane seeds or plants from a reputable nursery and try the fresh new growth in salads–there are lots of recipes online. If you keep backyard chickens, you can share it with them; you’ll have plenty.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Photo of purslane (Portulaca oleracea) by ZooFari (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:ZooFari) via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Try replacing a portion of your resource-hungry lawn with these easy edible ground covers. Your wallet and your wildlife neighbors (not to mention your dinner plate) will be glad you did.

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Growing unusual fruit: Lingonberries

My growing obsession with unusual fruit reached its tipping point a few weeks ago, when I placed an order for a few new edible landscaping items: A cornelian cherry, two honeyberries, and two lingonberries. Friends, this is just the beginning.

fruit plants arrived

They’re here!

I started with the lingonberries. Lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) are native to the northern reaches of North America, Europe, and Asia. As such, I’m taking a bit of a risk with these plants, as I live at the very edge of their heat-tolerance zone. They’re extremely cold-hardy. If I’d planted them last fall, they’d have shrugged off our polar vortex as a mild winter. With luck, they will spread by rhizomes to form a nice, tidy mat.

Like most Vaccinium species (blueberries and cranberries share the genus) they require moist, acidic soil. They also appreciate a bit of shade. I hope they’ll become an edible groundcover beneath my Southern highbush blueberries, which perform very well here.

They arrived in good condition. Inside the larger container, the plants came shipped in tall cardboard sleeves to keep the foliage from being crushed.

The lingonberries came packaged in tall cardboard sleeves.

The lingonberries came packaged in tall cardboard sleeves.

The 4-inch pots came wrapped in plastic to keep the soil moist and inside the pot.

The pots, but not the foliage, were shipped in plastic to keep the soil moist.

The pots, but not the foliage, were shipped in plastic to keep the soil moist.

Interesting looking moss came along for the ride.

interesting moss in lingonberry pot

I prepared the planting holes by digging them about six inches deep (the height of the pot) and about eight inches wide (twice the pot’s diameter). This is tricky to do because blueberries’ roots are shallow and brittle, and they don’t appreciate having their roots jostled and broken. Into the holes, I mixed a little homemade compost and some soybean meal. Soybean meal, available at feed stores, acts as a slow-release fertilizer high in nitrogen. It will release its nutrients to the blueberries and loganberries over the course of the summer. I don’t expect to need to feed them again this year, particularly because my acid clay is already high in phosphorus and potassium, though I’ll monitor the soil using free soil tests from the county extension service.

Soybean meal is typically used as a feed stock for poultry or pigs, but it's an excellent slow-release source of nitrogen.

Soybean meal is typically used as a feed stock for poultry or pigs, but it’s an excellent slow-release source of nitrogen.

I slipped the plants out of their pots. The roots look healthy, although they”ll need to be loosened a bit.

Plant roots should be loosened before planting, especially if they begin to grow in circles around the pot like this. But I'll need to be careful with the brittle roots.

Plant roots should be loosened before planting, especially if they begin to grow in circles around the pot like this. But I’ll need to be careful with the brittle roots.

I placed the plant in the hole, gently spreading out the roots, and covered with more compost. I watered it in, and spread up some of the existing pine bark mulch. I later mulched the entire bed with three inches of shredded pine bark.

The blueberries and lingonberries grow in a raised bed composed of native acid red clay and decomposed pine bark. The lingonberries will enjoy the dappled shade of the blueberry foliage, and will receive some additional shade from the side of the deck. Between this and regular deep watering, I hope they’ll get the break from the summer heat that they need.

The lingonberries and blueberries grow in a raised bed of native clay and decomposed pine bark.

The lingonberries and blueberries grow in a raised bed of native clay and decomposed pine bark.

Lingonberries typically produce two crops of fruit per year, in late summer and again in late fall. I’d be surprised if they fruited this summer, but perhaps I’ll get a crop around Thanksgiving or Christmas. Once the fruits begin to form, I’ll shelter them in my blueberry fortress.

Here’s a guide from Cornell University on growing lingonberries.

Helleborus orientalis

Image

Helleborus orientalis (Lenten rose):

white hellebore flowering

Passed along to me by my neighbor, these lovelies bloom when little else does (late December or early January, on until April or early May), persevere under impossible conditions, require virtually nothing in the way of attention from me, and have bold evergreen foliage.

Consider this plant as an alternative to English ivy for a groundcover beneath large trees. (English ivy is invasive in many areas of the United States.) Hellebores grow in dry shade, even at the bases of oak and maple trunks. But they’ll perform equally well in slightly more hospitable areas. I grow mine under azaleas and rhododendrons, at the bases of trees, in the dry no-man’s land by my front steps, and in clusters in beds throughout the garden.

purple hellebore in bloom

They are expensive at the nursery or garden center, but if you have a neighbor who grows them, he or she probably has plenty to share. If you can get a mature clump or two in flower, in time to drop seed in your garden, you’ll be set. Hellebores reseed generously but are not at all difficult to manage. I have successfully transplanted tiny seedlings, like the ones below, by sticking my finger into the dirt, shoving the plant in, and walking away. I don’t even water them in, unless it’s exceptionally dry. hellebore seedlings

By the way, seedlings are generally much more congested than this. Simply pluck them up and put them where you want them. The plants do take about three years to flower from seed, but they leaf out quickly and provide a fresh evergreen groundcover as they grow. Wouldn’t you rather look at this than at mulch?

Helleborus orientalis

The only real maintenance I do is to cut off any tatty looking foliage when I see it. Not a burdensome task.

Pine Knot Farms is an excellent grower of these magnificent plants. Give them a try.