Ground Covers by Way of Persian Carpets
A childhood encounter influences a garden feature.
When I was six years old, a friend of my mother's (purportedly a Persian princess) visited our home in Houston. Kay arrived in a Nash Rambler, the tiniest car I had ever seen, which was chock full of fur coats, jewels and Persian carpets. Kay herself was even more dramatic than her rings and clothing. A high-energy, olive-skinned beauty, she gesticulated wildly with her hands, made outlandish statements for the 1950s and — in a sovereign moment — declared my mother custodian of her Persian carpets until Kay had established herself in Los Angeles.
On the day of the official "unrolling," Kay waited for "her Little Viva" (that would be me) to return from the travails of first grade. Turkish coffee and a tray of my mother's Middle Eastern pastries marked the occasion. With bracelet-jangling flourishes, Kay announced the name of each silk and wool treasure: Sarouk, Kirman, Bakhtiari (there were several), and an especially prized Isfahan. As I watched each one change geometry from cylinder to rectangle, it struck me as hilarious that these rugs actually had names. By the next day, I had invented nicknames for both a bath mat and the shag rug by my bed.
As time went by, the lush floral borders and intricate medallions of these Persian carpets took hold of me forevermore. Years later in Teheran — sipping chai at the shop of a rug merchant — I watched weavers create the same magical motifs that articulated a link between the omphalos of a flower and a rose-glass window.
Perhaps this is why today, recalling the mixture of foliage and tendrils in florid Persian carpets, I combine ground covers in my garden. Where an artist may blend pastel crayons with shredded fiber, I mingle Dichondra argentea (silver ponyfoot) with Lysmanchia nummularia (creeping Jenny), creating a tranquil background for lymus grass, white iris and purple-y alliums like christophii and aflatunense.
I also mix Dichondra with creeping wire vine (Muehlenbeckia axillaris) and a touch of spotted nettle (Lamium maculatum), forming a lustrous silver and dark green composition that excels in shady areas. Although a Zone 8 label accompanies my purchase of wire vine, it always endures winter in Silver City. Thereafter, a spring clipping of the plant's thin and interestingly tangled stems rejuvenates it both in pots and the ground.
Utilizing either combination requires curtailing "Jenny's" rambunctious growth every three years or so, as she capably deflects winter die-back.
Last winter did take a toll on the Dichondra — an unfortunate loss as it had reigned happily in many beds. Moreover, my constant source for the plant was JD's Feed & Supply, which no longer sells gardening stock. Hopefully another nursery will fill this gap.
The ground covers that I've described are water hardy and drought resistant when grown in part shade. Their other benefits include softening hard edges and reducing soil compaction, relieving monotony in the landscape, and serving as a means to control weeds. Ground covers also help keep the soil cool.
Undoubtedly, using only one species of ground cover highlights the inherent drama of a single swath or color, form and texture. Space constraints in my garden negate such luxurious, horizontal expanses.
If you are strictly a no-fuss/no-muss/thrifty water-user gardener, here are some recommendations based upon my own experiences, but touted widely by others as well. Keep in mind that the soil at Ditch Cottage is neither exceptional nor poor. Also, the neighborhood is currently free of pilfering wild animal intruders. Cats in need of a potty stop may easily disengage the short-rooted species that follow:
Sedums are superlative succulent ground covers that spread and propagate easily, grow in tight mats, soften concrete and trail over edging. The species that I use resemble spruce tips — S.rupestre and S. reflexum — and grow well even in poor soil. Birds, especially finches, are drawn to their seed heads.
Sempervivums, called Sempervivians chez moi, but commonly known as hens and chicks, are composed of leafy rosettes with seasonal color variations including red, purple, olive and green. Blooms emerge from the main rosette (the hen) on tall stems that bear new plantlets (the chicks).
Delosperma, another mat-forming succulent, is also available in a range of flower colors and grows readily from cuttings. I like the magenta (cooperi) shade of its daisyish flowers, which seem to bloom endlessly.
Sedums and succulents also look charming in pots and can endure neglect.
Nice but naughty ground covers: Although I adore Euphorbia myrsinites visually, this succulent does not come with an approval seal, as it is quite invasive. Over time, removing the red-stemmed spring seedlings can drive you crazy. If you can cope as I do with plucking the seedlings, removing single mounds with a shovel, or dead-heading the flowers, you are rewarded with a blue-gray mound and perky chartreuse flowers — actually colored, modified leaves that attract insect pollinators. Pink glints in the foliage also make an appearance.
Note: Wear gardening gloves when handling this and many other Euphorbias to eliminate the possibility of skin irritations caused by a milky sap that flows from broken stems. You also don't want the sap in contact with your eyes.
I think vinca or periwinkle is a damned if you do/damned if you don't plant. I become utterly besotted when I spy those first purple blooms among its variegated or dark green foliage.
Mature plantings of vinca are hazardous to your health — trapping your feet in a perilous web of trailing stems, making a tumble almost inevitable. If nothing else, an axiom for successful vinca maneuvering is to grow it where you're not likely to tread. Loving the look of a low, thick vinca hedge, I don't follow this advice. I shear the plant annually, breaking my back, risking life and limb....
If, after reading all the above, you still wonder about Princess Kay — here is a postscript:
Kay arrived safely in LA, found a hostess job at a posh Italian restaurant — eventually meeting Arthur, head of a silk scarf and leather goods company. During a trek west at age l6, I visited them in their hillside, Japanese-style home. It was my first encounter with removing one's shoes at the front door.
Inside, I was gifted with several items from the Far East, a destination they frequented on company business. For whatever reason, Kay had become Catherine.
Many years later, after Arthur's death, I visited Catherine in her Westwood duplex. Still looking aristocratic, she contributed rousing articles to a Marxist tabloid and took classes at UCLA. Other than politics, she spoke mainly of Arthur and showed me an altar she had created in his memory.
As we continued to converse, I noticed that the floors were covered in tatami mats. There wasn't a Persian rug in sight.
Southwest Gardener columnist Vivian Savitt gardens at Ditch Cottage in Silver City.