Sunday, September 04, 2016

Gardens: climbers as ground cover

Cloud-like hummocks covered in blossom: climbing hydrangea. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

 Cloud-like hummocks covered in blossom: climbing hydrangea. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
Iam not the kind of person who collects quotations, especially when it comes to gardening. But I shall never forget what Christopher Lloyd – an all-time horticultural hero of mine – once said about lawns in an off-the-cuff radio interview when I was a kid: “In gardens there is nothing so labour-intensive and yet so boring, and I think this is unforgiveable.” What a legend that guy was.
With ever-shrinking plots and leisure time, I often feel that re-creations of pastoral landscapes are increasingly out of place in many properties, at least as a form of ground cover. Sure, if you are lucky enough to have a plot big enough for the kids to play football on or acres of rolling countryside, lawns are lovely. But in postage-stamp spaces that are shaded by buildings or trees, steeply sloped, poorly drained, and where there is barely space to store a mower (all four, as is the case in my Croydon idyll), I think there are far better options available to us plant geeks. Chief among these: plants we normally think about clothing vertical spaces with: climbers. By their very nature they are vigorous, sprawling species designed to clamber over wide expanses, so why not use them on a horizontal plane?
The idea first came to me when visiting a forest in Japan where a large, mature tree had collapsed under the weight of a climbing hydrangea (shown above), which had subsequently stretched out in all directions to make stunning cloud-like hummocks covered in blossom.
Climbers as ground cover is nothing new – ivy’s ability to spread across a forest floor, creating a weed-suppressing blanket, has long been used by municipal planters to clothe steep banks quickly and cheaply. But honeysuckles and climbing roses work just as well, with the bonus of scented flowers throughout the summer. Trachelospermum, the star jasmine, also adapts brilliantly to the treatment, with glossy evergreen leaves providing a perpetual carpet that erupts into fragrant white blossom in full sun. In fact, pretty much any one of the popular favourites has worked in my experience, from Clematis and Akebia to Campsis and – if you have the space – Parthenocissus.
Allowing climbers to grow hugging the ground also has the benefit of slowing the flow of sap along their branches, resulting in loads more flowers, stretched right across their length. Pruning is greatly simplified: you just trim the bits that encroach on paths. You can even train them over both planes: first across the ground and then up a vertical surface. This softens the angles in small gardens that make boundaries easier for our eyes to perceive, making a space appear far bigger than it really is. Definitely something I will be experimenting with more this year.

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