I spent the last few days taking advantage of the beautiful, cool weather to do some much-needed yard work before the heat and humidity build and even mowing becomes onerous. After clipping the privet hedge at the back of the house, I tackled the "flower beds". I put that in quotes because the series of renters that occupied the house before I bought it obviously weren’t into gardening and the only plants left in the beds are some of those that thrive on neglect.
One bed, and the biggest pain-in-the-ass, is bounded by the house, the front walk, and the driveway. The only thing growing in it is a thick mat of common periwinkle (Vinca minor). Periwinkle is a great ground cover. The stems grow horizontally and root at every node, which are about an inch apart. It is great for erosion control on banks and for shady areas where nothing else will grow. Unfortunately as soon as it encounters a vertical surface, like my brick foundation and vinyl siding, it climbs it faster than a monkey on meth could. After I moved in I tried to rip the periwinkle out and quickly discovered how futile that was. Every tiny stem piece left on, or in, the ground rooted and before long the bed was covered again.
Last year I took a different approach. I mowed the bed, let new tender shoots grow, and then sprayed them with Roundup. I should have known better. Roundup is an effective, and very safe, herbicide. Unlike a contact herbicide that kills only the leaves it lands on, Roundup is a systemic. It’s translocated from the leaves, through the stems, to the roots and kills the whole plant. It works great on herbaceous plants but not as great on vines with woody stems, like periwinkle. Not only was the periwinkle unfazed by this assault but I distinctly heard it say, "Feed me, Seymour!" every time I left the house.
This year I’m bringing out the big guns. I mowed the bed again, and in a couple of weeks I’ll spray it with a triclopyr-based herbicide. Triclopyr is less safe than Roundup but it’s more effective on woody vines. A few weeks after that I’ll spray again with Roundup. This combination works well on poison ivy so it should also work on periwinkle. If not, I guess Audrey and I will have to learn how to peacefully co-exist.
The bed on the other side of the sidewalk was easier to deal with. The bed is under several trees and gets little more than a bit of dappled sun during the day. The only things still growing in it other than weeds were 18 clumps of ratty-looking mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus). Mondo grass is useful as an edging plant in shady gardens but it’s boring. The light-purple flowers, on terminal racemes, are attractive but hidden by the foliage. My handy spade and I disposed of them in short order. Since I disturbed a lot of soil in the process I can expect lots of dormant weed seeds to germinate after the next rain. I’ll give the weeds a head start before whacking them. After that I’ll cover the bed with a thick layer of the southern gardener’s favorite mulch – pine straw – until I decide what to plant there next.
You have to look close to see them, but there are the remains of two flowerbeds in the backyard. One is a two-foot wide border than runs the length of the fence separating my neighbor’s yard from mine. Because it gets no sun during the day, even weeds refuse to grow in it. I’ll leave it that way. The other is a roughly semicircular bed, about 10-feet wide in the middle, under two massive (40 to 50′ tall) willow oaks (Quercus phellos). (Those are the willow oaks on the left in the photo of my backyard.) It gets no sun for most of the year and only a little sun from December to February as the oaks slowly lose their leaves. The only things growing there were 4 clumps of mondo grass and 3 clumps of Liriope spicata, which look a lot like mondo grass except that the flowers are more visible. Hello spade, goodbye plants. I won’t need to spread any pine straw on the bed. Last year’s willow oak leaves were a great, self-spreading, mulch.
The next step will be to replant the beds, or not. Since fall is the best time to plant just about everything in the southeast, I have a few months to decide what to do. Most people think that because I’m a professional horticulturist I’m good at designing gardens. They think wrong. I can describe thousands of plants to you and tell you what their cultural requirements are, but when it comes to combining them into an aesthetically pleasing whole, I don’t have a clue. As soon as I start pondering all of the variables that have to be taken into consideration – height, bloom time and color, foliage texture and color, spacing, growth rate, cultural requirements – my head explodes. Back when I was a columnist for Country Gardens I wrote, "I have the design sense of a K-Mart fashion coordinator". My editor spiked the sentence before the issue went to press, probably for legal and business reasons since K-Mart was an advertiser, but I stand by it. I’ll give the design thing my best shot over the next couple of months but in the end I’ll probably wind up hiring a garden designer who has a more vivid imagination than I have, and who can think in all 4 dimensions at the same time.