Dear Miss Floribunda,
I came to the talk by Kathy Jentz [editor of Washington Gardener and author of Groundcover Revolution] at My Dead Aunt’s Books in September, and I’m still thinking about what she called “leaf-swallowing” plants. She said that planted under trees, they would hide the fallen leaves you ordinarily might rake up. I don’t remember all the reasons she gave for letting the leaves stay on the ground, but raking leaves is one chore I’d really like not to bother with anymore. Leaf blowers are too noisy. The only plant she mentioned that I remember now was lamb’s ear. Please jog my memory.
Beleaguered by Leaves on Livingston Street
Before I share Ms. Jentz’s specific recommendations, I’d like you to know that there is a growing movement to discourage homeowners from raking up leaves and making piles of them. Leaves left on the ground provide shelter and nutrition for beneficial insects, and they provide food for over-wintering birds. They are not the hotbeds of disease they have been previously accused of being. Raked into large piles, however, they generate methane gas that contributes to global warming.
Nonetheless, there are some reasons not to leave them on lawns, not the least of which is that they would blow all over your neighborhood, into the yards of unoffending neighbors, who would then have to contend with them, and into storm drains. If they don’t clog the drains, they make their way into the Chesapeake Bay, where they can contribute to algae blooms and dead zones.
You can use your lawn mower to cut fallen leaves up into small bits that provide the grass with a fine mulch to protect their root systems during winter cold, but there are certain ground covers that don’t die back in winter and, consequently, will anchor leaves beneath their foliage.
Ms. Jentz recommended lamb’s ear (Stachys) in passing, but the plants she seemed particularly to favor were Epimedium aka fairy wings, bishop’s hat, barrenwort — and so many other aliases that we might as well stick with the Latin; Helleborus aka Lenten or Christmas rose; Polystichum acrostichoides, aka Christmas fern; and Heuchera americana aka coral bells. While lamb’s ear shelters the leaves that reach them, it requires full sun, while the other leaf-swallowers thrive in the dry shade beneath big trees where most leaves accumulate.
I have shade-loving hellebores and love them because not only do they gather fallen leaves beneath their broad evergreen foliage, they also bloom continuously for almost six weeks in late winter and early spring when the garden is at its most desolate.
Now, after listening to Ms. Jentz praise Epimedium so highly, I do plan to acquire this plant, as well as Heuchera. I will choose the native varieties she recommended — not only for their value to pollinators but because their hairy leaves repel deer and other nibblers. The non-native varieties I planted in the past had smooth leaves that proved to be greatly relished by ruminants. These plants disappeared in one or two grazings.
Looking at charts in Jentz’s book Groundcover Revolution that show the various properties of recommended plants, I see that these include their effectiveness as leaf-swallowers. The native violets I replaced my lawn areas with are among the “somewhat” helpful, but the Solomon’s seals (Polygonatum) that border them are among the best. Deer are not attracted by either of these selections, as I know from personal experience.
Other strongly recommended leaf-swallowing plants include such native ones as Christmas ferns, native Pachysandra, golden ragwort and native strawberries. Effective non-natives include hardy begonia, liriope, groundcover roses, creeping juniper, creeping raspberries and commercial strawberries
Lower-growing plants that could replace turf include Pennsylvania sedge, creeping varieties of such herbs as thyme and rosemary, and mondo grass. One caveat: Until the plants are large enough to provide the desired cover, be sure to hose down and keep moist any leaf mulch you add to your beds. This will keep it heavy enough not to blow away. If this is too much trouble, sprinkle topsoil or compost over it as a stabilizer.
Now, some people compost their leaves in bins, and in due time — usually two years — they have good soil to add to their gardens. However, all leaves packed together in quantity are deprived of oxygen — and as they break down, they not only produce methane but nothing biotic can survive the heat generated within the compacted leaves. Left in place, these leaves break down sooner, after having provided food and shelter to potential pollinators.
To discuss this and other matters, you are invited to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society on Saturday, Oct. 21 at 10 a.m., in the gracious garden of Joe Buriel and Dave Roeder, at 3909 Longfellow Street. It will be followed by a plant exchange where you may find some of the recommended ground covers for free. I myself acquired my first hellebores at one of these exchanges, and because I now must make room for Heuchera, I’ll bring some seedlings from this prolific plant.
Miss Floribunda writes about gardening for the Life & Times. You may email her at email@example.com.