Sunday, April 28, 2013

Ground Cover for the Table!

     Food production and a showy pleasing landscape do not necessarily contradict each other.  You can have both and it can happen even in a commercial or institutional setting.  One way to make it happen is to replace some of that lawn grass with food producing ground covers.  You will reduce the time spent mowing and you will take land that is functioning only for aesthetics and turn it into land that has more value.  This is not to say that there will not be some maintenance involved; you will need to weed.  You simply will not have the amount of maintenance involved with a weekly mowing, a biennial fertilizing and the requisite weed control required with grass.

    A great choice for hot, dry, sunny locations is the creeping raspberry (sometimes called creeping bramble).  This is an evergreen ground cover from Taiwan.  The plants grow very low to the ground often only reaching two inches in height, although a more typical height is three to six inches, and they have a spread of three to six feet.  Leaves are five lobed, and they produce small, white, five-petaled flowers in the spring.  These flowers give way to small, red, sweet-tasting fruit.  This is a great plant to use on slopes that have occasional erosion issues as the plants form a dense mat.  Just make sure that they are not placed in wet spots.  Plant creeping raspberry two feet apart for an effective cover.
     Another small evergreen shrub that makes a great ground cover is the cranberry.  This is a great choice for cold climates, but will also grow in North Carolina.  Unlike the creeping raspberry, the cranberry is a North American native.  It grows two to eight inches in height and can reach a diameter of six to seven feet.  Cranberries require a sandy soil with plenty of organic matter and prefer to be near slow-moving acidic water such as a stream edge or wetland area.  They also require full sun.  The name actually refers to the sandhill cranes that were often found nesting in areas of native cranberry and to the resemblance that the flower buds and flower have to these birds - the name initially was craneberry.  The flowers are small and pink and they turn into small white berries that ripen into red ones.  Juice is made from both the immature white berries - white cranberry juice - and from the mature red ones.  They also can be used in baked goods, jellies and eaten raw.  The berries are very high in vitamin C.  Contrary to popular misconception, they do not have to be grown in a bog; it is simply easier to harvest quantities if the fields are flooded and the berries allowed to float.
     The lowbush blueberry is closely related to the cranberry and is in fact in the same genus.  Lowbush blueberries are a deciduous shrub that reach one to two feet in height.  As a grouncover, they have the added attraction of several seasons of color.  They have clusters of white bell-shaped flowers in the spring, blue fruit in the summer and bright red to yellow leaves in the fall.  They are also a North American native.  Plant them in full sun to partial shade (they can be found growing wild under oak and pine canopies) and in acidic soil.  Expect to do a fair amount of initial weeding, but once they are established, lowbush blueberries are fairly low maintenance.  To ensure good fruiting, plant several varieties.  The fruit are great fresh, baked into pies and bread, frozen or used in jellies.
     Two herbs also make great ground covers.  These are the Creeping Thyme and the Creeping Rosemary.  Both require full sun and both produce edible leaves that make great seasoning.  They are also both evergreen with showy flowers.  Expect them to reach a height of twelve inches and to provide a spicy scent to your landscape.  You can use them in areas of light foot traffic, but they will do better if not heavily trod upon.  Creeping thyme is best seeded to obtain a good coverage; plan on planting rosemary cuttings in the early summer approximately two feet apart.
     For areas that are not going to be walked on often, try replacing traditional grass with a food-producing ground cover.  It might just prove to be great for both your back in terms of labor saved and your wallet in terms of what you can bring inside to put on the table.
    

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