May 27, 2020

Jeepers, Creepers


Credit: Jerzy Opioła | Wikimedia Commons - Phlox stolonifera

• By Janine Pineo •

Think of masses of color cascading through a garden filled with stately flowers gently waving in a warm summer breeze.

Now take a gander at your feet and consider the possibilities of toe-level rainbows blanketing the ground you walk on.

Lowly ground covers can heighten any garden’s dimensions, creating depth and becoming a canvas on which to grow companion plants.

Since planting my first ground cover about four years ago, I’ve become rather fond of the amazing qualities for which these plants are known. I just had to accept the phrase “spread like wildfire” first.

My favorite creepers are a couple of varieties of creeping thyme, probably the closest I’ll ever get to the atmosphere of an English cottage garden. Thymus serpyllum is the showiest, with tiny, shiny leaves and a tendency to blossom furiously in June and July. Before it blooms, T. serpyllum might top out at an inch tall; with flowers it is about 2 inches high.

Besides the color variety (I have white, pink and lavender), T. serpyllum makes a cushiony carpet along my slate pathway. Stepping on it releases a fragrance that warms the summer days.

A cousin to T. serpyllum is woolly creeping thyme, T. pseudolanuginosus. I love this plant. Woolly creeping thyme is as fuzzy as T. serpyllum is shiny. In fact, everything else is secondary to its woolliness. There is little fragrance and I have never seen my several plants blossom, although one plant book said they might do so occasionally.

But those things don’t matter for two good reasons. First, the plant provides a striking silver-green counterpoint to the darker T. serpyllum. And perhaps best of all, the woollies are the nicest plants you could ever sink your bare feet into. They easily could be called nature’s flannel sheets.

A relative of creeping thyme is Ajuga reptans, commonly known as bugleweed or carpet bugle. Like other members of the mint family, bugleweed can become invasive if left alone (probably why there’s a weed in its name), but if planted in a barren spot, bugleweed can be a colorful addition even when it’s not in bloom.

The A. reptans in my garden has formed a tight mat of shiny leaves, which are a deep maroon. In late spring, budded spikes shoot up and vigorously blossom. My plant has white flowers, but there also are blue and purple varieties.

Perhaps one of the best things about bugleweed is its ability to prosper in either sun or shade. Mine gets both and isn’t at all slow in its quest to choke out the nearby lawn.

If subtle color isn’t enough, then perhaps creeping phlox will fit the bill. Phlox, which is Greek for flame, comes in many eye-popping shades; it often is sold simply by color and not by its named cultivar (when I got mine, it was covered in buds, but I had no idea what color they would be).

My pink creeping phlox is Phlox subulata. P. subulata and P. douglasii are hybrids of other low-growing phlox, such as P. bifida (sand phlox) and P. stolonifera (plain old creeping phlox).

The P. subulata I’m growing seems to be close to an evergreen plant with leaves that are stiff and needlelike. When in bloom, the flowers, which are star-shaped, make a nearly solid mat of color.

P. subulata, also known as moss pink or ground pink, is quite hardy. Creeping phlox are native to the eastern United States. P. subulata can grow 3 to 6 inches tall and creeps about 20 inches, a spread similar to that of creeping thyme.

I’m waiting for spring to check the fates of two 1996 arrivals: creeping baby’s breath and creeping speedwell.

A low-growing version of baby’s breath, Gypsophila repens “Rosea” is native to the mountains of Europe. It blossoms late spring to early summer and reaches a height of 4 to 6 inches.

When I bought mine last May, the flowers had created a misty pink cloud above the foliage. One garden book recommended using creeping baby’s breath for trailing over a stone wall or as edging along a path (which is what I did). I only hope it stands up well to Maine’s mercurial winters.

The other newcomer is Veronica repens, creeping speedwell. With sky-blue flowers, this variety is a welcome addition to the summer garden.

V. repens spreads rapidly, according to one of my garden books, which called it a weed. The book went on to describe how best to get rid of it (with some dreadful chemical weedkiller) and said, “Control is difficult.”

If I could only live so long. For me, one garden book’s weed is this gardener’s treasure.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in January 1997.

2012 update: Two creepers from this piece continue to flourish in the garden: the bugleweed and the creeping speedwell. Not bad for 15 years later.