I was covering the ground fast as I strode up our street to the park, to take my morning exercise belting balls against the tennis wall. It was all still and grey. Dampness was in the air.
I thought of Keats and autumn, the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” as I stepped over the leaves – crimson, burgundy and warm gold – that were drifting down from the Manchurian pear trees that line the street. “Lovely ground cover”, I thought.
Once at the tennis wall I was looking instead at casuarinas. Their leaves are not as technicolour – they are long grey-brown spindles, dense and crumbly, that blend right into the soil and are gorgeous to walk on. Occasionally, when no-one is looking, I bring a rake and a large container up to the tennis wall along with my racquet, and I help myself to some of the fallen casuarina needles. They make great mulch around the Australian plants in my back garden, where the soil is very poor and can do with covering up.
I’m going to do the same with the Manchurian pear leaves – rake them up and bring them home – but I’ll put them straight into my compost bin and on the compost pile. It’s such a shame to see them go to waste. With the rain we had this week – the first in ages – the ones that are heaped up in the gutters are beginning to rot down already. And if I really get the bit between my teeth I will head down to Fawkner Park and rake up some oak leaves. They’re the best of all for composting, and ground cover.
Ground cover is one of the first phrases you learn when you are starting out in your own garden. Not just used as mulch, but also in terms of small flat plants that creep out and around and hide the soil. I have some favourites. Small-leafed ivy (but you have to watch it like a hawk to make sure it doesn’t turn into the bog-standard big-leafed stuff). Dianthus (put them where the soil is the toughest and let them creep out onto the gravel paths. Don’t worry too much about watering. Cut them back hard each year – they’ll love it and will reward you with months of flower, especially the old historic varieties). Australian Viola hederacea. It’s so pretty and so tough! Dies back in the drought and comes again the minute there’s rain. Presently it has moved out of the planted area and is taking on the creeping oxalis that is getting a foothold in my my buffalo lawn. And another Australian, brachyscome daisies. They used to come only in pale or dark mauve but now many more species are available and the shapes and the colour palette have really developed. Again you need to chop them back hard maybe twice a year. I think they are the prettiest ground covers of all.