I would not hesitate for a second, recommending that new plantings be mulched with 2 to 3 inches of bark. Mulch conserves moisture in the soil, and it discourages the germination of weeds. Transplanting is a big shock; a little mulch can be calming. I do not, however, admire decorative mulch, mulch gardens, mulch landscapes, mulch over existing weeds, or mountains of mulch anywhere else beyond a landscape supply yard. Mulch should not be seen or heard from. Whomever designed the landscape pictured above should get a ticket, three points, and a hefty fine. Who would cut giant beds, dot in a few maroon-leaved weigela in no discernable pattern, and call it a landscape? This is a bark garden, just weeks after completion. In a year’s time, the mulch will be a dirty grey, blown about by rain, bikes and wind. All the while organisms in the soil are degrading said bark such that any weed seeds in the soil underneath will soon have optimal conditions to germinate and grow. I shuddered when I saw this, and shuddered again when I realized the clients had no idea the hand that had been dealt to them.
Suburban landscape/ gardens in front yards- in conspicuous lieu of grass-have become quite popular the last ten years or so. Occasionally the news tells the tale of neighbors up in arms over a non-conforming suburban yard whose messy assortment of perennials, vegetables and whatever else threatens to disturb the status quo. The debate about lawn versus garden is immaterial here-this yard is indeed a mess. What I find even more astonishing are the drifts of bark. As if bark over bare dirt,weeds, and some scraggly plants could improve the look here.
No kidding, nature abhors a vacuum. The above pictured bark is a testimonial to the fact that bare or barked dirt stays bare only a short time. Bark slows down weeds at first, but them helps them grow all the more robustly. A forest completely destroyed and buried in volcanic ash will reforest, given enough time. Some landscapes could get that fresh well-tended look if the bark were banished. It is not as if any removal is required. A landscape quick-fix? Plant more of what you already have in your bark beds.
It is difficult to get plants to grow under trees; the shade and competition for water can be daunting. Planting a companion plant at the same time the tree goes in gives everyone involved a chance. I planted rooted cuttings of pachysandra with a weeding fork underneath these English oaks close to ten years ago. The groundcover has taken over the job of the bark. Though a planting of pachysandra is never going to make your heart pound, it is vastly better looking than the bark. The shape and density of growth is enough.
There are lots of groundcovers for both sun and shade. This dwarf hosta is a happy combination of bold texture and ground hugging scale. Not that a groundcover needs to be short, mind you. Groundcover is anything that covers the ground. For your planting trouble, you get a mass of green that conserves moisture in the soil, and discourages weeds. Does this not sound like a good idea?
There is not one thing intrinsically wrong with grass. It is a vigorous groundcover, and it does need to be cut. It is doing amazingly well in the shade of these Bradford pears. It is as much landscape as some people can handle. A grass panel, or sculpture can be strikingly beautiful. Just because a zillion lawn care products exist is no sign you are obliged to use them. Just cut the grass. Even when my garden is weedy and falling over from neglect, I feel better when the grass is cut. I like that illusion of order.
Sweet woodriff is a beautiful groundcover, but it must be sited properly. In too much shade, and in too wet a soil, fungus will prevail in late summer, leaving the garden with brown rotted leaves and bare patches. I am willing to put up with its problems, as it covers the ground under my hellebores so beautifully. My hellebores still seed here, though there is not a square inch of bare dirt to be seen.
A client with a private garden carved into a hillside asked me to redo the space. The shrubs had become considerably overgrown, and a tree had died. The walled garden on the inside has been totally redone. But I was equally as interested in the street side presentation of the garden. The grass was tough to cut next to the brick wall; the grade was sloppily uneven. I stripped the grass five feet away from the wall, and added 20 yards of soil to level the ground.
Five columnar gingko trees of unusual size and shape were planted around the perimeter of the wall retaining that sunken garden.The branches and leaves are beautiful from the second story terrace. I barked the trees, yes, but I also planted hydrangeas as groundcover. Three years later, the view from the street is green. No dirt or bark slides down the hill after a rain. It will take a few years for the trees to grow out of their hydrangea groundcover enough for that relationship to seem right. The secret garden is truly secret now; nothing in the streetside landscape gives it away. It is a gesture with a sporting chance at a future.