My practice of carving out chunks of lawn to plant flowers began in self-defense. I could not bear to have the crab apple tree on the front lawn banged, bruised, and beaten by the lawn mower one more time. So I surrounded the trunk with a defensive circle of silver-toned, furry lamb's-ears. Suddenly, the other trees looked naked, and I decided that a tree isn't fully dressed without a flowering petticoat.
Dressing the Trees
Ever since, I've been whittling away at the lawn, replacing large chunks around the bases of trees with strategically placed groundcovers. I choose low-growing shrubs, herbs, or perennials that spread over the ground, bloom, and suppress weeds. Wood chips might do the same, but they are nowhere near as attractive. I have to admit that groundcovers require a certain amount of work; despite the advertisements, there is no such thing as a no-maintenance solution. The soil around the plants needs to be weeded occasionally and replenished yearly with compost.
As for size, I make the tree's petticoat at least equal to the spread of its canopy. If the tree is fast-growing, I make the circle a third larger—but never smaller. A shorter tree can be nicely dressed with a single type of plant repeated around its trunk. A larger tree can handle clusters of different plants weaving together into a more creative garden.
Skirting with Groundcovers
Even the "Big Three" groundcovers—pachysandra, periwinkle, and ivy—can be attractive when lavishly embroidered with an underplanting of bulbs such as daffodils, snowflakes, wood hyacinths, or colchicums. And between my car's refusal to drive past a nursery and my habit of perusing every catalog in my mailbox, I have discovered many interesting named varieties of those three standbys. On Pachysandra terminalis 'Silver Edge', each spoon-shaped leaf is rimmed in white, giving a subtle dappled effect. Periwinkle has both a white-edged variety, Vinca minor 'Sterling Silver', and a yellow one called 'Aureola'. Come spring, each is spangled with powder blue flowers. Other periwinkles have solid green leaves and delicate blooms: 'Miss Jekyll' sports a dainty white flower, while 'Atropurpurea' is a knockout in plum.
English ivies (Hedera spp.), which are evergreen, come in more than 60 varieties, with leaves of many sizes and in shapes resembling fans, diamonds, bird's feet, and hearts. 'Glacier' is splashed with white and has made itself at home in our woodland garden. 'Goldheart' holds a pot of gold in the center of its heart-shaped leaf.
Editor's note: English ivies are invasive weeds in many parts of the country. Small-leaved and variegated forms tend to be less invasive. Always check with your local county extension office before planting to see if an ivy variety is invasive in your area.