Book Review: Covering Ground


Pavia2_2by Susan
It’s timely, it’s gorgeous and it’s just released – Covering Ground by Barbara Ellis, whose work we’ve reviewed previously here.

Homeowners who are unhappy with their lawns need all the help they can get in finding plants to grow instead, and this book has ideas and inspiration to spare.  Call me overly visual, but photos by the likes of Jerry Pavia and Saxon Holt inspire the hell out of me.  After drinking in images like this one, I’m not just getting rid of something; I’m drawn toward totally new visions of what beautiful "yards" can look like, and exactly which plants I can use to make it all happen.  My question for Jerry, Saxon and the many photographers in this stunning book is how did you find all those amazing gardens?  Really, I’m curious, because you sure can’t just Google "gorgeous thyme garden" and find them. 

Photography like this reminds us why books still have a place, despite the plethora of free information on the Internet.  Gorgeous, high-resolution images printed on high-quality paper – it’s still a Good Thing.

I love that Ellis thinks outside the box, showing us that there’s no need to replace turfgrass with plants of similar stature.  Referring to mid-size shrubs, she says "for a large yard, consider a central planting of one or more of these
wide-spreading species, perhaps surrounded by smaller shrubs."  So don’t be surprised that her book covers 20-foot shrubs and has a whole section about azaleas and rhododendrons, which I’ was happy to see the author describe as  "far happier in partial shade south of Zone 5."  Hallelujah.Holt1

I approached Covering Ground as a highly motivated reader desperately seeking ways to cover my own
ground, and found countless examples of information that readers like myself really, really need.  Some examples are:

  • How ground covers spread.
  • Sections about ground covers for every possible situation, and truly helpful tips about them (sedums are shallow-rooted, so not the best choice for holding soil on steep inclines).
  • Good site prep basics about removing weeds, sod, soil prep, even recommending a 2-week delay before planting to let soil settle and allow weed seeds and root remnants to sprout.  That’s some great advice I never see, and it comes from an author who’s clearly done her share of site prep.  And she tells us that smothering and solarizing of existing sod or weeds require a whole year before planting.
  • The truth about landscape fabric, that it should be installed when your site is being prepared, not later, and that it "has disadvantages and a great many gardeners avoid using it completely".  She then tells us why. (Starting with the problem that weeds are difficult to remove because the roots become entangled in the fabric.)
  • Lots of good advice about how to avoid transplant stress, which "can be a killer".  Yes indeedy!  One suggestion I’ll pursue is to shade newly moved plants with a spun-bonded row cover such as Reemay.  It rests directly on the plants and I want some!
  • As gorgeous as all these plants are en
    masse – huge drifts, swaths – they’re waaay more expensive than grass
    seed, and cost is an important factor limiting our ability to
    substitute creeping perennials for lawn.  So Ellis offers a slew of
    helpful suggestions about how to make it happen without a huge budget, like buying one of
    each and observing for a year before making a larger investment.  She devotes a lot of space to methods of propagation and urges us not to make the
    easy mistake that tightwad gardeners like myself have learned to regret –
    using the cheapest (often free) fastest-spreading plant. You know, the
    ones that end up devouring everything in their path.

Now I get to whine about what I would have done differently – as if I’d ever take on such a huge project as
writing this book or do nearly as good a job as Ellis has.  But reviewers don’t have to be doers, now do they?

  • There’s much discussion of the negatives of turfgrass – all the water, fossil fuels, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer required to keep it going – but no mention of going organic as an alternative.  Further, alternative ground covers are described as "labor-saving", which isn’t always the case.  I was happy to see, however, a mention of new, better lawn cultivars that are more disease-resistant and need less frequent mowing.  After all, lawn is here to stay, so let’s all look for healthier ways to grow that damn stuff.
  • The now-ubiquitous generalization that "Locally native plants are best able to tolerate the heat, humidity, soil and exposure in your garden."  Well, that depends on whether your garden has remotely similar conditions to where those plants grow in nature, right?  So why not say "many" and "depending on where you plant them"?
  • And like any gardener, when I’ve grown plants myself I have stories to contribute.  So I would warn readers that when Liriope spicata receives direct sunshine, it spreads so aggressively as to make  English ivy look positively mind-mannered.

Okay, I got that off my chest.  Now DO buy and enjoy this excellent book. 

Photo credits: top, second from top, and lowest photos (c) Jerry Pavia, from Covering Ground by Barbara W. Ellis, used
with permission from Storey Publishing.  Photo third from top (c) Saxon Holt/PhotoBotanic, from
Covering Ground by Barbara W. Ellis, used with permission from
Storey Publishing.


  1. Those pictures look fantastic! The lavender field on the slope gives me an idea for my problems slope. I better put this book on the old Christmas List!

  2. Wow. I’m getting to the point of adding groundcovers to compete with ‘volunteers’ in the garden (mulch can do only so much). I’ll definitely be on the lookout for this title next time I hit the book store!

    Thank you for the excellently written review, Susan. It gave enough information to tell what the book was about, your reaction to it, even drawbacks, all in a way that makes me want to find it and check it out.

  3. … ” how did you find all those amazing gardens?

    The Infamous List is provided to the photographer or the writer as well as tapping their our resources.
    If you are in the business you know who is doing what and what they are doing.

    When I was asked to write a book for Taunton Press they informed me that it was the authors responsibility to gather the photographs for the book. Taunton handed me a list of “stock photographers” to contact.
    They also said to contact my own sources in the industry.

    Each garden editor at the various magazines has a master list of designers and photographers that they contact when they start to think about a specific article.
    As a designer I get a dozen or so requests a year for images on a particular subject that is being written up.
    If the writer and the art director like the image that you sent in to the magazine or the book they might send out a professional photographer to reshoot the image.
    It’s all about who you know and who knows who.

  4. I’m sold. This book is on my Christmas list.

    Susan, the Renegade Gardener has a story about serving as a garden photography scout. Look under his “Design” heading, and then find his 9-17-01 article, “The Secret to a Beautiful Garden.”

  5. Love it Susan! I must agree with your comments on lawn. While I remove it from most of my projects and opt for groundcovers and other features, lawn will be with us for a while. We need smart lawn practices including low water varieties and maintenance techniques that steer away from heavy duty chemicals.
    Can’t wait to see what you did in your “former lawn area!”

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