Covering the ground isn’t enough



It took over ten years, but I’ve finally banished the last patch of pachysandra from my garden. It lingered on in front of the house, which is dominated by tree roots and deep shade. I knew it would present a terrifying replanting ordeal—and it did—and I was a bit concerned about digging up all my species tulips, erythronium, and other small bulbs. But I’ve chipped away at it, having already removed large beds of it throughout the property. Now it’s completely gone, replaced by shade perennials (still in pots, above).

I don’t know why the previous owner liked pachysandra so much. Buffalo’s superb contemporary art museum has this lining their inner courtyard, with no other plants in use. It makes sense to have a quiet green backdrop in a modernist sculpture-filled space. As an urban planting on a street of Victorian beauties, pachysandra is just boring. Its only justification is, I suppose, the lack of maintenance. Even that I have issues with; a bed of healthy perennials like those I’ve put in its place—hosta, polygonatum, ghost fern, brunnera—can be ignored just as easily.

It’s more than just the illusion of low maintenance. The impulse to “cover the ground” with some innocuous green thing suggests—to me, anyway—that a garden is something to be ignored whenever possible, almost an embarrassment or annoyance. I do get turfgrass when it’s done without too much water or chemicals, especially for kids. But minimal and modernist just doesn’t work with the ornate architectural embellishments you’re likely to see on our street.

emptyRight after removal—under that innocent-looking soil is an insidious and nearly-impervious web of roots.
All that being said, trying to get anything into this space was pure hell. The guys who pulled out the pachysandra (they were there already doing some hardscaping) said it came out much more easily than they thought it would—even it was being rejected. I’m building the layers up with organic matter as best I can.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I grew up on Long Island where Japanese pachysandra was ubiquitous. I agree that it is dull, something you plant if you want to set aside the nuisance of a garden. Congratulations on banishing it from your kingdom!

  2. I garden in uk and have never to my knowledge seen pachysandra, so maybe I shouldn’t comment. But I think an alternative to getting rid of a ground covering plant like that might be to use it as a matrix. See

    The great virtue for me is aesthetic, since I have an aversion to random collections of diverse plants sitting around next to one another for no apparent reason. A background plant can begin to pull the picture together…

  3. I am 66 years old and have both native beds, hosta beds and pachysandra beds, both native and japanese kind. If you think a bed of hosta’s and natives is low maintenance, think again. The native pachysandra or Allegheny spurge and their cousin, P. terminalis bloom fairly early, encouraging the pollinators to visit your garden. While they’re visiting, you’re on your knees removing spent leaves of hosta and Solomon’s Seal – if you didn’t do that garden clean-up the previous fall. With pachysandra you do nothing except remove the occasional weed from their bed and sit back and enjoy the scent of their flowers. It’s very nice to have some real low maintenance as one ages.

  4. Agree pachysandra can be boring en masse – but perennials in deep shade and competition with a tree is not low maintenance for me. I’ve tested my way there and finally found something more or less ‘sustainable’ and low-maintenance, but many plants died along the way, or never took and got out-competed. I’ve found only perennials is tough to keep good-looking year round, so threw in some shade shrubs as well, and added more of the winners: hostas, grasses, ferns and hardy begonia for staples, mixed in with bleeding heart (a lime version that looks good all summer), chimichifuga (can be temperamental), toad lilly, foam flower, hellebores and columbines. I use ajuga for ground cover, which does well for the most part and gives unity and beautiful blue flowers in spring, along with allen bush and sweet woodrow, For shrubs it’s virginia sweetspire, summer sweet, pieris, fothergilla, hydrangea and aronia and the occasional azalea. For some reason rhodos have never done well for me, but I keep trying…

  5. I, too, prefer the interest & usefulness of a diverse planting, but I’m kind of tired of plant snobbery. I’d rather see pachysandra than concrete, & as for ‘random collections’ of plants, that could be used to describe any great garden, if you like to be reductionist. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; I also value tolerance.

  6. I often love the contrast between quiet green spaces juxtaposed with highly textural and colorful planting combinations. Just like I love habanero peppers in rich, cream-based sauces. It’s about achieving a balanced composition with contrasts. I love plant snobbery too. But I also appreciate down-to-earth wisdom that comes from real experience in the trenches. We are gardeners, damn it. Though we may not agree, we should be able to hear all (okay – most) opinions, if pleasantly voiced, with decorum.

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