Spiraeas are an integral part of low-maintenance landscaping

Posted: Wednesday, June 29, 2005

David Lendrum

Landscaping in Alaska

Slowly exploding, the snowmound spiraeas detonate across the landscape, their thousands of brilliant white blossoms filling their branches with soft glowing fireworks. They were described last week as "Firecracker Shrubs" and everybody knew at once what was being named. When the first big ones were planted in the Douglas library planters eight or 10 years ago, they were relatively unknown here, but their reliability and timing have made them one of the most popular summer blooming shrubs we have.

They are part of the vast spiraea clan and we are lucky to have them as part of our array of sturdy surefire flowering bushes. The older favorites, "Bridal Veil" and "Bridal Bouquet," were standards in our grandmothers' yards, and the shorter, broader "Little Princess" has become a yard muffin all across the United States. Newer colors of foliage - like the yellow with red tips in the four-foot "Goldflame" or the two- to three-foot pure yellow "Golden Princess" - have allowed us to expand their uses.

We use these as part of the new "low-maintenance landscaping" look that depends on total coverage of all planted spaces by low-growing shrubs and perennials. This way we have no space for weeds, and the long-term effect on the landscape is as if it were naturally occurring. If you look off at a natural landscape here in Southeast Alaska, you see that there is no open ground - something is growing everywhere. In some places, the natural growth is so thick that plants are growing on top of something else. This is because we are truly a temperate rainforest zone. We have the abundant riches needed to have such exuberant, vibrant plant communities, and the long cool days of summer mean the plants can continue growing and harvesting solar power for 20 hours a day.

There are plants adapted to all the conditions we find. On the rocky slopes, we have the shrub alders and willows; the undergrowth is our favorite masses of blueberries and False Azalea. Lower slopes have the Sitka spruce and hemlock associations with the ferns, devil's club and skunk cabbage; open spaces are filled with meadow grasses and flowering herbaceous perennials; and even the twice-daily submerged tidal lands are decked in adapted grasses that thrive in the richness of the shore.

All the spaces are filled, and any disturbance - such as trees being blown down or landslides ripping off the skin of the place -is quickly colonized by disturbance-adapted species like buttercups and horsetail. Our yards are like those disturbed areas, and we are agents of change. Our chainsaws, backhoes and excavators perform the same acts as windthrows and landslides. We tear off the growing cover of the space, and it rushes back in order to cover it back up. Look at the model of the Eaglecrest Ski Area as an ideal domestic yard landscape: All the spaces are covered, and the lovely undulating surface of the whole landscape is constantly changing. Species emerge, grow, bloom, fruit, ripen and are harvested day after day, and the seasonal progression ripples across the whole scene in a series of incredibly lovely vignettes. There is no disturbed place, and there is no sense of weeds or invaders.

This is the model we follow when we plant all the open spaces. We have a whole group of species we love. They each have their own shape and speed of growth. Each has its foliage, flower and fruit. Many have seasonal color changes, and we can orchestrate any effect we want with the hundreds of plants at our hands. Any landscape effect we can imagine can be developed: spacious vistas or intricate small spaces, recreational fields or abundant production of fruit and flowers. What none of us wants to do is pull weeds.

Weeds are our name for specialized species that are disturbance-adapted. They are designed to cover bare spaces, so if we don't want them, we deny them access. We fill all the potential spaces with species we choose, and create a fully foliaged yard or public space.

Spiraeas, potentillas, roses, rhododendrons, azaleas and hundreds more are more than individual icons; they are parts of a complete planting. And a few years after they are planted, they can define and control a space. This planting method works with the natural demands of our climate and environment. It does not depend on synthetic fabrics or short-term weed-suppressing mulches (which become ideal seedbeds as they decompose). It mimics the wild world with its commitment to total coverage, from the lowest groundcovers to the most vigorous trees, and we love it.

• David Lendrum is a professional horticulturalist.

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