Holly Zipp is a fan of the late Elisabeth “Betty” Miller because the renowned plantswoman knew how to garden. Especially when it came to planting groundcovers at her Shoreline estate.
The head gardener of the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden, Zipp will give a talk Jan. 19 on how groundcovers are overlooked but essential to the garden. Hers is the second lecture of the Snohomish County Master Gardener Foundation’s 15th annual Sustainable Gardening Winter Speaker Series in Lynnwood.
“When it comes to both maintenance and design, groundcovers are indispensable,” Zipp said. “They provide effective weed control and they serve to link the other elements of a garden together.”
Zipp will share Miller’s approach to gardening with groundcovers, explain their purposes and how to maintain them, and highlight the best picks for the Northwest garden.
Groundcovers are any kind of plant that grows low to the ground. Think of them as living mulch. But not only do groundcovers help suppress weeds, they also add texture and color to your garden with minimal maintenance.
“They’re called groundcovers because of their growth habit,” Zipp said. “They spread themselves over the ground and mingle with other plants. It’s a way for gardeners to acquire more plants and it’s a lot prettier than mulch.”
As head gardener of the Miller garden in the Highlands area of Shoreline, Zipp works with staff and volunteers to maintain the grounds — which are divided into a nursery, lawn, rockery, dry banks and upper and lower woodlands — through all four seasons.
“I’m responsible for keeping the garden looking its best,” she said. “Gardening maintenance for us runs the gamut, from the nitpicky to the broad stroke, because this garden is a collection of plants from all over the world.”
The garden is the former residence of Pendelton and Elisabeth Miller, who purchased 5 acres of land in 1948 off Olympic Drive with panoramic views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula. Today the garden has some 4,000 plants, many of them unique to this part of the world.
As a self-taught gardener, Betty Miller (1914-1994) found rare and unusual plants challenging and rewarding to grow. Over her lifetime, she amassed a horticulturally significant collection that rivaled much larger botanical gardens.
Not only were they special, her plants were works of art.
Miller, who was an art major in college, composed her garden with an artist’s eye. She arranged plants based on the texture, form and color of their leaves, bark and flowers.
“She liked the concept of groundcovers because that meant that she could have even more plants. At heart, she was a collector,” Zipp said. “She was experimental in a sense that she didn’t rely on what typical groundcovers were available and common in her day. She would have tried new plants in that role and from her collector’s point of view.”
When Miller died at 79, her will directed the estate to become a botanical garden and a horticultural resource for the community.
Zipp, 40, joined the Miller garden as an intern in 2009. After serving as assistant gardener for a year, she was promoted to head gardener in 2011.
She has a bachelor’s in biology from Macalester College in Minnesota and a master’s in landscape architecture from the University of Michigan. While in between colleges, the Washington, D.C., native worked for several organic vegetable farms on the East Coast.
The mother of a toddler, Zipp is developing a kid-friendly garden with her husband, also a landscape architect, at their new home in West Seattle.
When it’s finished, her garden will have many of Zipp’s top picks for Northwest groundcovers.
“I expect to have no bare soil,” she said, “which is sort of a funny way of talking about groundcovers, but I’ll just be taking a note from Betty’s book.”
Here are some of Zipp’s top groundcover picks inspired by the Miller garden. The descriptions come from Great Plant Picks.
Himalayan maidenhair fern: Unlike most hardy maidenhair ferns, Adiantum venustum is also evergreen. The fern spreads very slowly, so it can serve as a groundcover in woodland and shaded gardens. It prefers light to dappled shade and requires regular watering.
Sticky Jerusalem sage: Phlomis russeliana is an easy-to-grow perennial with an attractive combination of bold gray-green leaves and light yellow flowers. The versatile plant functions like a low shrub and combines well with ornamental grasses, lavenders and blue-flowered hardy geraniums. Plant it in full sun or light to open shade.
Hybrid epimedium: Epimedium x perralchicum is a proven performer in the Northwest. It grows so quickly and densely that it prevents weeds from ever becoming established. The evergreen features yellow flowers on thin green stalks. It prefers light to dappled shade as well as occasional watering when the weather is dry.
Persian violet: Cyclamen coum is a winter blooming plant with foliage that appears in late fall. It has silver-dollar-sized foliage with dark green to silver coloring, while its flowers can range from white to magenta. It is one of the few plants that will tolerate the shade and roots systems of large trees. It will naturalize and spread slowly by seed.
Snowdrop: Galanthus ikariae is a winter bloomer with a low growing habit. Its flowers are white with a large green mark on the inner petals. Plant it under deciduous trees and shrubs, and in drifts for the greatest effect. This plant needs occasional watering in the summer.
Japanese forest grass: Hakonechloa macra is a deciduous grass that forms mounds of medium-green arching blades. It adds a nice textural effect to a garden or a container. It can also serve as a good groundcover under small trees or large shrubs. The grass prefers full sun to dappled shade. It requires regular watering.
Winter Speaker Series
Are you stumped about what to get your favorite gardener for Christmas? Consider the Sustainable Gardening Winter Speaker Series by the Snohomish County Master Gardener Foundation.
The popular series of talks by Northwest gardening experts is $85 for eight classes or $20 for single sessions. All lectures are held 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. every other Friday, Jan. 5 through April 6, at Trinity Lutheran Church, 6215 196th St. SW, Lynnwood. Register online at www.gardenlectures.com. For more information, call 425-357-6010. Some speakers will have books or plants to sell after their lectures. Coffee and snacks provided.
“We try to inspire gardeners for the coming spring and summer,” said Bernie Wojcik, a Washington State University master gardener who is co-leading the speaker series. “This is kind of the master gardener and community gardener’s social time, too. You can enjoy yourself and learn at the same time.”
The following is the list of speakers, dates and lectures:
■ Sunnyside Nursery general manager Trevor Cameron, Jan. 5, Go Bold With Bulbs
■ Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden head gardener Holly Zipp, Jan. 19, Indispensable Groundcovers for Northwest Gardens
■ University of Washington professor John Marzluff, Feb. 2, Welcome to Subirdia
■ Washington State University associate professor Linda Chalker-Scott, Feb. 16, Arboriculture Myths: What Works, What Doesn’t and Why
■ Retired Edmonds Community College instructor Walt Bubelis, March 2, Trees — Some to Love, Some to Beware of…
■ “Growing Roses in the Pacific Northwest” author Nita-Jo Rountree, March 16, Welcoming Gorgeous Roses Into Your Garden
■ Horticulture expert and radio talk show host Scott Conner, March 23, Nativars — The Best of Both Worlds
■ “The Secret World of Slugs and Snails” author David George Gordon, April 6, Life in the Very Slow Lane: The Secret World of Northwest Slugs and Snails
Sara Bruestle: 425-339-3046; email@example.com; @sarabruestle