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My maternal grandmother had what she called creeping phlox all over the hill leading to the upper vegetable garden on their small farm. In spring, that phlox put on a spectacular show. I can close my eyes today and still see the brilliant display of pink along with a little lavender. Pink was her favorite color. So in her honor, the first thing I planted here was two shades of pink creeping phlox. Although she's been gone for years now, when those patches of pink explode into bloom in the spring, I always think of her and of special times on the farm. Even when I find a few blooms that occasionally appear on warm winter days, I can’t help thinking that she has visited my garden to check on her beloved creeping phlox. And to check on me too, of course.
Grandmothers are usually quite special. What they say and do remains with a grandchild for a lifetime. And farms are a wonderful place for a child to explore and grow. I’m fairly certain the magical memories of my grandmother’s phlox are the original ‘seeds’ of the love of gardening that were planted in me long ago. They have borne much fruit over the years.
Moss phlox (Phlox subulata), commonly called moss pinks or creeping phlox, is available in other colors as well. However, mine had to be pink like my grandmother’s. When in full bloom, moss phlox provides a thick carpet of bright flowers that are generally fluorescent pink, blue-purple, lavender, red or white. In addition to the standard colors, moss phlox comes in more unusual colors such as deep mauve, candy stripe* and apple blossom. This perennial is native to North America.
Phlox stolonifera, also called creeping phlox, is a different species. A slightly taller woodland phlox native to the Appalachian Mountains, it has pale pink, pink, or white flowers which lack the central color band present in Phlox subulata. It prefers a bit moister growing conditions with less sun. There have been numerous hybrid crosses between the two species.
Moss phlox is a low, vigorous, spreading groundcover often used as an edging plant, a filler plant in rock gardens and walkways, or cascading over walls and draping down the side of hills. It’s tough, not unlike my grandmother. It grows best in areas of full sun to partial shade and adapts well to soils that are dry, thin or sandy. Moss phlox can also thrive in colder climates (USDA zones 3-8) but may experience winter burn from snow.
Problems that sometimes bother moss phlox are fungal diseases (especially powdery mildew) and spider mites. Grandmother never had many problems with her creeping phlox and neither have I. The main thing is keeping them out of too much shade and in plenty of sun with good drainage. That’s what they love. Horticultural cornmeal is one organic “weed and feed” solution for fungal problems and is also good for the soil. Under normal circumstances, insects do not cause significant damage to moss phlox; if they do attack, plants are easily cut back to stimulate fresh new growth. One pest that does enjoy dining on phlox is rabbits. As I recall, grandmother’s remedy for that was rabbit stew. These days, chemical-free repellents are probably a better choice.
Because of its shallow root system, moss phlox is easy to divide and transplant. Division is best done in early summer after the main flowering has occurred. I’m fairly certain one of her neighbors gave my grandmother the starts of her creeping phlox, but I never knew who it was. Wish I had.
The year daddy died I was in fifth grade, and I spent that entire summer with my grandparents on the farm. Twice a day every day, the Greyhound bus ran between their town and the next one, passing by the farm. It went one direction in the morning and back by the same route in late afternoon. When that bank of creeping phlox was in bloom, you couldn’t miss it from the road. I remember so many times glimpsing bus passengers pointing at the blooming bank with a look of astonished delight once it came into view. I’m afraid I took it for granted back then. I’d give a lot to be able to step into that scene one more time, but the bank of creeping phlox is no longer there. Sometimes that thought makes me a bit melancholy. On the other hand, I still have all these memories. Grandmothers and farms and a hill of vibrant creeping phlox in bloom are the kinds of things that happy memories are made of … and those memories never fail to come to mind when it’s time to prepare for spring gardening.
*Thank you to DG subscriber PerennialGirl for permission to link to her PlantFiles photo.
Photos in the article are the author's.