The Leaf Vacuum Plant

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The leaf vacuum plant in late November: already almost all of the fallen leaves have been absorbed!

Sometimes I think plants are misnamed. The terribly invasive Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), which annihilates everything in its path, should for example be called the steamroller plant. And I find that Japanese pachysandra or Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis) really deserves the name leaf vacuum plant.

Seeing this little groundcover plant at work is quite extraordinary. It’s usually used as a groundcover in wooded areas, under deciduous trees, where it forms vast carpets. Then comes fall and tree leaves begin to drop by the thousands.

Any other plant would be buried by this mass of brown foliage, but not the leaf vacuum plant. Its stems are short, but nevertheless held firmly upright, while its evergreen leaves bend down a bit under the weight of the leaves. Thus, the dead leaves slip gradually downward, through the foliage, to accumulate at the plant’s foot, after which the leaf vacuum’s leaves straighten out and hide the dead leaves from view. As a result, the plant maintains its green carpet effect right through the year and all those dead leaves disappear from sight, as if it had vacuumed them up. Then they slowly decompose, out of sight and out of mind.

This is a great plant for the laidback gardener, because there is absolutely no maintenance to carry out, either in fall or in spring, except sometimes to gather larger tree branches that fall onto the groundcover carpet over the winter and that therefore stick up through the plant’s green foliage. Even small branches get vacuumed out of sight by this amazing ground cover plant.

Growing Your Own Leaf Vacuum Carpet

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Although the leaf vacuum plant’s flowers are quite attractive, in the garden they don’t draw much attention.

Plant leaf vacuum plants quite densely, about 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) apart. Dense planting is important, as unlike most groundcover plants, pachysandra is not invasive and only slowly spreads by short underground rhizomes. Even at a 12-inch (30-cm) spacing, the plant will take about 3 or 4 years to fill in completely.

It’s a woodland plant that prefers shade or partial shade, but it can tolerate direct sunlight in winter and even in summer, although full sun plantings may well be a bit bleached in hot summer climates. It tolerates almost any soil, rich or poor, as long as it is well drained and it seems unbothered by the presence of tree roots or heavy clay.

As mentioned, no maintenance is necessary, not even watering… well, once the plant is well established, that is (it would be wise to water it during periods of drought over the first summer). Of course, fallen leaves produce all the fertilizer that the leaf vacuum plant would ever need.

As for hardiness, it can be grown in zones 4 and warmer (even zone 3 with snow cover)… and it rarely suffers from pests and diseases, plus it’s deer-resistant and pet friendly.

You want more? You can easily divide your leaf vacuum plant in spring or fall and plant your harvestings elsewhere.

Appearance

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The leaf vacuum plant, up close and personal.

Honestly, this plant is grown as a groundcover designed to carpet the ground with a vast layer of evergreen foliage. And as with a carpet in your home, where you tend to look more at the ensemble effect than the strands of yarn that compose it, the appearance of the individual plants that make up a groundcover are of relatively little importance.

Even so, if you do take the time to study it, pachysandra is a small plant about 8 to 12 inches (20-30 cm) tall bearing whorls of toothed oval dark green leaves at the tip of an upright stem. It produces short spikes of white flowers in mid spring that always look great in photos, yet are surprisingly insignificant in real life: you have to look closely to appreciate them.

There are also a few cultivars, such as ‘Green Carpet’, which is more compact than the species (6 inches/15 cm), ‘Green Sheen’, with glossier leaves, and ‘Variegata’ (‘Silver Edge’) with white-edged leaves.


If raking up leaves in the autumn drives you up a wall, you now know that there is a plant ready to do the job for you. Don’t hesitate to take advantage of it!

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