Mitchella repens (partridgeberry) - frailty thereof

I had heard that partridgeberry was "slow-growing", but this is ridiculous. In zone 6b, on the Blue Ridge, I put in a dozen plants a year ago. The soil is typical woodland, acidic (from the oaks) clay. The plants were tiny when received from a reputable supplier. All last summer, they seemed OK, added an inch or two, grew a few new leaves. Now, after a cold winter, only half of them are still alive, and those seem to have fewer leaves than last year. I can see this is never going to be a "ground cover", but does anybody know what I can do to keep these plants alive and encourage them?
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We have found Mitchella to be a good groundcover in NY and NJ, but it terribly slow to establish. The establishment period is sensitive to excessive leaf cover in the fall - leaves to be kept off. The stalling of establishment you describe seems normal as does the dieback after the first year. I would say to keep at it.
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Mike LaMana, MS
Heartwood Consulting Services, LLC
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To answer Ann's question, no I didn't put them on bare ground. We live in a hardwood forest clearing. Some of the plants are under oak trees where years worth of leaf mold has accumulated, and are in deep shade. Half of them are 6-10 feet away from the edge of the forest, but in similar soil; the nearest oaks there were cut down within the past 5 years and what passes for the "lawn" (mixture of grass, clover, weeds, and wildflowers including wonderful Claytonia virginica) has begun to encroach. I cleared, but did not deeply till, the two areas where I planted them, put the plants in about 6 feet apart, then mulched around them - but not closer than 6 inches from each plant - with wood-chip mulch from when the power company trimmed these woods two years earlier. I pull weeds that pop up right around the plants and those that came up through the mulch this spring.
If I poke down under the mulch, the soil seems fine. There are worms. At the moment there are also dime-sized cicada holes!
I dusted away the "excessive leaf cover" last fall.
If "stalling of establishment" is normal, I'll not change what I'm doing, but there's dieback and dieback, isn't there? In 4 out of my 13 little patches where there was a partridgeberry plant, it's gone (two of the deep-shade ones, two of the "edge of the lawn" group). Or, the stem is lying there, but it no longer has leaves and is no longer rooted in the ground. That's how they were after the snow and ice melted. But no new stems have come up, so I tend to think those 4 have died totally. Everything else is booming (asarums, hellebores, rhododendrons, Sweet Woodruff, Virginia Bluebells; not to mention a great show this year, after all last year's rain, by Cutleaf Toothwort, wild geraniums and the Spring Beauty - despite rampant garlic mustard that I'm trying to root out of at least a section of the woods), but those little partridgeberry plants are lying there as if they'll die if you so much as look at them. They were terribly tiny when I got them, each just a single stem 5 or 6 inches long.

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They should be rock-hardy for you, however, I've got to ask, do you have them on bare ground with no leaf mould or mulch for them to crawl through? They are forest floor dwellers, they need shade an a rich leafy mulch in order to be happy.
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Ann, Gardening in zone 6a
Just south of Boston, MA
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