What is a groundcover? Well, very loosely defined, it may be “anything that covers the ground” and helps to hold the soil in place, repress weeds and curb erosion. Examples of non-living ground covers might be mulch, paving stone, crushed stone, artificial turf, etc., which will certainly do the trick and cover the ground.
However, when most people think of groundcovers, they probably are thinking of low-growing, spreading, commonly used plants like English ivy, Pachysandra terminalis, Convallaria majalis (Lily-of-the-valley) and Vinca minor. Yet, there are so many other plants that can be used as groundcovers and some of them are not low-growers.
When selecting a groundcover, as when selecting any plant, choose “the right plant for the right location”. Many groundcovers can grow in an aggressive manner and may fill or colonize an area and continue to do so, year after year. While some of these aggressive growers may not be considered a Massachusetts invasive plant (see the Massachusetts Prohibited Plant List), they certainly have the capability of outgrowing other plants in their way and may grow into lawns, overtake desirable perennials, escape into wooded natural areas, etc. Plants like English ivy, Pachysandra terminalis, Convallaria majalis (Lily-of-the-valley), Vinca minor, and Lamium maculatum, while good groundcovers, are a few of the aggressive groundcovers that may become problematic in a small garden area. Another commonly used groundcover, Lysimachia nummularia (Creeping Jenny), including the gold form, Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ (see photo), is on the Massachusetts Invasive Plant List.
Many plants are designated as a “groundcover” because they are able to spread easily by underground stems, rhizomes, etc. to cover large areas of ground, smothering weed seeds, etc. Other plants may be clump-formers and slowly spread out to cover an area. So, whatever plants you choose, make sure that the area you want to cover is large enough for the particular plants you select. Also, especially if it is a non-native, aggressive-growing groundcover, try not to plant it near minimally managed landscapes. In other words, don’t plant an aggressive plant like English ivy, near a natural woodland or an area where native plants are growing; it may quickly and/or eventually take over that area.
Groundcovers are often used in areas that are considered problematic, like shady areas where turfgrass and plants that require full sun won’t grow. Groundcovers can be used on slopes to slow erosion and rainwater, or in areas where people want to reduce the lawn area. Groundcovers can be mass-planted or grown with other groundcovers with similar growing requirements for a ‘tapestry effect’ (see photo). Many groundcovers are low maintenance, drought tolerant and do not have significant disease or insect problems.
Below are just some of the many low maintenance ground covers that are available.
Herbaceous (non-woody) Deciduous Groundcovers
Unless stated otherwise, plant in a moisture retentive, well-drained soil. Most plants will not do well in poorly-drained or heavy clay soils.
Ajuga reptans – Bugleweed.
Many cultivars. Low, growing, mat-forming groundcover.
May be planted as part of a low maintenance lawn, as it will
tolerate foot traffic and being mown over. Can spread very aggressively. Pink, white or blue flowers, depending on cultivar. Full-sun to partial shade.
Hardy to Zone 3.
Anenome canadensis – Canada Anenome.
Native. Aggressive ground cover;
1 to 2 feet high and wide-spreading.
White flowers appear in May – June.
Full sun to part shade.
Hardy to Zone 3.
Asarum canadense - Wild Ginger. Native. Part shade to full shade; 6-inch wide, dark green, kidney-shaped basal leaves that appear to hug the ground. Slowly forms colony. Hardy to Zone 4.
Epimedium spp. – Barrenwort.
Many cultivars with various heights
ranging from 4 inches to 24 inches high.
Lovely spring flowers in many shades: yellow, red, pink lavender, white etc. Green, sometimes splashed with burgundy or white, elongated-heart-shaped foliage;
average well-drained soil; partial shade to full shade;
will tolerate drought.
Hardy to Zone 5.
Hakonechloa macra – Japanese forest grass.
Bright green leaves 10 to 12 inches long.
Part shade; graceful, non-invasive grass, forming arching mounds; cultivars including ‘Aureola’ (gold foliage stripe with green striping); ‘Aurea’ (Gold); ‘Variegata’ (green foliage with white striping). Good for massing.
Hardy to Zone 5.
Hosta - Hosta. Thousand of cultivars varying in height and width; many tolerant of sun, as well as shade. Mass plant alone or with other partial shade tolerant plants. Hardy to Zone 3.
Pachysandra procumbens – Allegheny pachysandra. Native. Round, mid-green leaves; grows 8 to 12 inches high and is wide spreading; dappled shade to partial to full shade; well-drained organic, moisture retentive soil. May be used on slopes. Hardy to Zone 5.
Phlox stolonifera – Creeping phlox. Native. Low-growing, spreading, mat-forming groundcover 8 inches high, with fragrant, flowers (lavender; white), blooming in May. Full sun – part shade. Hardy to Zone 5.
Waldsteinia ternata – Barren strawberry. Native. Low-growing, 4 to 6 inches high. Bright green, strawberry-like foliage; yellow flowers in April-May. Full sun to part shade; Forms wide carpet of foliage. Hardy to Zone 4.
Woody Evergreen Groundcovers
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi – Bearberry. Native. 6 to 12 inches tall and spreads to form large mats. Small shiny, dark green leaves; small (1/4 inch) whitish-pink drooping flowers in April – May, followed by small cranberry-like fruit which turn red in the fall. Full sun; will tolerate partial shade; does not tolerate poor drainage or heavy, alkaline soils. Will tolerate sandy, rocky soils. Drought and salt tolerant; may be used on slopes. Hardy to Zone 2.
Microbiota decussata – Russian arborvitae. 1.5 to 2 feet tall, with a spreading, mounding habit.
The green-needled foliage, turning purplish-green in winter, is similar to Juniper, with fewer problems. Prefers full sun, well-drained soils and is drought tolerant. May be used on slopes.
Tower Hill Botanic Garden Cary Award Winner. Hardy to Zone 2.
Woody Deciduous Groundcovers
Comptonia peregrina – Sweetfern. Native. Full sun and will tolerate partial shade; Grows best in well-drained, sandy soils; does not tolerate poorly drained or heavy soils. Salt tolerant. 3 to 5 feet tall and spreads by suckers. May be used to stabilize slopes. Hardy to Zone 2.
Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-low’ - ‘Gro-low’ fragrant sumac. Native. 2 to 4 feet tall and wide-spreading. Full sun - partial shade. Soil and site adaptable; prefers well-drained organic soils; full sun partial shade. Drought tolerant. May be used to stabilize slopes. It is a non-poisonous plant. Tower Hill Botanic Garden Cary Award Winner. Hardy to Zone 3.
Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa’ - Cutleaf Stephanandra. Native to Japan and Korea. 1 to 2 feet tall and wide-spreading. Full sun - partial shade. Acidic, moisture retentive, well-drained soils. Full sun to light shade. May be used to stabilize slopes. Hardy to Zone 4.
Xanthorhiza simplicissma - Yellowroot. Native. A low growing deciduous woody shrub to 2 feet high and wide-spreading; tolerant of sun, shade and wet soil; may be used on slopes. Hardy to Zone 5.
Although many people probably do not think of turfgrasses as groundcovers, they actually are and the subject of groundcovers cannot be ended without acknowledging them. Turf is one of the best and most well-known groundcovers for reducing runoff, erosion, etc. See the Benefits of Turf Grass at https://www.nps.gov/subjects/turfmanagement/benefits.htm
Turf provides a green aesthetic to the landscape and is highly regarded by many people. For others, turf may be regarded as “high maintenance”, or high-input, when it comes to mowing, fertilizing, pest management, etc. and they may want to reduce that lawn area with other groundcovers. However, there are low-input turf options for people who want a low-maintenance lawn. For more details, see these UMass Extension fact sheets:
Remember, there are many, many plants available for numerous planting situations. Seeking out some of the less common sustainable plants may open up many more landscape planting opportunities.
Deborah C. Swanson, Horticulturist