It is said that nature abhors a vacuum. Nothing illustrates that
dictum better than a patch of bare earth. Left to its own devices,
an open, unplanted space in the garden will be quickly colonized by
weeds. To keep those areas looking good, we turn to groundcovers.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous one used by landscapers in our area is
Every spring there is a ritual of spreading shredded bark over
beds and borders in an effort to create a weed-free perfect
chocolate brown backdrop for trees and shrubs. Gardeners often
long for less sterile groundcovers, something with more life and
interest than a sea of shredded bark.
Many plants, used en masse, can be used as groundcover, but
generally plants considered good groundcovers have the following
• low growing (maximum height of less than 24 inches)
• vigorous and spreading without being invasive
• sufficiently dense to inhibit the growth of
• extensive root system to minimize soil erosion
• relatively low maintenance
• provide multi-season interest
• create unity in a landscape design
Most gardeners are familiar with the "big three"
groundcovers -- English ivy, Japanese pachysandra and periwinkle
(Vinca minor). These are readily available and time-tested, but
there are many excellent plants to try if you're ready to move
beyond the ordinary and add some pizazz to your garden.
Groundcover for sunny areas
Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides)
---- A low growing perennial that gets 9 to 12 inches tall with
a spread of 12 to 18 inches. The leathery, oval leaves are
topped with gentian-blue flowers in late summer. In the fall,
the foliage changes to a beautiful, burgundy-red color. It grows
best in rich, moist, well-drained soil. This is an excellent
groundcover with multi-season interest for sunny to part-sunny
'Tom Thumb' cranberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus)
-- This compact, low-growing, deciduous shrub grows 1 to 2 feet
tall and spreads 3 to 6 feet wide. Small, light pink flowers top
the dense, shiny green foliage in spring. Fall foliage is a
brilliant red. Grow in average, well-drained soil. This shrub is
an excellent choice for cascading over a wall, or adding
interest to a hilly area.
St. John's wort (Hypericum calycinum)
-- A stoloniferous sub-shrub that grows 12 inches tall and 24
inches or more wide. In summer, the leathery, rich-green leaves
are topped with large, five-petaled, yellow flowers that have
numerous, bushy stamens with reddish anthers. Grow in average,
well-drained soil. St. John's wort is an excellent groundcover
for naturalized plantings or stabilizing hillsides.
'Rose Carpet' Chinese indigo (Indigofera pseudotinctoria)
-- A low-growing shrubby plant that reaches a height of 8-12
inches, with a spread of 2-4 feet. Rose, pea-like flowers form
in summer and continue intermittently into early fall. Grow in
average, well-drained soil. This groundcover can be used on
slopes, open woodland areas, mixed borders or foundation
'Gold Strike' creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis)
-- This prostrate shrub grows 6-8 inches tall and slowly spreads
4-6 feet wide. The striking foliage of this juniper emerges
bright yellow in the spring, matures to gold over the summer and
takes on coral tones in the fall. Grow in average, well-drained
soil. 'Gold Strike' makes a dramatic statement growing in a
sunny rock garden.
Similar 'Mother Lode' Juniper
'Dark Dancer' white clover (Trifolium repens 'Atropurpureum')
-- This spectacular groundcover has purple-black, green-edged,
clover-shaped leaves that are topped with white flowers in the
summer. Grows 3-6 inches tall and 12-18 inches or more wide.
Grow in average, well-drained soil. Beautiful in and around
patios, along pathways, around ponds or in a rock garden.
Groundcover for shady areas
'Ice Dance' variegated sedge (Carex morrowii)
-- This evergreen sedge grows 12-15 inches tall and quickly
spreads to 18 inches or more wide. The stiff, grass-like foliage
is dark green in the center with a bright-white border. Grow in
average, moist, well-drained soil. The form and texture of 'Ice
Dance' adds a nice dimension to a shade garden.
'Crimson Fans' red-leafed mukdenia (Mukdenia rossi)
-- This unusual groundcover is a slow-growing, clumping
perennial that reaches 8-12 inches tall and 12 inches or more
wide. Its large leaves sport 5-9 sharply-cut lobes and emerge
dark green, marked with bronze, in the spring. Also in spring,
bell-shaped, white flowers top the foliage. As the season
progresses, the bronze coloration changes to a rich-burgundy
color. Grow in rich, moist, well-drained soil. The texture and
color makes a beautiful addition to a woodland garden.
Allegheny pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens)
-- Our native pachysandra is much more elegant than its Japanese
counterpart. A clump-forming, semi-evergreen perennial with
beautiful, pewter-green foliage, the plant grows 8-12 inches
tall and has a slow, spreading habit. In the spring, fragrant
bottlebrush-like white flowers are borne on 2- to 4-inch spikes.
When fall arrives, the foliage takes on a beautiful,
mottled-silver coloration. Grow in average, moist, well-drained
soil. This native is an excellent choice for a woodland garden
and pairs beautifully with ferns.
'Silver Shimmers' lungwort (Pulmonaria)
-- Who can resist the beautiful lungworts? This eye-catching
perennial has silver-plated leaves with speckled margins. In
spring, the pink buds open into platinum-blue flowers. 'Silver
Shimmers' grows 6-12 inches tall and spreads 1-3 feet wide. Grow
in rich, evenly moist, well-drained soil. The light foliage
makes a stunning addition to the dark recesses of a woodland
Mist' foamflower (Tiarella)
-- The foliage of this clumping perennial is a light green with
a cream frosting, topped with pink highlights. In spring, light
pink flower spikes are formed. The plant grows to 12 inches tall
with an equal spread. Grow in average, moist, well-drained soil.
Because of the beautiful foliage color, this is a nice
groundcover to illuminate a shady area.
'Illumination' creeping myrtle (Vinca minor)
-- A cultivar of periwinkle, its beautiful leaves set it apart
from its common parent; the leaves are bright gold and edged
with a border of irregular green. Like its parent, this
evergreen groundcover sports blue flowers in the spring. It
grows 6-12 inches tall with a continually spreading habit. Grow
in rich, moist, well-drained soil. It is a beautiful plant to
integrate into a shady woodland garden.
More groundcovers, less bark mulch
Judging from many landscapes, one would think
that "the big three" are the only groundcovers to be found.
There are myriad choices of interesting plants that will add
beauty and distinction to your garden. There will be some
maintenance, such as weeding and soil preparation, to get
groundcovers established. However, over the life of a garden,
live plants are more economical and attractive than bark.
Groundcover under Trees