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Gardening 101: Ground Covers for Every Landscape

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Gardening 101: Ground Covers for Every Landscape

May 31, 2022

Maybe you are tired of mowing. Maybe you’re tired of trying to grow grass in a spot where grass just won’t grow. Maybe you want something more drought-tolerant. Or maybe you just want a change. Whatever your reason, there’s a ground cover that will fit your needs.

What is a ground cover? Technically grass is a ground cover, but on a very basic level, it is any plant you use in place of grass. Another aspect of ground covers? They cover densely and quickly. A good ground cover should blanket the designated area quickly without being invasive. It’s a fine line. Some ground covers can be easily managed if they get out of hand, such as Cranesbill, which pulls out very easily if it starts creeping into areas where it’s unwanted. Compare it to the Chameleon plant, Houttuynia cordata; planted in a wrong spot or ignored for too long, it could end up turning into a years’ long eradication.

Last, ground covers don’t have to be low to the ground. They can have some height. Sweet woodruff can grow up to 15 inches high if it’s really happy. However on average, it’s normally four to six inches high.

How to give your ground cover the best chance to cover quickly? It depends on the plant. After meeting its needs for light and moisture, it comes down to how the plant spreads.  For some, you will need to buy many, many plants. An example is Creeping juniper, which tends to grow more on the slower side. Don’t worry, it makes up for its slow growth in other ways. Others, you can grow your own. For instance, you can bury the runners of Vinca minor to make new plants! You can also cut off the runners, dip them in rooting hormone, and stick them in damp potting soil. They are ready to be planted when you can tug on them and feel resistance.

There are hundreds if not thousands of ground covers. What follows is a short list to get you started.

If you have full sun…

Above: A drift of pink Sedum spectabile ‘Meteor’ in a dry garden in Australia. Photograph via Lambley Nursery, from A Garden You Water Four Times a Year.

You can grow grass fairly easily. However if you want to leave the mower in the garage and have more time for anything but yard work, here are a few suggestions.

The above-mentioned creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) thrives in well drained soil in USDA Zones 3 to 10. It can tolerate some shade and does well in poor soil and dry conditions. It’s perfect for areas near stone walls because it tolerates heat well. It’s also evergreen for year-round interest.

Creeping sedums and stonecrops love full sun and are drought -tolerant. Some have flowers, others are grown for their leaves. The only thing they don’t like is too much water. There are hundreds of varieties and have a hardiness range from USDA Zones 3 to 8.

Creeping thyme (Thymus praecox) has pretty pink, purple, or white flowers, smells great, and you can walk on it! It forms a nice dense mat. It grows on the slow side, but it’s perfect for spaces in between a bluestone garden path. It is evergreen, grows in USDA Zones 4 to 9 and is not very picky when it comes to soil types.

Snow-in-Summer (Cerastium tomentosum) grows fast and loves sun and well drained soil in USDA Zones 3 to 7. It has pretty white flowers that resemble…snow…in summer!

If you have shade or part shade…

Photograph by Randi Hausken via Flickr, from Gardening \10\1: Sweet Woodruff.
Above: Photograph by Randi Hausken via Flickr, from Gardening 101: Sweet Woodruff.

Grass doesn’t like shade. Or maybe you don’t like grass. Here are some unusual options for your shady spots.

Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is a sweet little plant with whorls of leaves and tiny white flowers and smells of fresh hay when crushed. It loves moist shade with rich soil. Its flowers are used to make German May wine. It’s hardy to zones 4 to 8.

Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is a creeping dogwood. Its leaves and flowers make it clear that it is in the same family as its taller tree cousins. If you have a moist, shady spot with acidic soil, this could be a perfect fit. What it doesn’t like is to be too warm or to dry out. It grows as far north as zone 2, (Alaska!) and as far south as zone 7.

Cranesbill (Geranium, not the hanging basket kind, those are actually Pelargoniums), is a semi-evergreen ground cover whose height can range from four inches up to two feet. It spreads fast, but the roots are shallow and it can be easily pulled from places you don’t want it. But it has a range of flower colors from pink, white, purple and blue, you may not be able to bring yourself to tear it out. It can be happy in full shade and in full sun with enough moisture. It grows in zones 4 to 9.

Deadnettle (Lanium) has nothing in common with stinging nettle except the leaves are similar. It comes in green and variegated varieties, native and cultivars, and white, purple, or yellow flowers. It spreads quickly but can be easily removed. It’s low growing, likes moist shade and grows in zones 4 to 8.

If you have slopes and hillsides…

Above: Vinca minor. Photograph courtesy of Sunset, from Landscape Ideas: 10 Problem-Solving Plants.

These areas are challenging. They are hard to mow and even dangerous to do so. They are prone to erosion. One solution is to plant the area with plants that can stabilize the slope and are low maintenance. Some of the before mentioned plants fit well into this situation. Creeping juniper and deadnettle can hold a hillside and require little to no maintenance.

Common Periwinkle (Vinca minor), requires little maintenance and can overtake an area quickly. It grows in zones 4 to 8 in part shade to full shade. It can get out of hand and be hard to remove. Consider where you plant it carefully.

Rockspray Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis) is for zones 5 to 7 with well drained soil and full sun. Once established (water young plants for the first year), cotoneaster spreads fast, is drought tolerant, and evergreen in zone 7. It can stabilize a hillside fast because of layering, which is when a branch touches the soil, roots grow and form a new plant!. It can become invasive, so be careful where you plant it.

If you want low maintenance…

Creeping thyme growing beneath white pelargoniums under a cloche. Photograph by Mimi Giboin for Gardenista, from Landscape on a Budget: The \$\250 Instant Rose Garden.
Above: Creeping thyme growing beneath white pelargoniums under a cloche. Photograph by Mimi Giboin for Gardenista, from Landscape on a Budget: The $250 Instant Rose Garden.

One of the most common reasons for having a ground cover is that you don’t have to mow. The above mentioned plants, vinca minor, lanium, creeping juniper, cotoneaster, and creeping thyme all fit. A few more to mention are:

Creeping raspberry (Rubus calycinoides) produces a fruit that looks like a raspberry, but it’s better known for its crinkly, green or gold fan shaped leaves and the dense mat it forms. It’s evergreen with the leaves taking on a reddish color in the winter. It likes full sun but can tolerate part shade. It grows in zones 7 to 9. It’s a more polite ground cover that can be trimmed back with little effort.

Chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata) is low maintenance and a very pretty plant with purple, white and green heart shaped leaves. However it is highly aggressive. It takes over fast and is very difficult, if not impossible, to remove. It tolerates full shade to full sun. It grows in zones 5 to 8.

If you want deer-resistant…

A blanket of Cranesbill geraniums sit under an oak-leaf hydrangea. Photograph by Justine Hand, from Boston Beauty: A Glorious Garden for a Grand Old House on a Hill.
Above: A blanket of Cranesbill geraniums sit under an oak-leaf hydrangea. Photograph by Justine Hand, from Boston Beauty: A Glorious Garden for a Grand Old House on a Hill.

The perennial question of whether deer eat this plant or that plant applies to ground covers. No plant is truly deer proof. Some are more resistant than others and environmental pressures can push deer to eat plants they don’t like. The following are generally considered deer-resistant.

Vinca minor, lanium, chameleon plant, cotoneaster, geranium, sweet woodruff, bunchberry and creeping thyme all are deer-resistant. Here are a few more uncommon ones.

Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), also known as bear berry, has a wide range from zone 2 to 10, well behaved, native ground cover. Wildlife enjoy the small red berries.

Allegheny spurge (P. procumbens), our native pachysandra, is less aggressive than its Japanese cousin and is hardy in zones 5 to 8. However pachysandra can be affected by various fungal infections that can spread to boxwoods and other ornamental plants.

Deutzia (crenata Nikko) is a dwarf version of the shrub and will bloom with thick masses of small star shaped flowers. It grows in zones 5 to 8 and in addition to be deer resistant, it’s also low maintenance.

Ground covers aren’t just for places where grass doesn’t grow. They can add color, texture, and give you more time to enjoy your garden.

For more on ground covers, see:

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