Choosing Groundcover Plants

Confused about which groundcover plants will work best in your landscape? Here are some things to consider before making your choice.

Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) is a US native plant.

A few years ago, I discovered a creative landscaping blog written by landscape architect and gardener Thomas Rainer. In his post, “The End of Groundcovers,” Rainer tells us why we should stop using some of these problematic plants in our landscapes:

The U.S. Forest Service now estimates that invasive plants like groundcovers strangle 3.6 million acres of national forests, an area the size of Connecticut. And that’s just national forests. Invasive plants are thought to cover 133 million acres of federal, state, or private land, an area the size of California and New York combined.

Thomas Rainer, “The End of Groundcovers”

The worst offenders—the unholy three—are Hedera helix (English ivy), Vinca minor (periwinkle, myrtle), and my personal nostalgic favorite, pachysandra.

These plants can escape from the garden and spread to the woodlands and streams, destroying native plant life and creating what Rainer refers to as an “ecological dead zone.”

My Groundcover Dilemma

My own front yard gets terrible, drying north winds. It’s in the shade, with bad soil and tough tree roots. A herd of white-tailed deer graze there at night.

Therefore, I just don’t have a lot of choices for glossy greenery. I like my vinca, thanks. It’s pretty. It works.

So does the patch of pachysandra that’s keeping a steep slope from sliding into our garage. Hey, I transplanted it from someone else’s house when they redesigned their space. It’s recycled! Doesn’t that give me a free pass?

Well, no. English ivy and vinca are listed as “do not plant and remove if found in natural areas” invasive plants in some areas of New York, where I live. Pachysandra does not currently appear on this list, but doesn’t it seem prudent to start looking for a native alternative?

One of my new go-to groundcover plants is the deer-resistant, non-invasive, native fragrant sumac Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’ (native to the USA). This past summer, I proposed it in a design for a friend who lives nearby. We planted it, and it’s a real knock-out.

Benefits of Planting Groundcover Plants

Given the issues surrounding some invasive species of groundcover plants, why do we want to consider using them in our landscape in the first place?

Groundcover plants massed together act as a weed-suppressing mulch.

Groundcover can take the place of lawn, especially useful in hard-to-mow areas or awkward areas where it’s tough to maintain lawn turf (grass), like around the base of a mailbox, where something like ajuga works especially well.

I’m a huge fan of the idea of a “thyme lawn,” which is an area planted with creeping thyme or even a mix of different kinds of thyme plants. Light foot traffic is no problem, and the plants will bloom in the spring and summer, depending on the species and your location.

In the same vein, groundcover plants also shade the soil to keep it moist and reduce the watering needs of other plants.

More Favorite Groundcover Choices

Groundcovers can be low, creeping plants or you can use truly use anything that spreads around to fill in gaps.

The native creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) is a fan favorite, offering pink, white, or purple blooms in spring and moss-like dense foliage for the rest of the season.

If you’re looking for a fast grower, check out sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum).

Rozanne geranium is a long-season blooming groundcover that offers purple-blue blooms from spring through fall.

Even large shrubs can work as groundcover, such as the dreamy white Annabelle hydrangea.

And the Anabelle is a cultivar of a native hydrangea, so this is a win-win plant to use in your landscape. Many other varieties and cultivars of hydrangea do not have this habit, so make sure to research before buying.

Long-season larger perennials that knit together nicely include nepeta, daylilies, astilbe, and more.

Planting Groundcover Plants

Figure out the number of square feet you would like to cover with groundcover plants. Then check out the “spread” listed on the plant tag or online description. This refers to how large the plants will become (width) when mature. From there you can figure out how many plants you’ll need.

Having experimented with many different methods, I have found that spreading shredded bark mulch over the total planting area first before planting works best.

The you can create a grid with tent stakes and twine to establish the correct spacing.

After that all you need is to pull dig holes and plant, being careful to pull back the mulch a bit first, and then replacing it when you are finished. This way, you don’t have to go back into the bed trying to mulch around each plant when you are finished, which is time consuming and risks your stepping on the new plants.

You will have to water as needed until the plants are established. Planting in the fall is a great idea, because you won’t have to water over the winter when the plants go dormant.

If you have a large area to cover, consider establishing one section at a time to make it more manageable. You could simply spread mulch in the areas you’ve yet to plant to make a neat, weed-free space while you wait.

This post appeared previously on The Simple Landscape blog.


Elizabeth Douglas is the founder of Pocket Meadows. She holds a degree in landscape architectural studies and is a member of the NY State Nursery & Landscape Association.

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