Groundcovers

Photos

See our photo section for examples of native plants serving as ground covers.

Spacing

Groundcovers are used to suppress weeds and to fill in the bottom layer of landscapes with a minimum of work. (Of course, in nature, these are simply the plants that constitute the ground layer, an essential part of the ecosystem.) There is no doubt that the notorious English Ivy, Vinca, Yellow Archangel, and Japanese Pachysandra cover the ground thoroughly and have the added appeal of being easy and inexpensive to install - small numbers of plants will quickly fill in a large area. Unfortunately, they are also invasive introduced plants that escape into our woods and damage the ecosystem.

 

If you are seeking a native plant that is equally fast-spreading and inexpensive (often free), you could use Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia Creeper). It will climb right up your house and shrubs, though, so beware. Viola sororia (Common Blue Violet)  spreads prolifically by self-seeding and may be another source of free but aggressive groundcover.

Virgina Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

Most other native groundcovers spread more slowly. To achieve a quick cover, space them closely, as suggested in the table below. You can save money by ordering small plugs online.

From an ecosystem perspective, it is best to think of these plants more as the ground layer, where numerous insects shelter, than as just a "groundcover." Aesthetically, it is usually more pleasing to have some variety rather than a monoculture of a very low-growing plant. For example, you can dot some Seersucker Sedge within a mass of Woodland Phlox, or some evergreen ferns within an expanse of Green-and-Gold to get some height variety.

Sun

In a sunny area, it is very difficult for any low-growing plant to compete with grass that seeds itself in, so unless you want to spend your time weeding, there is a lot to be said for using taller shrubs, trees, or native ornamental grasses, or possibly some aggressively spreading perennials such as one of the Mountain Mint species. If you don’t mind more weeding, low-growing choices for full sun include Phlox subulata, Salvia lyrata, Sisyrinchium angustifolium, Packera aurea and some of the Carex species (where there is enough moisture). Antennaria plantaginifolia (Plantain Pussytoes) grows flat on the ground in full sun on poor soil.

Deer

In places with high deer pressure, grasses, sedges and ferns are the safest bet. Of the ferns, Matteuccia struthiopteris (Ostrich Fern) and Dennstaedtia punctilobula (Hay-Scented Fern) spread the fastest but are deciduous. Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas Fern) and the Dryopteris species are evergreen but clumping, not spreading.

Plant notes

Packera_aurea.jpg

Packera aurea and Carex amphibola

The chart at the bottom of this page lists plants that are particularly suitable for professional landscapers: tough, reliable, widely available, and practical to install even in larger areas. There are lots of other less commonly used alternatives, though, which we describe first.

  • Carex species not included in the chart below -

    • Carex swanii  (Swan Sedge) - full sun to part shade, consistently moist.

    • Carex molesta (Troublesome Sedge) - can be grown from seed. Sun to part sun, moist or wet.

    • Carex rosea (Rosy Sedge) - can be grown from seed. Part sun - shade, dry or wet.

    • Carex tonsa (Shaved Sedge) - full sun to part sun, dry or medium.

  • Grasses

    • Chasmanthium latifolium (Northern Sea Oats) - Tough and versatile, but best used where it can be controlled in a confined space such as a parking lot median.

    • Danthonia spicata (Poverty Oat Grass) - tricky to establish, needs acidic soil.

    • Juncus tenuis (Path Rush) - Able to tolerate much more soil compaction and disturbance from walking or even driving than most sedges. Given its more erect habitat it can be mowed periodically with no ill effect once established. Can tolerate a wide range of moisture and sunlight requirements making it the most robust option but less showy than many sedges. Semi-evergreen.

  • Erigeron pulchellus (Robin’s Plantain) - spreads by rhizomes; creeps and covers.

  • Eurybia divaricata (White Wood Aster) - self seeds and gradually covers the woodland floor.

  • Iris cristata (Dwarf Crested Iris) - spreads politely to form a dense colony.

  • Maianthemum canadense (Canada Mayflower) - while a rapid grower, it is shallow-rooted and easily plucked up, and will grow around other shade plants.

  • Meehania cordata (Meehen's Mint) - spreads slowly by runners in shade. Blue flowers in late spring.

  • Mitchella repens (Partridgeberry) - won’t suppress weeds (in fact weeds and leaves will suppress it) but it is one of very few plants that thrive right at the base of large trees, and it is very cute!

  • Solidago flexicaulis (Zig-zag Goldenrod) - sun or part shade.

Evergreen groundcovers

Carex amphibola (Creek Sedge)

Carex pensylvanica (Oak Sedge)

Carex flaccosperma/glaucodea (Blue Wood Sedge)

Carex laxiculmis (Creeping Sedge)

Carex plantaginea (Seersucker Sedge)

Carex stricta (Tussock Sedge)

Geranium maculatum (Wild Geranium)

Phlox subulata (Creeping Phlox)

Semi-evergreen

Chrysogonum virginianum  

      (Green-and-Gold) 

Heuchera americana (Coral Bells) 

Heuchera villosa (Hairy Alumroot)

Packera aurea (Golden Ragwort)  

Phlox divaricata (Woodland Phlox) 

Tiarella cordifolia (Foamflower) 

Phlox divaricata

Tough, reliable plants (when sited correctly) that are suitable for residential and commercial landscaping

Scientific name
Common name
Available
Height (feet)
Width (feet)
Light
Water
Deer resistant
Notes
Native status

Asarum canadensis

Wild Ginger
Native and some other nurseries
0.5-1
1-1.5
Part sun - Shade
Moist
Yes
Space at 10 inches. Spreads slowly by rhizomes. Tolerates heavy shade, wet. Erosion control.
NOVA

Carex amphibola

Creek Sedge
Mail order
1
1
Full sun - shade
Dry - Moist
Yes
Space at 12 inches. Evergreen.
NOVA

Carex appalachica

Appalachian Sedge
Native and some other nurseries
1
0.75
Full sun - part shade
Moist
Yes
Space at 10 inches
NOVA

Carex blanda

Common Wood Sedge
Mail order
0.5
Part sun - shade
Dry-Moist
Yes
Space at 2 feet. Excellent substitute for Liriope. Spreads by rhizomes. Evergreen.
NOVA

Carex flaccosperma

Blue Wood Sedge
Mail order
0.5-1
0.5-1
Part sun - Shade
Yes
Space at 12 inches. Salt tolerant. Drought tolerant once established. Erosion control on banks. Semi-evergreen.
NOVA

Carex laxiculmus

Creeping Sedge
Mail order
0.5-1
0.5-1
Part sun - Shade
Moist-Wet
Yes
Space at 12 inches. Tolerates wet. Good substitute for Liriope. Evergreen
NOVA

Carex pensylvanica

Oak Sedge
Common
0.5-1
0.5-1
Part sun - Shade
Dry-Moist
Yes
Space at 10 inches (1-2 inches for best erosion control). Can be mowed. Great in dry shade. Spreads by rhizomes. Semi-evergreen.
NOVA

Carex plantaginea

Seersucker Sedge
Mail order
0.75
0.75-1
Part sun - Shade
Moist
Yes
Space at 10 inches.
NOVA

Carex stricta

Tussock Sedge
Mail order
1-3
1-2
Full sun - Part sun
Moist-Wet
Yes
Space at 12 inches. Spreads by rhizomes.
NOVA

Chrysogonum virginianum

Green-and- Gold
common
0.5-1
0.75- 1.5
Part sun - Shade
Dry-Moist
Yes
Spread sideways by rhizomes. Yellow flowers, long spring bloom time. Can be quickly propagated: lift at the edge, cut behind the node, leave one or two leaves and stick in dirt.
NOVA

Geranium maculatum

Wild Geranium
Common
1-2
1-2
Full sun - Part sun
Dry-Moist
Space at 12 inches. Pink flowers in late spring - summer. Spreads by rhizomes, good for massing beneath taller shrubs and trees. Semi-evergreen.
NOVA

Heuchera americana

Alumroot, Coral Bells
Common
1-2
1-2
Full sun - Part sun
Dry-Moist
Space at 12 inches. Tolerates drought if it gets some shade. Semi-evergreen.
NOVA

Heuchera villosa

Hairy Alumroot
Common
1-1.5
1.5-2
Part Sun - Shade
Dry-moist
Yes
Space at 18-24 inches. White summer flowers.
Virginia

Packera aurea

Golden Ragwort
Common
0.5-2.5
0.5-1.5
Sun or shade
Dry-Moist
Yes
Space at 12 inches. Basal foliage provides the ground cover. Yellow flowers in spring. Spreads sideways and by seed. Tolerates wet. Semi-evergreen.
NOVA

Phox divaricata

Woodland Phlox
Common
1-1.5
0.75- 1.5
Part Sun - Shade
Dry-Moist
null
Space at 10 inches. Blue spring flowers. Evergreen.
NOVA

Phlox stolonifera

Creeping Phlox
Common
0.5
0.75- 1.5
Part Sun - Shade
Moist
Yes
Space at 10 inches. Mat-forming, spreads indefinitely. Drought tolerant. Provide good air circulation to avoid powdery mildew. Be careful not to rake it up. Semi-evergreen.
Virginia

Phlox subulata

Creeping Phlox
Common
0.5
1-2
Full sun - Part sun
Dry
Yes
Tolerates drought. Erosion control. Evergreen.
NOVA

Rhus aromatica 'Low-Gro'

Fragrant Sumac 'Low-Gro'
Common
2
8
Full Sun - Part Shade
Dry
Yes
Suckering, spreads quickly. Can handle very hot and poor soils. The Gro-Low cultivar spreads sideways up to eight feet and can server as ground cover. Erosion control. Salt tolerant.
NOVA

Sedum ternatum

Woodland Stonecrop
Native and some other nurseries
0.5
1-1.5
Part sun - Shade
Dry - moist
Space at 10 inches. Lovely fall color. Dry shade. Containers
NOVA

Tiarella cordifolia

Foamflower
Common
8"
1-2
Part sun
Moist
Space at 12 inches. White spring flowers. Needs a little moisture. The straight species and some of the cultivars spread similarly to English Ivy. Containers. Be aware there are many cultivars and hybrids. Grows well around tree roots. Semi-evergreen.
NOVA