Covering Ground the Native Way

When many gardeners and homeowners think about a ground cover for the garden, they often want something that will spread fast and fill in space (at least most of the gardeners that I talk to do).  This saves time and money through less weeding, less mulching, and buying fewer plants.

Can you see the native plant in there?

Unfortunately, many of the same traits that might make a plant seem desirable as a ground cover, are shared by plants that are invasive. Growing quickly and taking over – are also what invasives do! The difference is that they aren’t just ‘garden thugs’  – and they won’t just be your problem to deal with in your own garden – but they can escape the confines of where you plant them – and invade nearby natural areas – wreaking havoc on the ecosystem.  So – when is a plant just a garden thug and maybe should be thought of as ‘gardener’s beware’?  Or when is it truly invasive and should not be used in the garden?

Unfortunately, the answer is not so black and white. Many people think that periwinkle, pachysandra, and English Ivy are invasive.  Others tell me that they can’t get pachysandra to grow.  Some folks tell me that Ajuga is safe.  Others say no way. Or maybe in Pennsylvania it is invasive, but not in New York they say.  We have many folks in our area with second homes, and so keeping straight what is invasive in one place but not the other can get confusing even for the well intentioned homeowner. And if the ‘experts’ can’t all agree on what is and isn’t invasive – I can understand why the home gardener gets confused.  So what is a gardener to do?  Luckily, there is a simple solution out there.  You guessed it, use native plants for groundcovers!

There is no need to chance it by planting vinca or pachysandra in your garden, no need to even worry about the debate raging on about whether they are truly invasive or just aggressive – when we have such beautiful native groundcovers that we can use in our gardens.  So, try some of these native groundcovers, and save yourself the headache!

If you have dry, sunny areas needing some ground cover, barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides), three-toothed cinquefoil (Sibbaldiopsis tridentata), moss phlox (Phlox subulata), lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), or bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) are all excellent options.

barren strawberry provides cheery color in the spring.

Three-toothed cinquefoil may be dainty in appearance, but it is a tough little groundcover!

If you have partial sun to shade, and regular/moist soils, I would try some foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia), alumroot (Heuchera americana), and labrador violets (Viola labradorica). And if you are okay with a little more height, I would add in some wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), golden ragwort (Packera aurea), woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata), and jacobs ladder (Polemonium reptans).

Golden ragwort is actually in the aster family – even though it blooms in the spring!

 

Foamflower is a great groundcover for sun to shade.

If you have a woodland garden or deep shade, try wild ginger (Asarum canadense), wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), or bunchberry (Cornus canadensis). For a little more height you could add in some woodland asters, white wood (Eurybia divaricata) or heart leaved (Symphyotrichum cordifolium).  The asters spread quite rapidly, creating beautiful drifts of fall color, and work best in informal landscapes.

Bunchberry is a great groundcover for all seasons with flowers, berries, and beautiful fall color.

Then, there are also the ferns and sedges which make great groundcovers.  There are too many to try to name them all here! For sunny areas, hayscented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) is a good choice, but it is very aggressive, so make sure you give it room to grow.  It works well for covering large areas that you don’t want to mow – maybe a slope or the back of your yard.  Blue wood sedge (Carex glaucodea) and seersucker sedge (Carex plantaginea) are two of my favorites for shady areas.  They just have such nice textures.  Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) is also great, and can be used as a lawn alternative.  Here is a photo I took of Pennsylvania sedge at Garden in the Woods in North Framingham, MA.

Pennsylvania sedge lawn

Those are just a few of my favorite native groundcovers.  Some are more aggressive at covering ground than others.  Some are just fine in a garden bed, and others should be used only where they have plenty of room and often work well at the woodland edge or back of a yard.  I put some Mayapple in a shade garden 2 years ago and it has already spread so much that I  am already wondering if I should try to relocate it – or leave it be – and relocate the other plants instead!  So as I’m sure many of you already know, be sure to add Mayapple to the ‘give it plenty of room to grow’ list! I’m sure I left out some other great ones.   What native groundcovers do you like where you garden?

© 2012 – 2014, Emily DeBolt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. Dan says

    I think it is worth distinguishing between the terms “invasive” and “exotic”. Asarum canadense is a garden thug for me, for example, it invades all the space it can, but is native to eastern North America.

    • says

      Dan
      great point. I use the term invasive based on the federal definition – meaning
      1) non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration and
      2) whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health. (from http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/whatis.shtml)

      So – a native plant would never be termed invasive. the term invasive already implies that the species is in fact exotic as well.

      A native species might be aggressive as all get out – but we would want to avoid using the word invasive – and save that term for species that truly fit the current definition. this just helps keep everyone on the same page I think. When people call native plants invasive, I think it can get some people confused as to just what an invasive species truly is.

      The definition was established in 1999 when the National Invasive Species Council was formed. So for those that have been working on invasives long before the definition became official, I know that many folks don’t use the words the way that I do. And they will use invasive to refer to plants that are both native and exotic. However, that is why I term plants such as canada anemone or hayscented fern as ‘aggressive’, and not ‘invasive’.
      Emily DeBolt recently posted..Comment on January’s Plant of the Month by The Secret Lives of Dioecious Plants

      • says

        Indeed a native species cannot be called invasive. Aggressive is the correct word. Moreover, as far as I know, a native plant is likely to become aggressive when the ecosystem has been disrupted. It is the ecosystem that needs to have its balance restored.
        A clear example of an aggressive native species is the white tail deer. We have created optimal ecological conditions for it by removing its predators and by creating numerous forest edges through habitat fragmentation.
        Beatriz Moisset recently posted..The Importance of Native Pollinators

    • Jacqueline says

      Neita I am in Central New York and have sedum ternatum on the eastern side of my house and it’s doing very well. I think you will be pleasantly surprised. A great alternative to the other exotic invasive groundcovers that choke out our native wildflowers. It’s not aggressive at all.

  2. says

    Emily,
    GREAT article! You’ve very eloquently laid out solutions in a digestible format. Thank you- I’m bookmarking this article to send out to my clients whenever the occasion seems appropriate.

    I Hope to visit Fiddleheads soon. I’d love some affordable infrastructure suggestions for my DIY hops field.

  3. says

    Bloodroot is a good groundcover if the site is well drained with dappled shade. it can be divided in the fall which will speed up its propagation, and it will seed itself. We are now mowing our pennsylvania sedge lawn, after it goes to seed. That took just three plugs and lots of dividing each fall for four years to cover about 600 square feet. green lush and native. great article Emily!

  4. Mary@Going Native says

    Thank you so much for giving me native ground covers. I have a new woodland garden I’m creating and was looking for some ideas. Thanks so much.
    Mary@Going Native recently posted..Down The Garden Path

  5. says

    Excellent post Emily and I’m happy that you highlight sedges because I think they are under-used and under-appreciated! Interesting 3-Toothed Cinquefoil idea – seems as though that would be an excellent choice for a rock garden or even a native plant roof garden…it’s tough to find natives that can cope with shallow soil and this plant could fit the bill!
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..NWF and ScottsMiracle-Gro? No!

  6. says

    I am attempting to fill an area in my front garden with Trilliums as a ground cover, but it’s very slow going because these are slow to grow and slow to multiply. But I just love these flowers! My White Trilliums are blooming right now, soon to be followed by the Yellow Trillium, then hopefully some reds.

    Part of the difficulty here is that our neighborhood is full of Bishopweed, a highly invasive plant. I’ve been pulling it for 10 years, but still it covers my garden every year. I shouldn’t complain I guess, because my neighbor says she’s been pulling it for 30 years.
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Why Focus on Ecosystem Gardening When There is So Much Wrong in the World?

      • says

        Oh no- I also struggle with Bishops Weed (goutweed) – I dug up an entire bed 8 yrs ago and sifted the soil to remove every bit of root, yet it still continues to pop up and I am quite sure I will be pulling it until the day I die :( I feel your pain, Carole! The variegated Bishops Weed is sold and touted in local nurseries as a fast-growing ground cover for shade, which makes me a little crazy when I see it. The variegated version, if allowed to go to seed, reseeds back to the green leaves of the species, which is even more aggressive. big sigh! Hopefully this post will encourage people to consider native ground covers as an alternative…
        Ellen Sousa recently posted..NWF and ScottsMiracle-Gro? No!

      • says

        And Golden Alexanders are actually the NATIVE host plant for Black Swallowtail butterflies, and very nice added bonus. We’ve been trained that they need fennel, dill, and Queen Anne’s Lace, but they were using Golden Alexanders long before we filled our landscapes with these non-native cousins.
        Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..A Love Letter to Wildlife

    • says

      is the bishopsweed you refer to a variagated leaf plant? I think I remember that from NY. Here bishopsweed is a pretty little native wildflower (Ptilimnium capillaceum) which is said to be the larval host for black swallowtail.
      Loret recently posted..Do Birds Mourn?

    • says

      umm – I’m not sure. I use the NY Flora Atlas for scientific names. and they use Packera. I’m sure there is the ‘authority’ on the matter out there somewhere – but I’m not sure who it would be… anyone know?

  7. says

    great article Emily,

    I have several native groundcovers that I encourage in my garden most of which people are desparately trying to kill with chemicals. Mine include frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora); plantain (Plantago virginica); cranesbill (Geranium carolinianum); and a variety of sedges. There is a nice mix with many appearing in spring and moving on in summer, replaced by similar natives.

    Often part of the problem with people choosing groundcover is they are looking for uniform monocultures which is counter to nature’s plan so they go with exotics which also is counter to nature’s plan….but what the magazines insist gardens should look like.

    I like your choices
    Loret recently posted..Do Birds Mourn?

  8. says

    Great post, Emily, and so perfectly timed with people getting their landscapes going this spring. I used a lot of these same plants in a talk this past weekend, and pointed out that we can’t have it all – as your first comment indicated by complaining that wild ginger was invasive. We say we want a groundcover that fills in quickly and chokes out weeds. OK. wild ginger and packera aurea, (golden ragwort, or golden groundsel) will do both of those things. But be reasonable! We can’t say to the plant, great, go nuts here and here, and now, stop, right over here by this path. If you plant a vigorous groundcover you just have to plan also for how it will be contained at your described border. A physical barrier, a mowed path, a taller plant that will naturally outcompete.

    • says

      Sue – great point about physical barriers. I often see groundcovers in confined areas – such as islands in the middle of a circular driveway or something like that. A situation like that makes them much easier to control – you can let them run wild there when they aren’t right next to another garden area that you don’t want them in.

  9. Chris Powers says

    What are your thoughts on groundcovers that most people think of as weeds such as wild strawberry and what we call creeping Charlie (with a purple flower, blooming now in April). Would you consider these natives? They certainly are aggressive, but I’m not sure if they are good or bad.

    • says

      Chris
      Wild strawberry is considered native to much of the US. So while some people might very well consider it a weed – I would say that is a great choice for a groundcover if you like it – and it is edible – so that is a bonus too. Ellen Sousa mentioned it in one of her posts about edible plants (you can read it here: http://nativeplantwildlifegarden.com/grow-your-own-edible-native-plants-for-new-england/)

      Now creeping charlie (Glechoma hederacea) I would consider a weed because it has been introduced and is not native to the US.

      But that is just the ‘technical’ answer I guess. As you say, they can both be aggressive – so whether or not you like them and are okay with having them in your garden is totally up to you I think!

  10. teknographica says

    I’m glad to have stumbled on this site and native plant resources. Landscape designers in northern New Jersey often have to deal with clients’ requests for instant effect with non-native species. Its encouraging to see that some with larger properties are increasingly replacing tidy lawns with native meadows.

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