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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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