Great Native Ground Covers, Part II

In Part I of this series, I highlighted just some of the varied ground covers, including evergreen plants, ferns and flowering perennials that are suitable for many different types of landscapes.  I also talked about why ground covers are better than lawns.  Here, I’ll focus on many more types of ground covers that are environmentally-friendly, perfect for slopes and any other area you don’t want to mow.  Plus, ground covers are far more interesting than any lawn out there!

GRASSES AND SEDGES (Deer resistant!  Plus, many grasses serve as larval or nectar food sources for butterflies!)

Bouteloua gracilis, Blue Gramma:  Zones 3-10; fine-textured light green-gray foliage, turning purple after frost; full sun in dry, poor soils, but tolerates a wide range of soils except poorly-drained wet soil; 8-24″ tall x 18-24″ wide; drought tolerant and moderately salt tolerant.
Buchloe or Bouteloua dactyloides, Buffalo Grass:  Zones 3-9 and native to prairies in the Midwest; fine-textured gray-green; full sun in well-drained clay loam soil (does best in areas that receive only 10-25″ annual rainfall; 2-5″ tall and forms a dense sod, making it perfect for no-mow lawns; drought tolerant.
CarexCarex pensylvanica, Pennsylvania Sedge:  Zones 4-8; very fine-textured, semi-evergreen; sun to part shade in moist well-drained or dry soil; 8-10″ tall; can be used as a light traffic lawn; drought tolerant.  Carex plantaginea, Broad-leaved Sedge has tan flowers before the somewhat crinkled evergreen leaves emerge.  Grows 8-10″ tall and does best in part or full shade in moist soil.  Carex platyphylla, Broad-leaved Silver Sedge grows best in average to dry soil in part or full shade. There are so many different carex, that’s there’s one for any site!
Eragrostis spectabilis, Purple Love Grass:  Zones 5-9; purplish inflorescence in late summer; light green foliage turns bronzy-red in fall; 8-18″ tall; full to part sun in sandy, dry soil; drought tolerant.
Hordeum jubatum, Foxtail Barley:  Zones 5-9; wispy, purplish flowers in spring-summer; fine-textured foliage; 1-2′ tall & wide; full sun and tolerates a wide range of soil, even salt; may outcompete other species; shouldn’t be grazed by cattle.
Schizachyrium scoparium, Little Bluestem:  Zones 4-9, dense, upright tufts of fine-textured, blue-green foliage that turns bronze-orange after frost; 1.5-3′ tall; full sun in a wide range of soil conditions (not wet) and even grows under Black Walnut trees; drought tolerant; seeds are important food source for birds.
Sporobolus heterolepis, Prairie Dropseed:  Zones 3-9; fine, fountain-like mounds (plant in mass since it doesn’t spread much); unique fragrance like coriander; 2-3′ tall (when delicate seedheads are in bloom); full sun; tolerates a wide range of soils; birds love the seeds.  Sporobolus airoides prefers wet, alkaline soil.


Asarum canadense, Canadian Wild Ginger:  Zones 3-7; deciduous kidney-shaped leaves 2-7″ across; 8″ tall; shade to part sun in well-drained soil; larval food source for pipevine swallowtail butterfly.
Heuchera americana, Coral Bells:  Zones 4-9; great foliage; 12-24″ tall; prefers part sun to part shade and rich, moist, well-drained soil; looks nice along borders or in beds; deer resistant; nectar source for butterflies and hummingbirds.
Hydrophyllum canadense, Bluntleaf Waterleaf:  Zones 4-7; large maple-like leaves; wispy white to purple flowers in spring to summer;  ~15″ tall; shade to part shade in rich, moist soil; best for woodland gardens and along streams; deer resistant; nectar food source for native bees.
Pachysandra procumbens, Allegheny Spurge:  Zones 4-9; attractive, layered-looking foliage; bottlebrush-like whitish flowers in spring; 6-10″ tall; prefers shade in moist, well-drained organic soil; great for erosion control on banks.
Podophyllum peltatum, Mayapple (shown at top):  Zones 3-8; interesting, large umbrella-like leaves; 8-16″ tall; prefers part to full shade and moist, rich soil; grows well in woodlands and other shady gardens (can spread vigorously, but looks stunning).
Polemonium reptans, Jacob’s Ladder:  Zones 2-7; delicate looking ladder-like leaves emerge in early spring; light blue flowers in mid to late spring; 10-16″ tall; part sun to part shade in moist soil; one of few plants to grow under Black Walnut trees; deer resistant; nectar source for butterflies, honey bees and native bees.
Sanguinaria canadensis, Bloodroot:  Zones 3-9; unique, deeply-scalloped, leaves that unfolds as the flower each one is wrapped around blooms; short-lived white flowers with yellow centers in early spring; 5-12″ tall; part sun to shade in moist, well-drained soil; perfect around the base of trees, even Black Walnuts; deer resistant; attracts hummingbirds, butterflies & songbirds.
Tiarella cordifolia, Foamflower:  Zones 4-9; heart-shaped lobed leaves that turn reddish bronze in autumn and are evergreen in mild winters; wispy white flowers in spring; 3-10″ tall; part shade to full shade in organically rich, moist soil; deer resistant.
Waldsteinia fragarioides, Barren Strawberry (not edible):  Zones 4-7; evergreen foliage that turns brownish in cold winters; yellow flowers in spring; 4-6″ tall; prefers full sun to part shade (stays green better in part shade) dry to moist, well-drained soil; grows well in rock gardens, woodland gardens; deer resistant.
Zizia aurea, Golden Alexanders:  Zones 3-9; attractive foliage all summer long; bright yellow flowers in late spring; 12-24″ tall; sun to light shade and moist soil; can spread aggressively in ideal conditions; larval food source for butterflies.


Opuntia humifusa/compressa, Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus:  Zones 4-9; padlike, prickly leaves; large satiny yellow flowers throughout late spring/early summer followed by dark red fruit; ~8″ tall and spreading; full sun and dry, sandy soil; drought tolerant; nice planted at the base of a south-facing wall, in rock gardens, on sandy slopes or as a border; pollen & nectar source for native bees.
Sedum ternatum, Whorled Stonecrop:  Zones 4-8; small, evergreen leaves; little, star-like white flowers in late spring; 2-6″ tall; prefers full sun to shade and rich, moist, well-drained soil; grows well in rock gardens and containers.


Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, Red Bearberry:  Zones 2-6; glossy & evergreen foliage that turns bronze to reddish in fall; bright red fruit in late summer into fall; grows to ~9″ tall; prefers sun to part sun and sandy soil.
Cornus canadensis, Bunchberry:  Zones 2-6; dogwood shaped leaves that turn red & purple in fall, as shown here; showy white bracts (not technically flowers) in late spring into summer, then small red fruit; ~6″ tall; prefers part shade and moist, well-drained soil.
Epigaea repens, Trailing Arbutus:  Zones 3-9; aromatic, evergreen foliage; early spring flowers are white with a reddish tinge and very fragrant; grows to 6″ tall; rather particular growing conditions, preferring  sandy soil in the shade of pines and oaks; larval host for Elf and Hoary Elfin butterflies.
Gaultheria procumbens, Teaberry or Wintergreen:  Zones 3-5; evergreen turning reddish in fall & winter; pinkish/white flowers lead to red fruit with wintergreen fragrance;  6″ tall; part sun to shade in moist, organic soil with good drainage; rather finicky as it does not tolerate heat & humidity or drought.
Juniperus horizontalis, Creeping Juniper:  Zones 4-9; easy to grown; long, trailing branches of dense, green/bluish green foliage turns purplish in winter and remains evergreen; tiny bluish cones into winter; ~12″ x 4-8′ wide; sun and sandy/rocky soil is best, but is quite adaptable to many conditions, except shade and poor drainage; salt tolerant.
Rhus aromatica ‘Gro Low’, Fragrant Sumac cultivar:  Zones 3-9; looks somewhat similar to its cousin Poison Ivy, but is NOT poisonous; beautiful orange and red fall color; red fruit may persist into winter; 1-2′ tall x 8′ wide; full sun to part shade in dry to medium soils; drought tolerant; larval food source for Banded Hairstreak & Red-banded Hairstreak butterflies.
Vaccinium angustifolium, Lowbush Blueberry:  Zones 2-5; glossy, delicate foliage; flowers produce small, sweet blueberries (enjoyed by both humans and birds) in summer; better pollination with multiple shrubs; excellent reddish fall color; 1-2′ tall x over 2′ wide; full sun to light shade; tolerates a wide range of soils, but does best in well-drained, acidic soil; beneficial to native bees.
Vaccinium vitis-idaea, Lingonberry/Mountain Cranberry:  Zones 2-6; small evergreen leaves turn reddish in winter; small white or pinkish flowers in spring are followed by dark red edible fruit in late summer; to 12″ tall; sunny conditions and moist, well-drained soil high in organic matter.

Sources:  Native Plants of the Northeast by Donald J. Leopold, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Plant Native, S. Mrugal;, PhotoBucket, Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery, Missouri Botanic Garden

Free Trees for Philly!

Philadelphia residents are very fortunate this spring to receive up to 2 FREE trees for their yards from TreePhilly, a partnership between Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Wells Fargo and the Fairmount Park Conservancy.

According to TreePhilly, “The purpose of the Yard Tree Program is to contribute to the tree canopy in the city; the layer of branches and leaves that capture falling rain, reduce flooding, clean our air, and shade our streets and homes.”  See my earlier post here about additional benefits of trees, including lowering heating and cooling bills!

There are six free tree giveaway events taking place between Saturday, April 5 and Sunday, April 13th.  This year, twelve different tree species are being offered, so there’s one that will work well in every yard!  The trees are large enough (4-6′ tall) to make an instant impact on your property, but small enough to easily transport them.  They’re even throwing in the mulch for your new trees for free!

TreePhilly will also provide planting and care demonstrations to teach you all you need to know!



A World Without Flowers?

We’re all looking forward to spring, a time of renewal and beauty, and the opportunity to get outside and improve our surroundings.  Appealing landscape design often involves the artful arrangement of flowering plants, but imagine for a moment that 90% of flowers are no longer able to bloom.  This could be our future reality with essential pollinators, such as bees, butterflies and bats, being decimated in alarming numbers.

So, why are pollinator numbers dropping so drastically?  Pesticides, lack of food (nectar & pollen) & water, loss of nesting habitats from development, disease and the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder.

It’s not only flowering plants that are affected by a lack of pollinators, but also our very own food supply.  According to the Pollinator Partnership, “one out of every three bites of food you eat is there because of pollinators.”  Pollinators are responsible for the quality, quantity and size of our food crops.  Even the economic value of pollinators is staggering, in the billions of dollars per year.

The good news is that we can all do some easy things to help pollinators (and ultimately ourselves):


Great Native Ground Covers, Part I

Our native ground cover plants are far superior to turf grass, which is not native, because they’re low maintenance.  They don’t need fertilizers or pesticides, and they don’t need to be mowed or watered once established (learn more from my previous posts here and here).  Plus, they help manage stormwater runoff, allowing rainwater to follow their deep roots down into the earth where it can replenish our depleted aquifers.  Ground covers also reduce erosion on slopes, conserve soil moisture, add nutrients to the soil, replenish organic matter and suppress weeds.

Ground covers provide critical food and habitat for birds, butterflies, valuable bees and other wildlife (Learn the must-haves for a great butterfly garden here).  Creating a  healthy garden also means a more balanced web of life, which typically results in less bug problems.

Of course there are aesthetic reasons to plant ground covers too.  They can define a space as borders or edging; they can fill in areas in front of taller, leggier perennials and shrubs; they add texture to the landscape; and they can create quite a design statement when planted in mass.

Ground covers come in all shapes and sizes, evergreen and deciduous, flowering and fruiting, and grow in a wide variety of site conditions.  Here, I’ve listed those best suited for the northeast and mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S., but many are suitable for the Midwest, Pacific Northwest and Southeast, as well.


What’s Blooming Now? Winter Gardens! Brave the Cold & Explore!

Visitors to public gardens value the colorful blooms in spring and summer, but there is still much to appreciate even during the cold, bleak winter months!  Outdoor winter gardens and arboretums feature bright fruit, colorful & textural tree bark, steadfast evergreen backdrops, fantastic form & structure, and even appealing art & sculpture.

Here’s a list of some great gardens to visit to brighten your day:


How to Prevent Tree-related Storm Damage

The major snow and ice storm that struck 22 states last week, was the 2nd worst (Super Storm Sandy in October 2012 was #1)  in the power company’s history here in southeastern Pennsylvania.  There were over 700,000 power outages, many caused by downed trees.

Some might argue to just get rid of trees, but trees provide SO many benefits that it wouldn’t make sense to go to that extreme.

The good news is that damage to our homes, cars and powerlines can be prevented by planting trees in the right spot to begin with, by properly pruning them and by identifying problem trees.


Got Mosquitoes? Act Now to Help Save Insect-Eating Bats!

Okay, so mosquitoes might be the last thing on your mind during these bitter winter months, but you know as soon as warmer weather arrives, and you want to get back out in the garden, they’ll be out there with you.  Here are some tips to reduce the future numbers of mosquitoes, stink bugs, and insects that cause damage to agricultural crops.

A great eco-friendly way to get rid of disagreeable insects is with bats.  So, bats might be on your list of creepy animals, but they provide an invaluable service to our environment.  In fact, according to Defenders of Wildlife, “A single little brown bat can eat up to 1000 mosquitoes in a single hour!”

Unfortunately, our bat populations are declining significantly due to habitat loss and white nose syndrome (WNS).  White nose syndrome has already killed millions of bats in North America and affects them when they are hibernating in the winter.

What can you do?  Around your home:


Solar-powered Lights Add Sparkle to the Night

Now that the days are filled earlier with darkness, it’s the perfect time to brighten up your outdoor spaces.  Solar-powered lights are ideal since they add nothing to your electric bill, and they come in such a wide assortment, there’s a light for practically every situation!

  • An arbor or trellis
  • Streetlamp style lights for your front yard, patio or pool areas
  • Motion-sensor lights
  • Safety Lighting for Steps
  • Spotlights for Trees, sculpture, architectural features
  • Accent/decorative pieces (lanterns, windchimes, garden stakes, house numbers, even color-changing objects)
  • Pathways/walkways
  • Porches and patios
  • Deck and fence railings & posts

By soaking up the sun during the day, many of these solar lights can light up all night!  You can find solar-powered lighting at your local hardware store and at many online retailers.

photo courtesy of Plow & Hearth

Keep Your Garden Growing with a Coldframe!

Your garden may be winding down for the winter, but it doesn’t have to!  A simple cold frame can provide a perfect micro-climate for growing vegetables to extend the garden season.  A cold frame, like the one pictured above, is essentially a bottomless box that sits right on the ground.  It should face south so the slanted glass door on the top will allow sunlight to heat things up.

You can actually start sowing seeds of your cold frame crops, such as scallions, chard, parsley, escarole, endive, dandelion, radicchio and carrots as early as mid-summer.  If inspiration to start a winter garden hasn’t come until now, try planting arugula, mâche (a salad green), spinach, claytonia, radishes, and lettuce, and in just a few weeks, you’ll have a fresh harvest!


Tips for Fall Lawn and Garden Care

Autumn is not only a beautiful time of year, but it’s a perfect time for lawn and garden maintenance.  I am not a fan of lawns, as they require too much time, energy, money and maintenance to keep green and are actually detrimental to the environment (Read my earlier post here).  However, most people do have lawns, and learning how to care for them is essential to the well-being of the environment, as well as your children and pets.

Conventional, chemical-laden fertilizers and pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides and rodenticides) are down right dangerous.  Here is a list of tips for organic lawn and garden care that is safe for you and the earth:


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