Posted by Joyce Benson 3 Comments
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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.
EVERGREEN GROUND COVERS
, Bearberry: Zones 2-6; woody plant; small, bell-shaped pink or white flowers on red stems in spring; glossy leaves turn bronze to reddish in fall; bright red fruit in late summer into winter (for birds); to ~9″ tall; prefers sun to part sun and sandy soil; deer resistant; larval food source for butterflies and nectar source for hummingbirds, butterflies and native bees.
, Trailing Arbutus: Zones 3-9; woody plant; to 6″ tall; flowers are white with a reddish tinge and very fragrant; rather particular growing conditions of sandy soil with decomposed leaves in the shade of pines and oaks; deer resistant; larval food source for butterflies.
, Teaberry or Wintergreen: Zones 3-5; woody plant; shiny leaves turn reddish in fall & winter; pinkish/white flowers lead to red fruit with wintergreen fragrance; 6″ tall; part shade to deep shade in moist, organic soil with good drainage; rather finicky as it does not tolerate heat & humidity or drought; deer resistant.
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.
, Creeping Juniper: Zones 4-9; woody plant; turns purplish in winter; up to 12″ tall; sun and sandy/rocky soil; deer resistant; little blue cones in fall & winter are a food source for birds; larval food source for butterflies.
, Foamflower: Zones 4-9; white flowers in spring; evergreen in mild winters, often turning reddish bronze in autumn and winter; 3-10″ tall; part shade to full shade in organically rich, moist soil; deer resistant.
, Three-toothed Cinquefoil: Zones 2-8; small white flowers in spring; glossy leaves turn deep red in fall; 2-4″ tall; sun to part shade in dry soil; perfect for rock gardens; deer resistant; nectar source for butterflies.
,Lingonberry/Mountain Cranberry: Zones 2-6; woody plant; shiny leaves turn reddish in winter; small white or pinkish flowers in spring followed by dark red edible fruit in late summer; ~6″ tall; sun and moist, well-drained soil high in organic matter; deer resistant; important food source for birds and native bees; larval food source for many types of butterflies.
, Barren Strawberry (not edible): Zones 4-7; yellow flowers in spring; 4-6″ tall; prefers full sun to part shade (stays green better in part shade) and dry to moist, well-drained soil; grows well in rock gardens, woodland gardens and can replace grass in small areas; deer resistant.
FERNS (Deer resistant!)
, Northern Maidenhair Fern: Zones 3-8; black stems contrast with green foliage; prefers part shade to full shade in rich, moist soil; 12-20″ tall.
, Lady Fern: Zones 3-8; graceful & lacy texture; taller ground cover plant at 16-36″ tall; part sun to shade in rich, moist soil; easy to grow.
, Hay-scented Fern; Zones 3-8; lacy, light green fronds; 12-18″ tall; sun to part shade and moist to dry soil; more aggressive in sunny, drier conditions.
, Marginal Wood Fern: Zones 3-7; 18-30″ tall; sometimes evergreen; shade to part shade in moist to dry soil and found on rocky outcroppings in rich woodland soil; doesn’t spread so plant multiple ferns.
, Northern Oak Fern: Zones 2-5; the Cree Indians crushed the leaves to repel mosquitoes and to treat bites; 5-8″ tall; prefers shade in rich, moist to wet soil.
, Sensitive Fern: Zones 2-10; withers when frost hits; 12-36″ tall; sun (if consistently moist) to shade in moist to wet soils; less vigorous on drier sites; one of few species to grow under Black Walnut trees.
, Rockcap Fern: Zones 4-9; evergreen; 6-12″ tall; prefers shade and moist, well-drained soil; grows well in rich, open woods, on rocks & boulders and on tree roots.
, New York Fern: Zones 4-8; yellow-green fronds; 12-24″ tall; sun to part shade in moist soil; grows aggressively, especially in part shade.
FLOWERING PERENNIAL GROUND COVERS
, Green-and-Gold: Zones 5-9; semi-evergreen; yellow flowers in spring and sporadically through summer; ~3″ tall; moist soil in full sun to dry soil in shade; can withstand light foot traffic; deer resistant.
, Spotted Cranesbill: Zones 3-8; rose/pink flowers in mid spring; 14-18″ tall; prefers full sun (with p.m. shade) to shade (grows to 2′ tall) and moist to moderately dry soil; spreads quickly; deer resistant; provides an early nectar source for butterflies.
, Bluntleaf Waterleaf: Zones 4-7; wispy white to purple flowers in spring to summer; large maple-like leaves; ~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.
Crested Iris: Zones 3-8; light purple flowers in mid-late spring; 4-8″ tall; prefers part sun to shade and moist soils; looks nice in woodland garden, along stream banks, as a border or in masses. Iris verna
, Dwarf Violet Iris, works better for sunnier and drier conditions; irises are deer resistant and nectar food source for butterflies, hummingbirds and native bees
, Twinleaf: Zones 5-8; white flowers in spring; unique leaves; 12-18″ tall; prefers shade to part sun and moist, well-drained soil; grows well in a shaded area of a garden, even a rock garden; deer resistant.
, Canada Mayflower: Zones 3-8; tiny white flowers in spring; shiny leaves; small red fruit in late summer/fall attracts birds; 3-6″ tall; part shade to full shade in moist soil, and adapts to sandy/rocky soil; deer resistant.
, Virginia Bluebells: Zones 3-8; blue-lavendar flowers with a delicate fragrance in spring; 14-20″ tall; prefers part to full shade and moist soils; grows well under trees & shrubs and along stream banks; deer resistant.
, Allegheny Spurge: Zones 4-9; bottlebrush-like whitish flowers in spring; 6-10″ tall; prefers shade in moist, well-drained organic soil; great for erosion control on banks.
, Golden Ragwort (aka Senecio aureus): Zones 3-8; semi-evergreen; bright golden flowers in mid spring; 12-24″ tall; prefers full sun to shade and moist to wet soil; grows well in moist woodland edges, bog gardens and sunny wet meadows; butterfly larval food source; nectar food source for honey bees.
Phlox: Phlox subulata
, Moss-pink: Zones 2-8; various shades of pink in early spring; 2-6″ tall; prefers full sun and well-drained soil; grows well in rock gardens, over rock walls and on hillsides. Phlox divaricata
, Woodland or Blue Phlox, grows 12-14″ tall and prefers part sun to shade, moist soil and good air circulation. Phlox stolonifera
, Creeping Phlox, grows 6-10″ tall in part sun to shade and in moist soil. Its violet-blue, lavender or white flowers bloom in mid spring. Many kinds of Phlox provide a nectar source for butterflies, hummingbirds and honeybees.
Jacob’s Ladder: Zones 2-7; 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.
, Bloodroot: Zones 3-9; 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.
, Celandine Poppy: Zones 4-9; yellow flowers in spring; 12-18″ tall; prefers part to full shade and moist soil; grows well in almost any shady area (spreads readily); deer resistant.
Foamflower: Zones 4-9; white flowers in spring; evergreen in mild winters, often turning reddish bronze in autumn and winter; 3-10″ tall; part shade to full shade in organically rich, moist soil; deer resistant.
, Spiderwort: Zones 4-9; purple flowers from summer to fall; somewhat untamed appearance; 12-24″ tall; sun to shade; moist soils but can be drought tolerant; can spread aggressively, but is one of few plants that will grow under Black Walnut trees; nectar source for butterflies.
Viola: Viola adunca
, Hookspur violet: Zones 2-9; violet flowers in spring; 3-6″ tall; sun to part shade in moist to dry soil. Viola canadensis
, Canada Violet: Zones 3-8; white flowers w/yellow and purple-streaked centers, blooms in early spring; 10-16″ tall; part sun to shade in moist soil; one of few plants to grow under Black Walnut trees. Viola cucullata
, Marsh Blue Violet: Zones 4-9; flowers in shades of lavender in spring; 6″ tall; sun (if wet) to shade (moist). Viola pedata
, Bird’s Foot Violet: Zones 3-9; violet flowers in spring; 3-5″ tall; open, dry sites are best. Viola pubescens
, Yellow Violet: Zones 3-9; yellow flowers in early to mid spring; 8-16″ tall; part sun to shade in moist soil. All violets are larval food source for butterflies and nectar source for native bees.
To calculate the number of plants you’ll need to get your ground cover garden started, use the chart below (courtesy of the University of Illinois Extension). Remember, for fast spreading plants, you can reduce the initial number of plants.
The best places to find these great ground covers are: local nurseries/garden centers (not the big box stores, as they likely won’t have most of the plants mentioned), and online retailers that specialize in native plants.
Read Part II of this series which focuses on other native ground covers, such as grasses, woody plants and ground covers grown more for their foliage than anything else.
photo at top by Brian Parsons
sources: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Plant Native, S. Mrugal; Native Plants of the Northeast by Donald J. Leopold, PlantNative.org, Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery, Missouri Botanic Garden
Tag(s): Going Green, The Green Garden