Classic Ground Covers
OSU Extension Master Gardener Intern
Ground covers can be defined as any vegetation that blankets the ground, from moss to pine forest. For our purposes, it means low growing plants in close proximity, used to cover areas that normally would be planted in grass. Low growing is a relative term which might be anything up to 12 inches high. Many ground covers could exceed this height, yet still look appropriate on a rolling terrain.
In addition to height, ground covers vary in color, maintenance level, habit and blooms. When choosing a ground cover, you need to consider one that is best suited for the site and conditions. Ground covers can be the perfect solution to a challenging situation in your yard, such as sloping ground, dry rocky terrain or areas where grass doesn’t grow well. They can be used as traffic barriers or visual guides around plantings. Ground covers can help keep the ground from freezing and thawing which can crack and dry roots, eventually killing the plant. All ground covers can benefit from an annual fertilizer, but not much maintenance is necessary after that.
Some of the most popular types of groundcovers are as follows:
• Lantana (L. camara) has a trailing habit with aromatic flower clusters that blooms from April through frost. These ground covers are great for flowerbeds, containers and used on a sloping bank for erosion control. Lantana does best in full sun and grows 9 to 12 inches tall. It is not hardy in Zone 5, but can add a beautiful display during the summer.
• Cinnamon ferns (Osmunda cinnamomea) are well suited at the edge of ponds and streams, or in moist borders. Used as an accent, clumps of ferns can add a lush tropical look with a dramatic effect to shady moist areas. Their fronds can grow 2 to 4 feet long and fade to yellow in fall.
• Vinca (V. minor) also known as Periwinkle or myrtle is one of the best evergreen ground covers. It displays a lush green carpet of up to 6 inches in height with lavender blue flowers in early spring.
• Creeping Lily Turf (Lirope spicata) forms mounds of grassy foliage and grows 6 to 12 inches tall. In the summer the flower stalks bear light blue flowers, followed by black berries. Lirope spreads rapidly and is well suited for beds and borders.
• Sedum (S.album) or Stonecrop is one of the hardiest and lowest maintenance groundcovers available. Their low growing succulent leaves grow 2 to 3 inches tall. They have thick succulent green leaves and bear white flowers in late summer.
• Artemisia (A. schmidtiana) makes tufted carpets of fragrant silvery gray foliage that dies back in winter. The variety ‘Silver Mound’ is a dome shaped plant approximately 12 inches in height. Tiny yellow flowers appear in late summer or early fall. These plants are drought resistant and require very little care.
• Pachysandra (P.terminalis) or Japanese Spurge is one of the best and most widely grown ground covers. It has clustered; saw-toothed leaves which grow 1 to 3 inches long. White flowers appear above the leaves in spring. Pachysandra will grow just about anywhere, but looks best in beds and borders.
• Phlox (P. subulata) also known as Creeping Phlox grows well in rock gardens and borders. They come in many shades including white, blue, lavender, pink and magenta. This species grows 4 to 6 inches tall, and can spread 2 feet or more. They prefer a sunny site.
• Hedera (H. helix) or English Ivy is a vine that forms a green carpet and often climbs a wall or a tree when planted at the base. The leaves generally grow 2 to 4 inches long and can climb to great heights. It can thrive in full sun or some shade.
• Dianthus (D. deltoides) Maiden pinks have evergreen foliage that grows 2 to 4 inches high. Slender flower stalks grow to a height of 8 inches in late spring and are topped by a pink, white or red flower. Dianthus grows well in full sun.
Ground covers, when maintained properly, provide dense soil cover, retard weed growth and can help resist soil erosion. They range in height from 1 inch to 4 feet. They can be woody or herbaceous, clumping or running, evergreen or deciduous. They come in a variety of colors and textures as well. Sometimes they are the answer to problem areas, while others can define a space or transition between the lawn and taller plants. Ground covers add interest and bring unity to the garden. Try some today.