Most people think of groundcovers as the “substitute” plants: ones that are only used where grass won’t create a lawn.
What a lost opportunity! When carefully chosen, groundcovers can bring a whole new dimension to the garden. Their flowers may complement those of larger plants and provide food and habitat for pollinators. Once established, they serve as living mulch, shading out weeds and helping to conserve soil moisture.
A groundcover is any low-growing plant that fills in. It doesn’t have to be a spreader (although many groundcovers are). Use groundcovers well enough, and you can dispense with mulch altogether!
Groundcovers for Sunny Spots
Catmint (Nepeta spp.) The ultimate team player, catmint can handle full sun to part shade. It’s an ideal companion for roses (hiding their unsightly lower branches) and other garden border plants. Its growth habit is spreading, but it doesn’t actually root those spreading branches, so it’s well-behaved. For groundcover use, consider the shorter ones, like ‘Blue Wonder,’ ‘Purrsian Blue,’ and ‘Limelight’.
Creeping sedums (Sedum spp.) The low-growing sedums are ideal in full sun, dry spots. You can use an single species or create a tapestry effect by combining them. Our faves include ‘Angelina‘, ‘Dragon’s Blood,’ ‘Lidakense,’ and ‘Aureum.’
Cranesbill geranium (Geranium spp.) The hardy geraniums do well in full sun (although not a hot, dry spot) to part shade. For groundcover use, we’re particularly fond of ‘Biokovo‘ and its pink-flowered cousin, ‘Karmina.’
Golden oregano (Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’) Terrific for full sun to part sun spots, golden oregano adds a splash of yellow green to the front of the border. It’s tough, spreads but does not overwhelm other plants, and can be used in cooking like other oreganos.
Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis): This native Indiana grass is super in a border or used in mass as a no-mow groundcover. While the rounded grass tops out at about 2′, the plumes get taller. Plant it in full sun to light shade; it can handle both drought and inundation. Now that’s versatility!
Groundcovers for Shady Lanes
Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans cvs.) Bugleweed takes full shade with aplomb and can handle part-sun too. Choose the cultivar for the color and texture of the foliage; the late-spring flowers are just a bonus.
Lily turf (Liriope spp.) The grass-like foliage of lily turf is a nice vertical accent in the shade garden and can even handle the dry shade at the base of trees. While it will grow in sun, too, it is less likely to spread rampantly in the shade. We like Liriope muscari, which we find better behaved than L. spicata.
Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) While this flowering groundcover technically can take full sun, we find it works best in part shade. Its bronzy leaves are a great complement to the true-blue flowers.
Spurge (Pachysandra spp.): Pachysandra can take nearly full shade. The shiny leaves of Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis) lend it a formal look, especially when used en masse. Be aware that it’s prone to scale and fungal blight. If you can find it, try our lovely, native Pachysandra procumbens instead.
The Hit List
Some extremely common ground covers should be taken out of circulation completely. While there are no bad plants, only misplaced ones, we find that these are always misplaced when used in residential Indiana gardens.
English ivy (Hedera helix): While an ivy-covered cottage sounds romantic, in reality that ivy is steadily pulling the mortar right out from between your bricks. In addition, English ivy has been classified as an invasive plant in Indiana. If you already have it, keep it in bounds with regular trimming and edging. If you don’t, don’t plant it.
Snow on the mountain/bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria): Whether you have the straight green version (bishop’s weed) or the white-and-green variegated one (snow on the mountain), this plant is aggressive. While not technically invasive, it will grow with abandon, eventually smothering the plants around it and then making forays elsewhere in the garden. It is, however, edible, so you can control an existing patch by adding it to your salads.
Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei): With its shiny green leaves on tough stems, this is an attractive, tough ground cover. In fact, it’s so tough it will eventually muscle out all plants in its vicinity, smother trees, and possibly consume small pets. It’s also on the Indiana invasive species list.