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Extension > Garden > SULIS > Maintenance > Sustainable Herbaceous Plant Maintenance > Ground Covers

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Ground Covers

Ground Covers A ground cover is a plant that is low-growing and forms a dense mat over the surface of the soil. Ground covers may be herbaceous or woody and some are evergreen even in the Midwest. Ground covers may be used as "living mulch", for erosion control, to manage weeds, or in areas of a site that are hard to maintain. Turfgrass is one of the most popular ground covers, but sometimes it is hard to grow and maintain especially on steep slopes or among protruding roots of shade trees (see Planting under Existing Trees in this website). Fortunately, there are many ground covers from which to choose. Some feature attractive flowers and others are chosen for their texture and foliage color. Other than turf, most will not tolerate foot traffic and thus are best planted in areas with infrequent traffic.

In the landscape, ground covers provide transition between woody plants and turf, they are good as facer plants in front of woody shrubs, and they soften edges of hardscape such as sidewalks and driveways. While many ground covers are low maintenance, they should not be considered "no maintenance". Spread, height, foliage texture and color, soil conditions, light and moisture must all be considerations when selecting a ground cover. For ground covers suited to shady conditions, see the Colorado State University Extension publication, Ground Covers for Shady Areas.

Because a large number of plants are usually required when establishing a ground cover, the initial cost of installation may be fairly high. Therefore, proper soil preparation, plant selection, watering and fertilization are especially important during the first few growing seasons. Plants should also be spaced properly when initially planted to take advantage of the spreading form.

Both native and non-native plant ground covers are available for a variety of site conditions. The University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension Service has published two excellent references on ground covers as part of their NebGuide online publication. Selecting a Ground Cover steps readers through considerations when choosing a ground cover. It includes a list of 46 ground covers, their common and botanical names, site requirements, height/width, flower and foliage color, and comments. Ground Covers: Their Establishment and Maintenance explains soil preparation, installation and maintenance of ground cover plants. For difficult areas, see Ground Covers for Rough Sites written by Dr. Mary Meyer and extension educator, Michael Zins, of the University of Minnesota Department of Horticultural Science. This online publication reviews ground covers that are suitable for inaccessible areas and areas in which conditions are poor.

Some Native and Non-Native Ground Covers for U.S.D.A. Cold Hardiness Zones 3 and 4

Native Ground Covers

Scientific name Common name Site Conditions
Asarum canadense Wild ginger Shade / moist
Anemone canadensis Canada anemone Sun/shade/moist
Carex spp. Sedges Shade/moist
Cornus canadensis Bunchberry Shade/moist
Geum triflorum Prairie smoke Sun
Phlox divaricata Woods phlox Shade
Podophyllum peltatum May apple Shade/moist
Tiarella cordifolia Foam flower Shade
Viola spp. Violets Shade

Non-Native Ground Covers

Scientific name Common name Site Conditions
Alchemilla mollis Lady's mantle Shade/sun
Aegopodium podagraria Silver-edge goutweed Shade/sun
Ajuga reptans Bugleweed Sun
Bergenia cordifolia Bergenia Shade/sun
Brunnera macrophylla Siberian bugloss Shade
Cerastium tomentosum Snow-in-summer Sun
Convallaria majalis Lily-of-the-valley Shade/moist
Coronilla varia Crown vetch Sun/poor soil
Epimedium x rubrum Barrenwort Shade
Galium odoratum Sweet woodruff Shade
Glechoma hederacea Ground ivy, creeping Charlie Shade
Lamium maculatum Dead nettle, lamium Shade/part sun
Lamium galeobdolon Yellow archangel Shade/part sun
Lotus corniculatus Bird's foot trefoil Sun
Pachysandra terminalis Japanese spurge, pachysandra Shade/winter protection
Sedum spp. Sedum, stonecrop Sun/dry
Vinca minor Periwinkle Shade/winter protection

Click on any of the following headings and link to chapters that explain care and maintenance of herbaceous plants.

Dividing Plants
Dividing Rhizomes
Starting Plants from Seed
Collecting and Saving Seed
Self-Sowing Plants
Propagation by Vegetative Cuttings
Transplanting Seedlings, Cuttings and Divided Plants

Cutting Back Plants
Pruning for Plant Form
Pruning to Prevent Disease (FUTURE)
Deadheading and Pinching Back (FUTURE)

Mulching & Watering
Why Use Mulch?
Application of Mulch
Mulching for Weed Control
Mulching for Winter Protection
Mulching for Moisture Control
Organic Mulches
Synthetic Mulches
Watering Your Landscape
How to Determine the Frequency and Rate of Watering
Water Quality and its Effect on Plants

Nutrition, Fertilizers, and Compost
The Basics of Plant Nutrition and Fertilizers
Soils (FUTURE)
Compost (FUTURE)
Fertilizer: the Do's and Don'ts
Organic Fertilizers (FUTURE)
Inorganic Fertilizers (FUTURE)
Salt Tolerant Plants

Weed Management
Weed Identification and Lifecycles
Cultural Management Methods for Weed Control
Pruning for Weed Control (FUTURE)
Understanding Labels (FUTURE)
Alternatives to Chemical Herbicides (FUTURE)

Diseases and Insects
Integrated Pest Management (FUTURE)


Clemson University Cooperative Extension, "Groundcovers", HGIC 1100, Marjan Kluepfel and Bob Polomski, Home and Garden Information Center. October 1999.

Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, "Ground Covers for Shady Areas", Steve Cramer. June 1, 2001.

Kansas State University - Manhattan, "Ground Covers, Rock Garden Plants, and Ornamental Grasses",

Meyer, Mary H., list of native and non-native ground covers, 2000 core course packet, HORT 1011, University of Minnesota.

Ohio State University Extension, online Fact Sheet, "Ground Covers for the Home Landscape", HYG-1050-97, Jack Kerrigan.

University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, online information, "Problems with Ground Covers", Home and Garden Information Center. Updated April 1, 2002.

University of Minnesota Extension, "Ground Covers for Rough Sites", FS-1114-GO, Mary H. Meyer and Michael E. Zins. Revised 1998.

University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension, "Ground Covers: Their Establishment and Maintenance", NebGuide G84-697-A, Donald H. Steinegger and Luann Finke. Revised June 1992.

University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension, "Selecting a Ground Cover", NebGuide G84- 698-A, Anne Streich, and Donald H. Steinegger. Revised July 1999.

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