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Extension > Garden > Yard and Garden > Landscaping > Ground covers for rough sites

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Ground covers for rough sites

Mary H. Meyer and Michael E. Zins

Grass ground cover

Grasses are one of the best ground covers for most sunny sites. Fine fescues are good turfgrasses for low maintenance situations and tolerate low fertility soils, dry conditions and can be grown in sun or light shade. A mixture of several species of fine fescues is a good choice. Specific fine fescues are: sheep fescue (Festuca ovina) which is commonly found in sandy soils and is quite drought and shade tolerant;it is bunchy, but can be seeded with other fescues such as red fescue (F. rubra), Chewings fescue, (Festuca rubra L. subsp. fallax), and hard fescue (Festuca brevipila).

Seed mixes labeled "shady lawn mixes" are often several fine fescues, look at the list of grasses which is required on the seed label. Fine fescues are tolerant of shade, but also grow well in full sun. "No-mow" seed mixes of fine fescues are also available which are usually a mixture of several fine fescues, similar to shady lawn mixtures. Fine fescues will grow on low fertility sites and need minimal fertilizer or water once established. Fine fescues are drought tolerant and can be mowed as little as once or twice a year.

Native grasses can also be used for permanent cover. You can mix native grasses with other native flowering plants for a more pleasing effect. Canada wildrye (Elymus canadensis) covers the ground rapidly, spreading from underground stems, and has attractive nodding heads. It is fairly shade-tolerant. Side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) and blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) are common dry prairie grasses that will form sods and grow on steep slopes. All three of the above grasses prefer full sun. Sand dropseed (Sporobolus cryptandrus), another dry prairie grass, can be planted either in sand or on heavier soils. It is a pioneer on disturbed areas and is deep-rooted and very drought-tolerant. Establishment of native grasses can take several years, and for larger sites, working with professional landscaping companies that specialize in native restoration projects is recommended.

Herbaceous and woody plant ground cover

Plants listed below are cold hardy, tough, sometimes aggressive plants that make a dense cover and can be used in difficult sites. Shrubs selected either sucker or self-seed to make a dense cover. Although these plants will not tolerate foot traffic, and are slower to establish than turf grasses, they will last for many years and can require minimal inputs or maintenance. These plants can be counted on to grow in difficult sites such as slopes, wet or dry sites, compacted and low fertility soils. Plants listed are hardy in Minnesota, zones 3 and 4. Space herbaceous plants 1 foot apart (1,000 plants/1,000 sq. ft.); space woody plants 2-4 feet apart (250-125 plants/1,000 sq. ft.).

Herbaceous plant ground covers for low maintenance sites

Herbaceous plants are identified by their green, soft stems and lack of persistent woody stem visible above ground.

(N = native to MN)
Height Tolerances
++ = excellent;
+ = good;
- = intolerant.
Site preferences
Outstanding Features; Comments
Shade Drought
Barren strawberry (N)
(Waldsteinia fragarioides)
6" ++ ++ Tolerates dry sandy soils Strawberry-like plants with inedible fruit
Bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum) 8 - 12" ++ ++ Tolerates most sites Early spring growth and nice fall color; magenta flowers attractive to bees
Canada anemone
(Anemone canadensis) N
6 - 12" + Grows in sun also; found in prairies and along woods edge Spreads with aggressive rhizomes; attractive white flowers
Carnation sedge
(Carex flacca)
6-15" ++ ++ Grows in most sites Aggressive rhizomes
(Hosta spp.)
6 - 24" ++ - Prefers moist, well-drained soils, but tolerates dry shade Large, often variegated leaves, easy to grow
(Lamium maculatum)
6-12" ++ + Tolerates most soils Pink flowers, aggressive stolons and self-seeds; can be aggressive and escape into woodlots
(Convallaria majalis)
6" ++ + Grows in poor soils; tolerates dry shade Attractive fragrant flowers; rapid spreader with strong rhizomes, can be aggressive; will grow under trees and shrubs
(Lysimachia nummularia)
3"-6" + - Needs moisture in drought Attractive yellow flowers; long, trailing stems, not aggressive
Ostrich fern
(Matteuccia struthiopteris)N
3-5' ++ + Prefers some moisture, but can tolerate drought after established Stout rhizomes persist and can cover large areas
Palm sedge
(Carex muskingumensis) N
2-3' ++ + Tolerates very wet sites and clay soils Sun or shade tolerant, self-seeds and can be aggressive
Pennsylvania sedge
(Carex pensylvanica)N
4-8" ++ ++ Native to upland wooded sites Fine texture, less aggressive than palm or carnation sedge
Three-toothed cinquefoil
(Sibbaldiopsis tridentate) N
6-12" - ++ Will grow in acidic, rocky or sandy soils Wine-red fall color
Trefoil, bird's-foot
(Lotus corniculatus)
1' + ++
(moist also)
Tolerates very poor soils and wide pH range; heat-resistant; salt-tolerant Fast growing, showy yellow flowers attract pollinators; too aggressive for home landscapes; can seed with ryegrass or oats; tolerates mowing; can winter kill; huge seedbank; can be invasive
(Viola spp.) N
6" ++
+ Prefers fairly rich, well-drained soils, but some species tolerate dry shade Spreads rapidly; attractive flowers; may be invasive
(Hydrophyllum virginianum) N
6-24" ++
+ Tolerant of most soils, prefers light shade Spreads with rhizomes; early flowers attract pollinators
Wild geranium
(Geranium maculatum) N
18-24" ++ - Prefers moist wooded sites Attractive flowers
Yellow archangel
(Lamium galobdolon)
1-1.5' ++
+ Very shade tolerant Grows rapidly; yellow flowers; can be aggressive.

Woody plant ground covers for low maintenance sites

A woody plant is a plant that has wood as its structural tissue. Shrubs and trees are considered woody plants. Various species of vines and fruits also qualify as woody plants.

(N = native to MN)
Height Tolerances
++ = excellent;
+ = good;
- = intolerant.
Site Preferences
Outstanding Features and Comments
Shade Drought
American cranberrybush
(Viburnum trilobum) N
6 - 12' ++ Grows in a wide pH range; tolerates wet sites and poor soils Spring flowers and fall berries and fall color; fast growing
(Diervilla lonicera) N (D. rivularis & D. sessilifolia)
3 - 4' +
+ Dry banks in open woods or in full sun; acid to neutral pH Inconspicuous flowers; can be planted with smaller native flowers; fall color
(Aronia melanocarpa) N
3-8" ++ ++ Tolerates most soils; use on steep dry banks Attractive foliage, flowers, & fruits; pollinators like flowers
(Potentilla fruticosa)
1-4' ++ Grows in almost any soil, wet, compacted, dry or high pH Small white, yellow or pink flowers; tends to become twiggy with dead branches and needs pruning
(Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) N
2-5' + Broadly adapted to soil & pH, tolerates alkaline, and compacted soils Suckers to produce a dense shrub, white flowers followed by coral fruit with winter interest
Dwarf arctic willow
(Salix purpurea 'Nana')
5 - 7' Tolerates wet sites and light shade Dense shrub grows rapidly from pruned, fine, texture; fast growing
Fragrant sumac
(Rhus aromatica)
2 - 6' + ++ Tolerates most soils Attractive foliage, fall colors; good for sunny, dry slopes
Grey dogwood
(Cornus racemosa) N
6 - 12' + + Easily adapts to most sites; high pH and wet sites Suckers to form a dense shrub, white flowers followed by white fruit on red stems
(Juniperus chinensis var. sargentii; J. chinensis; J. procumbens)
1-3' - ++ Prefers well drained to dry sites Evergreen; several foliage colors and forms available; foliage may winter burn
Mugo pine
(Pinus mugo)
4-5' Prefers well-drained sites, tolerates compacted soils and high pH, light shade Slow growing evergreen, spreads in width equal to height
Red dogwood
(Cornus sericea)'Isanti' N
4-5' + Prefers wet sites Suckers; attractive red stems; fruit attracts birds
(Amelanchier alnifolia 'Regent') N
+ + Will grow in compacted sites and wet soils Rhizomatous, forms a thicket; 'Regent' is a compact, stoloniferous, early-flowering cultivar which grows 4-6' tall; edible fruit attracts birds
Skunkbush sumac
(Rhus trilobata)
4-6' + ++ Tolerates most soils Attractive foliage; tolerates dry sites
Rugosa rose
(Rosa rugosa)
3-6' ++ Prefers well drained sites Mauve, pink and white flowers on thorny, upright shrub with wrinkled foliage; conspicuous red rose hips
Sumacs, smooth and staghorn
(Rhus glabra and R. typhina) N
10' + + Poor soils and sandy gravelly knolls; will grow in most soils Suckers and spreads but needs grass or flowers beneath; good fall color
(Comptonia peregrina) N
2' + ++ Grows on most any soil, including acidic, sandy and poor sites; salt-tolerant Aromatic fern-like leaves; spreads from underground stems
Ural false spirea
(Sorbaria sorbifolia)
4-6' + + Good or poor soils, sun or shade Heavy foliage, attractive flowers; coarse bank cover for shade or sun
Virginia creeper and Boston ivy
(Parthenocissus quinquefolia; P. tricuspidata) N
Vines climb to 50' ++ + Shaded dry banks Large handsome leaves; Virginia creeper is more vigorous and will climb; both have attractive red fall color
(Taxus x media)
4-30' + + Needs well drained soils Wide variation in height due to cultivators


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