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

Ground covers for rough sites

Mary H. Meyer, Professor and Michael E. Zins, former Extension Horticulturist, Horticulture Science

Grasses

Grasses are one of the best ground covers on most sunny sites. The following grasses can be used in poor sites and in low maintenance situations. They need not be mowed.

Fine fescues tolerate poor soils, dry conditions and can be grown in sun or light shade. A mixture of several species is a good choice. Sheep fescue (Festuca ovina) is commonly found in sandy soils and is quite drought and shade tolerant. It is bunchy, but it can be seeded with other fescues such as red fescue (F. rubra), Chewings fescue, (F. rubra var. commutata), and hard fescue (Festuca longifolia).

The following native grasses can also be used for permanent cover. You can mix them 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) is a common dry prairie grass that will form sods and does well on steep slopes. It prefers full sun and will only grow in very light shade. 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. A nonnative, smooth bromegrass (Bromus inermis) is used commonly by highway departments on poor sites because it covers slopes rapidly. Bromegrass is very invasive and will replace native vegetation, it is not recommended where native material is available.

Table 1. Ground covers for low maintenance sites

Herbaceous plants

Plant
(N indicates that the plant is native to Minnesota.)
Height Tolerances
++ = excellent;
+ = good;
- = intolerant.
Site Preferences
(pH is an expression of soil acidity or alkalinity.)
Outstanding Features Propagation
Space herbaceous plants 1' apart (1,000 plants/1,000 sq. ft.). Space woody plants 2' apart (250 plants/1,000 sq. ft.).
Comments
Shade Drought
Barrenstrawberry (N)
(Waldsteinia fragarioides)
6" ++ ++ Dry sandy soils. Indifferent to pH. Spreads from rhizomes. Can be grown in sun. Transplants Strawberry-like plants with inedible fruit.
Wineleaf Cinquefoil (N)
(Potentilla tridentata)
6 - 12" - ++ Poor acidic soils, rocky or sandy soils. Almost prostrate. Turns wine-red in fall. Transplants Available.
Creeping Charlie
(Glechoma hederacea)
4" ++ + Fairly moist woods soils. Fragrant leaves, purple flowers. Transplants Very invasive in shade; will spread into lawns.
Crownvetch
Coronilla varia)
1 - 3' + + Can withstand dry, infertile soils. Nearly neutral in pH. Can grow on clay. One plant can cover 6' in 2-3 years. Attractive flowers. Long-lasting. Seed (with inoculant), seedlings, or crowns Slow to establish. Can be seeded with ryegrass, fescue, or bird's-foot trefoil. Available. Can't be mowed. May show winter injury.
Daylily, Tawny
(Hemerocallis fulva)
3' + + Adapted to wide range of well-drained soils. Quite salt-tolerant. Attractive flowers. Long leaves produce heavy ground cover. Excellent erosion control. Division of root stock, crowns Commonly available.
Goutweed
(Aegopodium podagraria)
6 - 12" ++ ++ Good or poor soil, sun or shade. Vigorous. Variety with white-edged leaves available. Transplants Invasive. Complete dieback in winter. Available.
Hosta
(Hosta spp.)
6 - 24" ++ - Rich, moist, well-drained soils. Will burn in sun. Lush growth with large, often variegated leaves. Rather formal. Transplants Foliage appears late in spring. Available.
Lily-of-the-Valley
(Convallaria majalis)
6" ++ + Grows in poor soil & under trees & shrubs. Attractive flowers. Rapid spreader. Transplants Dies back in winter. Available.
Moneywort
(Lysimachia nummularia)
3"-6" + - Needs moisture in drought. Attractive yellow flowers. seed, cuttings Long, trailing stems.
Yellow Archangel
(Lamiastrum galobdolon) 'Variegatum'
1-1 1/2' ++
(sun
also)
+Very shade tolerant. Grows rapidly. Yellow flowers. Cuttings, division Can be aggressive.
Strawberry (N)
(Fragaria virginiana)
4" +
(sun
also)
+ Found in dry upland fields & woods. Low & compact. Edible fruit. Transplants Smaller than commercial varieties.
Trefoil, Bird's-foot
(Lotus corniculatus)
1' + ++
(moist
also)
Tolerates very poor soils & wide pH range. Heat-resistant. Salt-tolerant. One plant covers 21/2' first year. Attractive yellow flowers. Seed (with inoculant), crown division, or cuttings Can seed with ryegrass or oats. May be mowed; can winter kill; huge seedbank; can be invasive; Available.
Violets (N)
(Viola spp.)
6" ++
(sun
also)
+ Fairly rich, well-drained soils. Spreads rapidly. Attractive flowers. Semi-evergreen. Transplants Certain varieties may be invasive. Available.

Table 2. Ground covers for low maintenance sites

Woody plants

Plant
(N indicates that the plant is native to Minnesota.)
Height Tolerances
++ = excellent;
+ = good;
- = intolerant.
Site Preferences
(pH is an expression of soil acidity or alkalinity.)
Outstanding Features Propagation
Space herbaceous plants 1' apart (1,000 plants/1,000 sq. ft.). Space woody plants 2' apart (250 plants/1,000 sq. ft.).
Comments
Shade Drought
Barberry, Korean
(Berberis koreana)
6 - 8' + + Tolerates most soils. Yellow flowers, red fruits persist over winter. Transplants, suckers, seed Good coarse woody bank cover.
Bush-honeysuckle
(Diervilla lonicera (N), D. rivularis & D. sessilifolia)
3 - 4' +
(sun
also)
+ Dry banks in open woods or in full sun. Acid to around neutral pH. Inconspicuous flowers. Can be planted with smaller native flowers. Transplants Available.
Chokeberry (N)
(Aronia melanocarpa)
1 - 2' ++ ++ Tolerates most soils. Use on steep dry banks. Tolerates acid soils. Attractive foliage, flowers, & fruits. Transplants Readily available.
Creepers, Virginia & Thicket (N)
(Parthenocissus quinquefolia & P. inserta)
1' ++ + Shaded dry banks. Large handsome leaves. Virginia more vigorous vine & will climb. Transplants Engelmann variety commonly available.
Snowberry
(Symphoricarpos albus)
3' + + Broadly adapted to soil & pH. Steep dry banks. Inconspicuous flower. Transplants, cuttings, & division Available.
Spirea, Ural False
(Sorbaria sorbifolia)
4 - 6' + + Good or poor soil, sun or shade. Heavy foliage, attractive flowers. Transplants, suckers Coarse bank cover for shade or sun.
Fragrant Sumac
(Rhus aromatica)
2 - 6' + ++ Tolerates most soils. Attractive foliage, fall colors. Transplants, seed Good for sunny, dry banks.
Skunkbush Sumac
(Rhus trilobata)
4 - 6' + ++ Tolerates most soils. Attractive foliage. Transplants, seed Tolerates dry sites.
Sumacs (N), smooth & staghorn
(Rhus glabra & R. typhina)
10' + + Poor soils & sandy gravelly knolls. Can be used in most soils. Suckers & spreads but needs grass or herbs beneath. Good fall color. Seeds or root cuttings Readily available. Split-leaf forms also available.
Sweetfern (N)
(Comptonia peregrina)
2' + ++ Acidic, sandy soils. Most poor soils but will grow on good soils too. Salt-tolerant. Aromatic fern-like leaves. Spreads from underground stems. Transplants Available.