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    Groundcovers for Tough Spots

    Authored by Leah Chester-Davis

    Tough spots in the lawn or garden, like deep shade, tree roots growing close to the surface, or steep slopes can pose challenges for any gardener. Fortunately, there are many plants from which to choose when turfgrass will not grow or for when you’re simply looking for an alternative to add beauty to your landscape. Groundcovers are attractive options and serve the important role of preventing or lessening erosion. Plants help hold the soil in place.

    Assess your location

    With any gardening endeavor, you need to consider your location. Is it sunny or shady? Is it well-drained or does it hold water? What size area are you trying to address? Knowing the conditions of your site will put you on the road to better plant selection.

    Prepare the soil

    Goundcovers, like other plants, will be happiest in healthy soil. Clear the ground and work the soil to a depth of about 8 inches. If you have the chance to do a soil test and get the results before planting time, follow its recommendations. Add one to two inches of organic matter to your prepared ground and mix it in to enrich the soil.

    Plant selection

    What problem are you trying to solve? Do you have a large slope to cover or do you have a small shady area that needs attention? Check the plant label for its growing requirements. It also helps to know your plant hardiness zone to make sure you select plants that are suitable for your region.

    Realize that it will take time for plants to spread. To cover a slope, for example, you will need to plant several plants, spaced out 18 inches to 4 feet apart, depending on the plant. Over two to three seasons, the plants will spread and form a solid sea of vegetation.

    Groundcovers for different areas

    Once you've assessed your area, it's time to pick the perfect plants. Here's a list of groundcovers for various amounts of sun and shade.

    Full sun

    Junipers are evergreens that are available in many colors, textures and forms. Look for ones with a creeping, spreading habit that can quickly cover a sunny slope.  

    Creeping phlox, sometimes called moss phlox (Phlox subulata) is a sweet plant that spreads quickly and creates a carpet or mat of beautiful flowers, usually in pink, purple, or white, in the spring. 

    Creeping raspberry can handle the tough conditions of hot, dry slopes. It can also grow in light shade. It usually grows 1- to 3-inches tall and has deep-green, ruffled, or crinkly leaves.

    St. John’s wort is a semi-evergreen that also handles full sun or partial shade, and will grow in a wide range of soils. It has bright yellow flowers in the middle of summer. This plant is also suited for growing under trees where it can compete with shallow tree roots.

    Sedum is a tough plant that thrives in full sun and can handle a wide range of soils if it is well-drained. Commonly called stonecrop, this plant is available in many options, including upright, mounding, and spreading groundcover habits. ‘Rosy Glow’ is a small, spreading option that has bluish-green leaves that grow in whorls and clusters of deep pink to ruby flower clusters. It grows to about 8-inches tall. It’s a good choice for smaller areas. ‘Coral Carpet’ is another groundcover option.

    Full sun to part shade

    Plumbago can handle a wide range of soils if they are well-drained. It can handle full sun but benefits from some afternoon shade particularly in hot regions. This mat-forming perennial grows 6- to 10-inches tall with shiny green oval leaves that turn bronze-red in the fall. During the summer, clusters of five-petaled blue flowers appear and often persist until fall.

    Cranesbill geranium, sometimes called bloody cranesbill or bloodred geranium, grows in mounds about 9- to 12-inches tall with trailing stems that spread over time. It blooms in late spring to early summer with five-petaled deep lavender to deep pink petals. It is lovely massed in a small area as a groundcover.

    Mazus (Mazus reptans) prefers moist, rich soils. It is a small, low-growing plant that can tolerate foot traffic. It forms a dense carpet that remains evergreen in warm climates. It has small, tubular, purplish-blue flowers in late spring to early summer. It is a pretty groundcover for small areas, or to use between stepping stones or in a rock garden.

    Part shade to full shade

    Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) grows in medium to wet, well-drained soil. It spreads by rhizomes to form an attractive groundcover with its heart-shaped, dark green leaves. This is considered a native plant, making it even more desirable for home gardeners. The plant blooms in spring though the foliage is the starring attraction and often hides the blooms. It’s a great choice for a shady spot or woodland garden.

    Hosta is a mainstay for shady areas and the options are plentiful, from small forms to massive cultivars, from smooth to crinkled edges, from chartreuse to deep gray-blue, from solids to variegated. This plant prefers some morning sun or dappled sunlight and evenly moist, rich, well-drained soils. Grown in masses, they cover a shady area in the garden while adding interest.

    Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis) is an evergreen groundcover, growing from 6-inches to 12-inches high and spreading up to 2-feet-wide. To get this groundcover started, plant 6- to 12-inches apart in medium moisture, well-drained soil. It spreads by rhizomes to create a dense carpet of oval leaves that grow in whorls at the end of stems. It is a popular groundcover for shady spots, including slopes.