Native Groundcovers

By Edie Parnum

A friend enjoys weeding. A peaceful, blissful occupation, she claims. And, the weed-free results please her.  Another friend likes mowing his lawn for reasons I can’t possibly imagine.  Most of us dislike these onerous, time-consuming chores.  We want weed-suppressing, mow-free groundcovers.

Don’t plant Japanese Pachysandra, English Ivy, or Periwinkle. They are popular because they spread aggressively.  In truth, they are non-native invasives that choke out native plants.  They can escape from where you’ve planted them and degrade the wildlife-friendly gardens you’re establishing and even nearby healthy natural areas. If you already have these garden thugs, get rid of them.

Good native plant groundcovers are available. These plants are hardy and shade the ground sufficiently to prevent most weeds from germinating. Selections are available for a variety of conditions including sun or shade and moist or dry soils.  Here are some of my favorites.

Allegheny Pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens) is a dependable, deer-resistant

Allegheny Pachysandra's foliage remains attractive throughout the warm months and mild winters.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Allegheny Pachysandra’s foliage remains attractive throughout the warm months and mild winters. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

groundcover. The evergreen, mottled leaves are handsome. Each plant forms a clump that gradually expands. You can form new plants by dividing and transplanting older plants.  Or, you can pull on a stem to unearth a piece of root with its rhizome; this root cutting can be planted elsewhere. In the early spring this native pachysandra sports white bottlebrush-like flowers that attract bees and other pollinators.

A bed of Foamflowers has pretty blossoms and handsome foliage. © Edie parnum.  Click to enlarge.

A bed of Foamflowers has pretty blossoms and handsome foliage. © Edie parnum. Click to enlarge.

Another favorite, Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), grows easily in part sun or shade. The variegated, semi-evergreen leaves hug the ground just as you want in a groundcover. The plant spreads by sending out runners (stolons). These can be transplanted to extend your bed or start a new one. A bed of Foamflowers produces a cloud of pretty white blossoms in spring.  Think of them as fairy wands, if you like.  And, deer don’t usually bother them.

 

Wild Ginger's foliage is handsome and effectively thwarts emerging weeds.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Wild Ginger’s foliage is handsome and effectively thwarts emerging weeds. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) is an ideal groundcover for a shady spot. The handsome flat, shiny leaves cover the ground, so most weeds can’t penetrate.  This vigorous plant spreads at a moderate pace and is unattractive to deer. A member of the Pipevine family, Wild Ginger is a host plant for the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly.

 

Golden Ragwort has spectacular yellow flowers.  The dense foliage is attractive during summer and fall.   © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Golden Ragwort has spectacular yellow flowers. The dense foliage is attractive during summer and fall. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea) grows well in a sunny area but can handle part-shade, too. In spring a mass of these plants will create a drift of appealing yellow flowers that attract pollinators.  After the flowering season, you can cut back the unsightly dead flower heads.  The plants will continue to shade out weeds. Deer don’t usually bother eating it.

Early spring flowers of Golden Ragwort are important for pollinators.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Early spring flowers of Golden Ragwort are important for pollinators. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Cluster Seersucker Sedge plants for a handsome groundcover.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Cluster Seersucker Sedge plants for a handsome groundcover. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Seersucker Sedge (Carex plantaginea) is named for the crinkled texture of the leaves. These attractive strap-like leaves are arranged in a ground-hugging rosette. Although it doesn’t creep, you can plant them close together to create a groundcover. This sedge is good for edging, too.

 

 

By listing Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana) here, I’m stretching the definition of a groundcover. This plant doesn’t hug the ground;  it’s 3-5 feet tall.  However, a clump of this

Obedient Plant's lavender flowers are a magnet for butterflies and other pollinators. © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Obedient Plant’s lavender flowers are a magnet for butterflies and other pollinators. Photo by Kevin Wagner. Click to enlarge.

plant will spread and cover as much area as you like.  In summer it has spikes of beautiful pink or lavender flowers with nectar that hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators relish.  Don’t worry about its aggressiveness; it’s easy to cut out the edges to keep it a manageable.  .

These and other groundcovers (see list below) can fill in anywhere you have patch of bare ground. If the space isn’t suitable for a tree or two, shrubs,or a perennial bed, plant native groundcovers. You can use them instead of turf grass, too.

Establishing a bed of groundcovers can be done gradually and relatively cheaply. Start with a few plants in a small area. After a year or so, divide these plants to form new colonies. To create an attractive combination of multiple species, consider height, color, texture, and bloom time.  The plants will soon touch each other as they do in nature.

.With native groundcovers you’ll have an easy-care garden that’s pretty and appealing to wildlife. As always, with more native plants you’ll observe more birds, butterflies, and other native insects. Also, groundcovers will give these creatures more places to seek shelter. You’ll be pleased to see the vitality of nature in your yard.

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Native Groundcovers

Name                                                               Soil, Light                                           Height

Asarum canadense (Wild Ginger)                    Moist/Average, Shade                           6”

Carex plantaginea (Seersucker Sedge)           Moist/Average, Sun/Part Shade           8” Chrysogonum virginianum(Green and Gold)   Moist/Average, Sun/Part Shade            8”

Eupatorium coelestinum (Hardy Ageratum)     Average, Sun/ Part Shade                   1-3’

Iris cristata (Crested Iris)                                Moist/Average, Sun/ Part Shade           6-8”

Pachysandra procumbens (Allegheny            Moist/Average, Part Sun/ Shade          8-12”

Pachysandra)

Packera aurea (Golden Ragwort)                   Moist/Average, Sun/ Part Shade           1-2’

Phlox stolonifera (Creeping Phlox)                  Moist/Average, Part Shade/ Shade       6-8”

Physostegia virginiana (False Dragonhead)   Average/Moist, Sun/ Part Shade           2-3’

Tiarella cordifolia (Foamflower)                        Moist, Part Shade/ Shade                     6-12”

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Retail Sources of Native Plants

Collins Nursery, 773 Roslyn Avenue, Glenside, PA 19038.  Native trees, shrubs, and some perennials.  Spring and fall open houses.  Otherwise appointment necessary.  215-715-3439 or collinsnursery.com.

David Brothers Native Plant Nursery, Whitehall Road, Norristown, PA 19403.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  610-584-1550 or davidbrothers.com

Edge of the Woods Nursery, 2415 Route 100, Orefield, PA 18069.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. 610-393-2570 or edgeofthewoodsnursery.com.

Gateway Garden Center, 7277 Lancaster Pike, Hockessin DE19707. Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  302-239-2727 or gatewaygardens.com.

Jenkins Arboretum, 631 Berwyn Baptist Road, Devon, PA 19333.  610647-8870 or jenkinsarboretum.org. Outdoor plant shop open daily 9-4 late April through mid-October.

Redbud Native Plant Nursery, 643 West Baltimore Ave., Media, PA.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. 610-892-2833 or redbudnativeplantnursery.com.

Russell Gardens Wholesale, 600 New Road, Southampton, PA 18966. Wholesale perennials, many native, sold to public. Pre-order for convenient pick-up. 215-322-4799 or russellwholesale.com.

Sugarbush Nursery, 4272 Morgantown Road, Mohnton, PA 19540. Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  610-856-0998 or sugarbushnursery.com.

Yellow Springs Farm, 1165 Yellow Springs Road, Chester Springs, PA 19425.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. Landscape design and consultation services available.  Spring and fall open houses. On-line and phone orders available.  Otherwise call for appointment.  610-827-2014 or yellowspringsfarm.com.