10 Favorite Ground Covers for Challenging Spots

Solutions to problem areas where turf grass does not thrive or mowing is not practical.

Green Scene, By Geri Laufer

This month we cover a number of ground covers well-suited to North Metro area landscapes. Select ground cover plants that will adapt readily to your site conditions, including soil type and the amount of sun, slope and drainage. Ground covers prevent erosion, aid in design considerations, soften hardscapes, fill in under trees, and blanket the ground where turf will not grow.

1. The Elephant in the Room
English Ivy is an evergreen, perennial, climbing vine ground for shade that is ubiquitous throughout Atlanta and the Southeast. It is drought-tolerant, great for slopes, evergreen and easy-care, and by far the most popular ground cover. HOWEVER, English Ivy is not well behaved.

English Ivy is included in many invasive exotic lists, although it continues to be sold and marketed as an ornamental plant across the United States. The climbing vine attaches to tree bark, brickwork and other surfaces by root-like structures that exude a glue-like substance to aid in its climb. It is an aggressive thug that threatens all levels of forested and open areas, on the ground, climbing up tree trunks, blocking sunlight, and adding weight that makes trees susceptible to blow-over during storms. New plants grow easily from stem fragments and new growing tips root along the ground.
I’m not recommending it. I think the only case scenario for English Ivy might be a confined area, such as spilling over the edge of a container, rather than being planted in-ground and released to run rampant over the landscape. UGA does not recommend English Ivy on its list of ground covers online.

Ajuga is a low-growing full to partial shade ground cover with beautiful 6-inch spires of flowers in bright lavender blue or white

3. Ajuga or Bugleweed
This low-growing (only about an inch) ground cover for full to partial shade is in the mint family. Ajuga spreads via horizontal rhizomes called stolons that grow outward from the main plant and create happy colonies of plants. Beautiful 6-inch spires of flowers in bright lavender blue or white add impact in spring. Try some of the many varieties including Genevensis, Caitlin’s Giant, Purple Brocade, Black Scallop, Burgundy Glow (green, white and pink), Chocolate Chip, Dixie Chip, Golden Glow or Silver Beauty to name a few to investigate.

4. Monkey Grass, Border Grass or Lilyturf and Mondo Grass
If ever there was a drought-tolerant, carefree ground cover, it would be Liriope, commonly known as Monkey grass. There are spreading and clumping types with dark green, grass-like, evergreen leaves about 10 inches tall, varieties lined with yellow or white variegation, and a dwarf, 4-inch version called Mondo Grass. They are not actually “grasses” but in the asparagus family. In summer, lavender or white flower spikes reminiscent of Grape Hyacinths reach 12-inches. Liriope spreads at a moderate rate and accommodates either full sun or partial shade, while Ophiogopogon or Mondo Grass is the dwarf version and grows more slowly.

epidemium shady ground cover flowering5. Epimedium, Barronwort, Fairy Wings, Bishops Hat
An elite ground cover, Epimedium tolerates dry shade, a problem situation in many landscapes. It produces delightful, colorful leaves year round and small, spurred flowers dancing on wiry stems. Leaves have colorful veins and bronze tints and stay on the plants all winter, while spring flowers range from raspberry to white to yellow. Cut off the leaves in March and mulch with compost, woods soil or leaf mold. There are specialty nurseries such as Garden Vision Epimediums that specialize in these perennials.

6. Ginger: Native, European and Asian
Deer-resistant, southeastern native Ginger or “Little Brown Jugs” is a delightful 4-inch ground cover with soft, heart-shaped green leaves and small brown flowers nestled at ground level. Its European cousin has shiny, leathery green heart-shaped leaves. But the most beautiful of the three is the Asian Splendid Ginger with leathery, arrow-shaped leaves marked in silver (like “Naugahyde splashed with metallic paint”). Try the Gingers in full to partial shade and a rich, woodsy soil.

7. Ferns
Landscaping with ferns is a great solution for tough areas. I’m partial to Southern Shield Fern for sun although it is not evergreen. Autumn Fern for partial shade areas and Tassel Fern for Shade are two other favorites and these last two are evergreen. Holly Fern is another good evergreen, but needs more care to establish. Mariana Maiden Fern (photo at top of page) is another favorite winter hardy fern. It is also heat tolerant and deer resistant.

8. Creeping Junipers
Got a hot, dry corner or slope? Blue Rug-type Junipers provide a long-term solution to hot, dry, sunny areas and are long-lived once they are established. Dense, steely-bluegreen scale leaves turn purple in winter. UGA recommends Shore, Sargent, Andorra and several other named cultivars of Juniperus horizontalis or J. squmata.

9. Creeping Gardenia
Another low-growing, spreading woody shrub, Gardenia augusta ‘Radicans’ is slow-growing and fine-leaved for sun to semi-shade. Starry flowers have a heady fragrance you will enjoy throughout the landscape. Creeping Gardenia is perfect for a protected position since it sometimes winter burns if exposed to strong winds and cold.

10. Angelina Sedum or Stonecrop.
This is an easy-grow, evergold perennial for hot, dry areas of the landscape, Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ needs full sun in a well-drained soil with a neutral soil pH. Angelina stonecrop brightly colored with golden foliage and is deer- and rabbit-resistant and drought-tolerant once established.

Have I omitted your favorite ground cover? What about thyme, or candytuft, daylilies or forget-me-nots? Let me hear about your best ground covers. ❍

Geri Laufer lives in Atlanta, where she, graphic designer husband David, and English Coonhound Lily are working on designing and installing a never-finished landscape. You can reach her at Geri Laufer