Use Groundcover to Collaborate with Nature

Lawn reduction is a big part of creating an earth-friendly, sustainable landscape. A smaller lawn means you’ll mow less, use less water, and greatly reduce the need for any lawn fertilizers or chemicals – if you even bothered with them in the first place. Groundcovers can help you get to a lawn-free yard even faster.

Besides being a great lawn substitute, native groundcovers can increase the biodiversity in your yard. You’ll attract even more beneficial creatures if you plant a variety of groundcovers of varying heights, and include a few simple water features. Include shallow watering dishes at ground level, as well as bird baths, to attract and serve birds and pollinators of all sorts. In a moist setting, dense groundcovers may attract snails and slugs. Newts and toads, and some birds such as thrushes, love to eat slugs and snails.

Well chosen groundcover plants can be introduced into any garden bed as a low-growing base layer, to replace the need for other mulch materials. A living mulch, groundcover provides an insulating cover for the soil – keeping it cooler in the summer and helping it retain its moisture longer.

When gardening in collaboration with nature, the importance of selecting plants that are suited to the soil type and conditions at your site cannot be over emphasized. The benefits of moisture retention, weed prevention, and reduced maintenance are the natural result of well-sited, happy plants – the right plants in the right location.

A massed planting is often what comes to mind when we think about groundcover. This traditional approach features large swaths of low-growing plants, and is best suited to colony-forming, rhizomatous species (plants with horizontal roots that send up shoots). Groundcovers can also be mixed for a more naturalized look. This first photo shows a natural, all native, woodland floor that includes a diversity of plants in little more than one square foot of space – with Wild Ginger, Solomons Plume, Wood Sedge and Rue Anemone:

Planted on it’s own, Wild Ginger is great colonizer – excellent for weed suppression and erosion control on slopes (see Wild Ginger to suppress Garlic Mustard),  but it also plays well with others, and combines beautifully with Maidenhair or other ferns:

An excellent choice for low, moist, wooded settings,  Golden Groundsel (Packera aurea) combines especially well with Sensitive Fern  and other ferns that prefer moist soils and light shade.

Prairie Smoke is a slower colonizer, but the fluffy spring seed heads are so worth it! Great for sunny rock gardens and dry to medium soils (but not clay). It will do best if planted with other low-growers like Harebell and Junegrass, as it doesn’t compete well when shaded by larger plants:

Wild Geranium is not rhizomatous, but this clump forming woodland perennial does spread readily when it’s happy in its location. Light shade is best. The springtime flowers rise above the attractive palmate leaves. Plant it around the base of trees, it doesn’t mind! Combine it with Solomon’s Seal, ferns and trillium:

Canada Anemone often gets a bad rap for being an aggressive spreader, but it just needs a thought-out planting strategy. If planted in partial shade, it will spread toward the sunny areas. Make sure that adjacent area are densely planted, as it will take advantage of openings, but won’t invade a dense cover. Or plant it between structures and surrounded by hardscape. Canada Anemone blooms for an extended period in spring and can be combined with sedges to cover large areas:

Canada Anemone next to Long Beaked Sedge (Carex sprengelii) and Plantain Leafed Sedge (Carex plantaginea)

Canada Anemone in bloom. A good plant for clay soils.

Wild Strawberry is a great naturalizing groundcover. Let this low-growing plant creep around everything else and you will won’t need mulch. Using mulch around newly planted transplants is almost always recommended, but in a mature planting, groundcover works like a living mulch to create an earth-friendly landscape.

Bearberry is a dry site specialist. Got dry sandy soil? Pine trees? This may be your groundcover. It will grow in rocks and on beaches:

Bearberry growing with a creeping Juniper in the sand.

Bearberry is also known as Kinnickinic Berry.


LOW GROWING  6″– 1′ MEDIUM  1′ – 2′ TALL  2‘ – 3’
For Sun: For Sun: For Sun:
Wild Strawberry Stiff Coreopsis Sweet Fern
Prairie Smoke Canada Anemone For Shade:
Western Spiderwort Obedient Plant Goat’s Beard
For Shade: Mistflower Cinnamon Fern
Wild Stonecrop Sensitive Fern Interrupted Fern
Wild Ginger Palm Sedge
Maidenhair Fern Fox Sedge
Oak Fern For Shade:
Pennsylvania Sedge Starry Solomon’s Plume
Ivory Sedge Solomon’s Plume
Eastern Star Sedge Big Leaf Aster
Bloodroot Zig Zag Goldenrod
Lady Fern
Hayscented Fern
Rose Coreopsis
Wild Geranium