By Kelly Miller
Evergreen groundcover plants may not be the main attraction of your garden, but they can make your landscape more beautiful, they’re generally easy to care for, and they bring life and color to winter landscapes.
The term “groundcover” usually refers to spreading plants that don’t grow very tall, but they have the potential to cover a fairly large area over time when the growing conditions are right. Groundcover plants are very versatile and may be grown under trees, around the stones in walkways, on a steep slope or hillside, or along the shaded space beside walls. Groundcover can also be used across a large section of your yard as an alternative to turf grass. Add elegance to a large combination planter by including a couple of groundcover plants where they can eventually cascade over the side of the pot.
Advantages of Growing Groundcover Instead of Turf Grass
Covering some or all of your “in-between” spaces with something other than turf grass is a simple way to make your garden more eco-friendly. Many alternative groundcover plants are also low-maintenance, attractive, and hardy.
Here are some benefits that many of the best groundcover plants offer:
- Less mowing or no mowing at all
- Shade tolerance and frost tolerance
- Drought resistance and reduced water use
- Year-round (evergreen) foliage
- Natural weed resistance
- Erosion control on slopes
- A more colorful and unique aesthetic compared to turf grass or mulch
- Flowering groundcovers may attract and support pollinators (butterflies and bees)
Selecting and Caring for Groundcover Plants
When selecting an evergreen groundcover, choose one that grows well in your region, based on USDA Plant Hardiness Zones. Then, consider your local growing conditions. Often, groundcover is partially shaded by taller plants or structures. In those spots, it’s important to select a shade-tolerant plant. In more open areas, your list of choices can expand to include varieties that thrive in more light.
Next, avoid plants that might be difficult to control. Some common groundcover plants, like English ivy, grow aggressively and can quickly take over an entire garden.
Another factor to consider is whether or not you require a “walkable” groundcover. An advantage of turf grass is that it holds up well under human activity. Many other evergreen groundcover plants are more sensitive. However, some are tougher than others. For example, creeping thyme is fairly resilient to foot traffic.
Finally, embrace the opportunity to weave evergreen groundcover into the beauty and style of your landscape design. Select groundcover plants that complement the taller plants that they surround. For example, use very low-growing groundcover around shorter flowers or shrubs. You can also focus on color pairings, such as complementary shades of green foliage between your groundcover and featured plants. For flowering groundcovers, you can choose varieties that bloom at the same time as your other flowers and in complementary hues, such as whites with purples.
Avoiding Harmful Invasive Species
Some popular groundcover plants are fast spreaders that can overtake other parts of your property. Some, like the chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata), English ivy (Hedera helix), and big periwinkle (Vinca major), are considered invasive species in some parts of North America. If you have a large area to cover, or your location is next to a wild area such as a forest or fields, you will want to do a little research and make sure your selection isn’t invasive in your region.
To avoid planting problematic groundcover varieties, consult the Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States, which lists all species that are considered invasive anywhere in the U.S.
Planning, Planting, and Maintaining Groundcover
Spring or fall are usually the best times for planting groundcovers. That means during winter or summer you should decide what plant variety you’ll be using; determine the layout and how many plants you’ll need during the winter or summer months.
The number of plants you’ll need will depend on several factors: the area you are trying to cover, the type of plant you will be growing, and how far apart you’ll be spacing the plants. Most plants have a recommended spacing that allows them enough room to get the optimum amount of light and avoid root competition for water and nutrients. However, there may be circumstances when you want to achieve faster coverage. In those cases, use a closer spacing when planting, but don’t plant closer than 6”. The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has a chart you can reference for determining the number of groundcover plants needed based on the square footage of area.
Before planting, you’ll need to do some preparation work. Here are the simple steps:
- First you’ll want to thoroughly clear the area of weeds.
- After planting, you’ll need to irrigate your groundcover to help it get started, especially if you planted in spring.
- Once your groundcover is established, maintenance should be minimal. A healthy groundcover doesn’t require much water and provides a strong natural barrier against weed growth.
For more details, check out our guide on How to Plant Ground Cover Plants.
Evergreen Groundcover Plants for Regions with Freezing Winters
Here are a few terrific groundcover options you can incorporate into your lawn and garden design. All of these plants are evergreen and frost-tolerant. They’re also low-maintenance growers that exhibit dense, full growth and don’t aggressively spread.
European Ginger (Asarum europaeum)
Prickly Pear, Bunny Ears Outdoors (Opuntia species)
Blue Star Creeper, Matted Pratia (Pratia pedunculata)
Pachysandra, Japanese Spurge (Pachysandra terminalis)
Lambs’ Ears, Wooly Betony (Stachys byzantina)
Snow-In-Summer (Cerastium tomentosum)
Creeping Thyme, Wild Thyme (Thymus serpyllum)
Scottish Moss ‘Aurea’ (Sagina subulata)
Bearberry (Cotoneaster dammeri)
Grass-like Evergreen Groundcovers
If you prefer a more grass-like groundcover consider one of the following options. They offer good coverage and are useful in areas where traditional turf grasses don’t do well.
Dwarf Mondo Grass, Monkey Grass ‘Nana’ (Ophiopogon japonicus)
Carex, Sedge ‘Evergold’ (Carex oshimensis)
Liriope (Liriope muscari)
Explore More Creative Options for a Beautiful Lawn and Garden
Don’t be afraid to be bold when it comes to filling in the open spaces in your landscape. Turf grass and mulch have some practical benefits but they’re not your only options. Many interesting groundcover plants are beautiful, low-maintenance, and eco-friendly.
For more groundcover ideas, have a look at our guide on How to Grow Gravel Gardens. Gravel suppresses weeds, reduces water use, and forms an attractive, walkable layer between garden plantings.