Friday, April 30, 2010

Native Ground Covers

When it comes to landscaping around the home, many people seem to be more comfortable with a single carpet-like planting – grass, vinca, or pachysandra. This is more comforting, easier to ‘read’ and may be a representation of nature ‘controlled’.  In the natural world the ground cover layer is more likely to be a mix of species. Each species occupies a preferred niche in both time and space. Hayscented fern is one of the few species that I’ve seen that can really appears to dominate a space, but that was in a recently cleared forest. On closer examination other species were present at ground level. With time a more diverse community will develop.

In designing a ground cover planting with native species you should draw on a palette of low-growing plants that can work together and are appropriate to the site conditions. While the following list is not exhaustive, these are some of the natives that I have grown around my home that work well as ground covers.



Black Huckleberry, Gaylassacia baccata, is and evergreen woody subshrub that is found in upland woods and handles a range of soil moistures, wet to dry, and sun exposures light shade to full sun. It grows 1-2’ tall and twice as wide. I was impressed by the glossy green (and a few bright red) leaves in February. The flowers develop slowly through the spring and are just now opening. I’m looking forward to larger plants so that I can see these colorful flowers without bending over so much. Although slow growing, I have been able to grow this plant in a variety of difficult locations. This plant is becoming more available in the retail trade. Other huckleberries, preferring moister conditions, are also available.


3-Toothed Cinquefoil, Sibbaldiopsis tridentata, (formerly of the genus Potentilla) is another tough plant for tough conditions. I’ve seen this growing at the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. I’ve had a good experience growing this plant in a variety of challenging locations, such as on the edge of yew bushes. With a little protection it is evergreen through the winter and it produces clusters of white flowers in summer. While it can form a dense mat, it is not so thick as to exclude other plant from growing with it.


Bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi , grows under what would be considered very harsh conditions, but is must have very well drained soil to survive. While I’ve encountered it growing out of cracks in boulders on a hiking trail, I haven’t had much luck with this plant on my ‘typical’ residential site (too moisture retentive, my guess); therefore no photos, either.


Barren Strawberry, Waldsteinia fraganoidies, formes a fairly dense evergreen mat with good weed suppressive character. It produces yellow flowers in early spring (now in New England), but the fruit is inedible. In the photo it is growing with sensitive fern and Mayapple.  This native can be found at some nurseries, but its cousin, Siberian Barren Strawberry, Waldsteinia ternata, is much more available and is often sold under the same common name.



Hairy Alumroot, Heuchera villosa, has been a very effective ground cover for me in partly sunny locations. The collection shown here was grown from seed which produced a mixture of green and purple leaf forms. The leaves cast enough shade to control weed growth from below. Later in the summer it produces small white flowers on long racemes, but these are not particularly showy compared to many of the Heuchera cultivars.



Some other native plants that I have been trying around my home, which can be used in a ground cover mix, include Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and a variety of ferns. There are many more native species that can be used as ground covers. Just take a walk in the woods to see what’s growing there. What other natives have you used as ground covers?

For more information on native groundcovers, check out this article from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  Also, check out my follow-up post Native Ground Covers - Part 2.

7 comments:

Curbstone Valley Farm said...

You're so right about the diversity of species in a natural groundcover. The 'wild' areas here have a tremendous variability in plants. We're slowly trying to eliminate the invasive species, and encourage the natives that are growing here. We'd also like to re-introduce some of native wildflowers too.

It's interesting that you mentioned Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, as we've been looking at planting that here. Our soils though are very sandy. If I recall, when it's happy, it can get quite large, so maybe we'll try just one plant to start and see how it does.

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

I'm treating Blue-Eyed Grass as a groundcover.

Around here, Vinca is a major pest.

Curtis said...

I should give Blue-eyed grass a shot. I think it likes moister conditions.
Another plant I'd like to try is Yellow Stargrass (Hypoxis hirsuta) but I am having trouble getting hold os some. I've got some seed but it has been difficult to get it to germinate.

Edward Lincoln said...

I like your article. I'd never heard of wintergreen as a groundcover.
I've tried Bearberry because of it's salt tolerance and edible fruit. I tried it on my parent's property, in a spot that has salty soil. It doesn't look healthy. It tends to be too expensive and hard to find...I don't think I'll be able to buy enough to cover anything significant with it, and I doubt the plants I bought will spread much.

I love the idea of clover, but most clover is imported. Anyone know where I can get Native New England clover seed? Would California clover seed be "close enough" to Native"?

Also, my significant other has a field that is swampy in the Spring. I'm looking for swamp loving, Spring blooming natives that can tolerate summer mowing. Wondering about blue eyed grass?

Curtis said...

Edward,
I've tried Bearberry but it didn't do well. It thrives under very specific conditions. I've seen thick masses of it growing on thin rocky soil along exposed trails, but it fails in garden conditions.
The most common mowable clovers, white and purple, are introduced species. Dalea purpurea, Purple Prairie clover, is native to NY. Check Ernst Conservation seed and Prairie Moon Nursery for seed.
I've just started growing some Blue-eyed grass now but I have no plans for mowing it. I would search for 'wet meadow' plants. Good Luck!

aubunique said...

Checking lists to select natives to plant on a steep and large mound created as backdrop for a large, almost-flat sculpture in Northwest Arkansas. Have seed for Cynanchum laeve, a few seeds for Passiflora lutea and Passiflora incarnata, a few milkweed species and a variety of other local native forbs. Wanting to start some that will grow fast now that spring is here after a very hard winter. May try clippings from Lonicera sempervirens (which was heavily damaged by extended winter but stayed green for two recent previous winters that were extra milk. How about trying Illinois bundle flower and sensitive brier by seed or transplant? Soil in the mountain is mostly rich local prairie soil with a layer of local mulch.

Curtis said...

I'm not familiar with the plants of your region (Arkansas). If you can tolerate some height (2-3') check out Rhus aromatica 'Gro-Low'. If you what some occaisonal flecks of color mixed in, check out Callirhoe involucrata (Wine Cups); this is a lax trailing perennial that will mix well with other ground covers and is native to the central US (TX to MN).
Also the LBJ Wildflower Center Website has a plant finder database that can suggest natives for your region.