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Ground Covers for Sun and Shade

Ground Covers for Sun and Shade

Ground covers offer practical and aesthetically pleasing solutions for covering areas where other plantings or surfaces are not practical or desirable. They can replace lawns in low traffic areas, cover hard to mow slopes and fill in areas between larger plants such as shrubs and trees.

The first step in selecting appropriate ground covers for your site is defining what you want to accomplish in that space.

Lawn Replacements

If you are using ground covers to replace lawn areas one of the important points to consider is the amount of traffic that they will need to tolerate. Most groundcovers can’t tolerate the amount of traffic that a traditional lawn will, but in many situations, they don’t need to. Large swaths that we regularly mow are only walked on when we are actually cutting or weeding them.

For areas of your lawn that are in higher traffic or need to be kept open for people or pets, you might want to consider mixing additional varieties of plants in with the grass. This will help to create a more bio-diverse lawn that will tolerate traffic and summer drought and be less likely to be attacked by white grubs.

The most traffic tolerant varieties of groundcover for sunny areas are White Clover, White Yarrow, Birdsfoot Trefoil, and Creeping Thyme, all of which should be mowed a few times through the growing season. They are all sun-loving and will perform well either on their own or blended with an existing lawn.
All of these plants can be introduced from seed and may either be planted as a new lawn or may be added to an existing one by overseeding in the spring or late summer. You will end up with a hardier lawn and also be treated to blooms in the early summer that will attract beneficial insects to your yard.

With Stepping Stones

If you have a high traffic area running through ground cover plantings you can incorporate a stepping stone path. This will reduce the wear on the plants and help direct traffic to this particular route. Some of the best options for filling in between the stones, without covering them entirely, are elfin thyme and woolly thyme for sunny locations and Irish or scotch moss for shaded areas.

Sun Loving Groundcovers

For areas that aren’t required to tolerate much, if any, foot traffic the range of options is much wider. If you are looking to mimic the effect of a lawn with low growing plants that will create an open feel to the space you might want to only consider the lower growing plants, up to 6″ in height.

For sunny areas, these would include the heat and salt-tolerant Stonecrops (sedum), such as ‘Dragon’s Blood’ or ‘Voodoo’, all of the creeping thymes and most of the Ajugas.

Other varieties to consider are the spreading Veronicas such as ‘Whitley’s Speedwell’, all of the maiden pinks (Dianthus deltoids) and Perennial Geraniums, especially ‘Biokovo’ and ‘Cambridge’. Unless you are trying to create an understated effect or are only covering a small area I would suggest planting a few varieties to create foliage interest and a variety of bloom times.

Hot, Dry Locations

If your site tends to be hot and dry there are quite a few groundcovers that will out-perform a traditional lawn. The lower growing options include the Sedums and Thymes mentioned above, along with the Birdsfoot Trefoil, and Yarrow if you are willing to mow. If you only need to cover a small area Hens-and-Chicks, Armeria (Sea Thrift) and many of the small Dianthus are good options.

If the plants don’t need to be very low there are a wide range of drought-tolerant perennials which can be massed or combined to great effect. The autumn blooming Sedums, such as ‘Autumn Joy, ‘Matrona’ and ‘Strawberries and Cream’, to only mention a few, all thrive in hot dry locations.

The silvery leaved catmints, with their lavender-blue blooms, are particularly lovely on slopes, where their slightly sprawling manner works particularly well. Even more intensely silver are the soft, fuzzy leaves of Lamb’s Ears, which throw up flower stalks, with tiny purple blooms, to a height if 18-24″ in the early summer.

Other options, either massed or used as accents to other groupings, are Coreopsis, Blue Fescue, the more colourful Yarrows and Asters, especially our native varieties. If your soil is particularly well-drained you might also want to try planting some lavender, which survives our winters without much fuss, as long as it has perfect drainage.