Great Ground Covers for Sun or Shade

Healthy ground covers add color, keep down weeds, and help to prevent erosion. For areas where turf grass refuses to grow, or a bank that is too steep to mow safely, ground covers are your best alternative.

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Ground covers have an upside and a downside. The upside: most spread quickly, so they are great at filling in those bare spots. The downside: they spread quickly, and can become invasive. Some are more invasive than others. I will mention invasiveness on the ones listed here that are particularly invasive.

Most of my gardening experience has been in Alabama and North Carolina —  both areas where we lived are in USDA Zone 7. The ground covers featured here will grow all over the southeastern U.S. with the exception wild violets which do not do well in the tropical south. They seem to be very happy here in central Florida (Zone 9). I am not sure where else they will grow, but you know your area. I can tell you that, in the southeast, they grow beautifully, and will help to keep down weeds.

Ground covers add interest to the garden, and many have lovely flowers. I enjoy the contrast of the yellow-green, blue-greens, true greens, and even purples of the various ground cover foliage. If you don’t mulch heavily or plant ground covers in those areas where nothing else will grow, Mother Nature’s ground covers will take over. “Nature’s ground cover” is just another name for weeds. Here are some of my favorite ground covers:

Pinto Peanut

I don’t recommend this one, but it is so pretty, I had to mention it. 

The good news:  Pinto Peanut (Arachis pinto) is a great plant to use for adding nitrogen to the soil. It forms a mat that suffocates weeds, and the little yellow flowers are very pretty, resembling the flowers of peas. It is used in our community in some of the common areas and is beautiful. There are no true peanuts, and it is most highly recommended as a pasture plant for grazing and foraging.

The bad news:   this plant is highly invasive. Once the roots become established in the soil, they are very stubborn. It is slow to become established, but difficult to eradicate. The Pinto peanuts that are nearest to my yard are about two miles away, yet I occasionally find tiny seedlings of it in my flower beds. I quickly pull them out.

If you own acreage or pasture land, you may want to use Pinto peanut. If you have a suburban lot, you may want to take a pass on this one. You don’t want your neighbors to hate you.

Creeping Jenny

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Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia) is prized for its foliage, because it often does not flower at all. This cultivar is called “Goldilocks”. When it does bloom, the small flowers are yellow with dark red spots. Jenny forms a dense mat, and is is NOT drought tolerant. In fact, it thrives in moist soil, and must be watered well during dry spells. It’s worth the effort, though, to have that lime-green color that contrasts so well when set among the darker green and blue-green leaves of other foliage plants, or among brightly colored flowers. My Jenny has never bloomed, but I love it anyway.

Jenny does well in Zones 3 – 9, and can tolerate all but intense light — it will need shelter from the harsh heat of afternoon sun. Unless you live in the warmest climates, it will die back in winter. It is an annual, but with the mild winters of Zones 7 – 9, it will stay around. It may begin to look a bit ragged, but when spring arrives, it will perk right up again. Creeping Jenny spreads quickly, but I’ve never had a problem with it becoming invasive. It is really pretty spilling over a retaining wall or dangling from a container.

Purple Ajuga (a.k.a. Bugleweed)

The plants in the photo above are still quite young, and have not yet turned the purple/green that is so popular. Ajuga reptans will grow in full shade, but does best with morning sun and dappled light, which brings out the purple color in the leaves. It can take some full sun, but you will see fuller coverage and larger, healthier plants if shaded from the harsh afternoon sun. In heavy wet clay soil, or in the humid conditions of the Deep South, crown rot can be a problem. Be sure to allow for good air circulation. 

Ajuga grows as little rosettes (see center of photo) that send out runners which establish more rosettes, and the process continues. When clumps become overcrowded, they can be divided and moved or shared with a friend.

Ajuga is one of my favorites because it blooms, and its dark green and purple leaves add interest to the garden. It prefers moist soil, but requires good drainage. Once established, Ajuga reptans is self-sufficient. In late spring it sends up little stalks about 8 – 10 inches tall that have tiny purple flowers. To encourage spreading, remove spent flower stalks. Here’s a peek at the flowers.

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If it’s where you want it to be, it’s a wildflower. If it’s where you don’t want it to be, it’s a weed.

— Maria

Golden Sedum

Golden Sedum (Sedum rupestre) is a foliage plant that spreads rapidly, and grows to a height of 4 to 6 inches, and requires full sun. It . When newly planted, golden sedum should be kept moist, but once it becomes established in your garden, it will need less water. It should, however, be watered more often during dry spells. It is hardy to 10 degrees F. Mine died back this winter, but came right back when warm days returned. Another good thing about this one is that it is deer resistant.

This dense ground cover has a beautiful bright green color, but under dry conditions, turns to a more golden/green color, hence the common name, Golden Sedum. I prefer the darker, brighter, green myself, but that’s just me.

Ornamental Sweet Potato Vine

No ‘taters, just foliage. Sweet potato vine can be invasive, so be careful where you plant it.

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This particular cultivar is called “Margarita”. While ornamental sweet potato vine (Ipomoea balatas) does not produce potatoes, it does provide beautiful foliage that adds gorgeous color to your landscape. It is happy in Zones 8b to 11, but at the first frost, it’s toast. Along with the chartruese type shown here, there is also a dark purple/black type that is equally beautiful. Both are gorgeous when paired with brightly colored flowers such as impatiens, petunias, or vinca. At our former home, I paired this Margarita potato vine with hot pink vinca in the bed around our mailbox. The contrasting colors were stunning.

It spreads quickly to cover large areas. Because of this, it has become a common summer plant in commercial landscaping, as well as the home landscape. It likes full sun — at least 6 hours per day. Because the growing season is so long, giving it ample time to spread, here in central Florida, the local master gardeners recommend against planting this ground cover, because it is so very invasive.

Mondo Grass

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This is mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicas). It is in the lirope (monkey grass) family, but grows to only about 6 inches tall. It is a shade-loving plant, and spreads quickly and stays dark green year-round. It may become a bit discolored in times of extreme drought or long periods of extreme cold. It should be watered well until established. After becoming established, it can be left on its own to flourish, except of course, in extremely dry conditions.

Mondo grass and its cousin, dwarf mondo (Ophiopogon japonicas nanus), which reaches heights of only 3 to 4 inches, are great ground covers for shady areas where little else will grow. Both are especially good to plant underneath large trees that block the sunlight so much that turf grass cannot survive.

Wild Violets

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Another favorite of mine is the wild violet (Viola papilionacea). While technically not a ground cover, wild violets can serve the same purpose. These little guys will flourish wherever there is a woodland setting, and will spread by seed to cover large areas. They don’t insist on a woodland setting, though, and will even move into the edges of your lawn if you don’t watch them. Just a little encouragement and they may spread too much, but they are beautiful when they bloom. They have purple, white, or lavender flowers on 3-4 inch stems in springtime. The flowers tend to open in mid-day. If you have hard freezes in winter, they will die back for the duration, but will cheerfully return when spring arrives. Because wild violets spread by seed, and can pop up all anywhere, some people consider them to be weeds, but I think they are beautiful.

Do you need ground covers in your landscape?

Do you have one of those spots where grass simply refuses to grow? Do you make use of ground covers? They can serve a wonderful purpose in your garden and yard. With the exception of wild violets, all the ground covers I have discussed spread primarily by runners. Still, they can sometimes move into your grass, too. So keep an eye on them. Of course, if you hate mowing lawns …

Thank you for visiting this page. I hope you enjoyed it and will plant some new ground covers.

4 responses to “Great Ground Covers for Sun or Shade

  1. Nicely done, Maria. So informative. I wish I had a landscape, but when I did and if I ever do again, yes to ground covers. They add depth and texture that puts a lawn to shame and lend an elegance to the simplest garden. One of my college professors (L.A. school years and years ago) showed us how to avoid the invasive nature by pitting two or three ground covers against each other. One of the prettiest gardens I ever saw used them so they flowed liked rivers eddying in and out of each other’s path.

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