Used most frequently to cover large areas of landscaping, many types of ground covers thrive under challenging conditions where other types of plants have difficulty growing. As the name implies, ground covers spread via rhizomes or runners; many are very useful in helping to control erosion on hillsides, as shade plants or to provide continuity between landscape specimen plants.
Allegheny Spurge (Pachysandra procumbens)
Similar to the widely grown Japanese spurge, this native ground cover for shade differs from its Asian cousin by its larger, denser foliage and propensity to turn a reddish bronze in the fall. Plants reach 8 to 12 inches in height and spread to form clumps roughly 4 feet in width. Short spikes of pink to white flowers appear in spring.
Carolina Jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens)
Native to the southeastern United States, this thin, woody, semi-evergreen vine is frequently grown on trellises but also performs well as a ground cover. The plant is named for the highly fragrant, yellow trumpet-shaped flowers which appear around Easter. Plants are deciduous north of Zone 7 and perform best in full sun to part shade.
Coral Bells (Heuchera species)
Native, non-native and vast numbers of cultivated varieties of coral bells are offered through nursery trade. Plants grow in clumps up to 15 inches tall and wide, and the thin flower spikes which appear in late spring to early summer grow up to a foot above the main plant. Heuchera grows best in part shade to part sun and comes in a huge range of colors, including a recent introduction of a series of deep-purple leaved plants.
Creeping Phlox (Phlox stolonifera)
Unlike the creeping phlox seen often in full sun, the native creeping phlox is a shade-loving plant which forms dense mats. Flowers are extremely showy, appearing in April and May in shades of pink, purple and blue. Leaves are hairy and stems are somewhat sticky, reminiscent of petunia stems. Plants are reputed to have moderate deer resistance.
Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum)
Creeping thyme is a fragrant, easy-to-grow ground cover for poor soils or full-sun sites. It is often sold as a "stepable" plant for rock gardens or yards with dogs. Also known as mother-of-thyme, this plant is evergreen and hardy to Zone 4 and produces light- to medium-purple flowers in the spring.
Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra cultivars)
This slow spreader for lightly shaded sites has foliage resembling that of bamboo, cascading down over the 12- to 18-inch mound the plant forms. Many different cultivated varieties exist, featuring different-colored foliage from yellow to green to variegated leaves. Hakone grass performs best in rich, well-drained soils.
Juniper (Juniperus species)
One of the very few woody ground covers available on the market, the evergreen ground cover juniper is available in several different colors, from light or dark green as well as blue, silver, yellow and gold. Ground cover juniper varieties grow in heights from several inches to two feet, and are excellent for dry, sunny or otherwise difficult growing sites. Junipers are slow growers but form very dense mats.
Scotch Moss (Sagina subulata)
Contrary to its name, Scotch moss, also sometimes called Irish moss, is not a moss at all. Though it is fond of moist soils, all resemblances to moss ends there; Scotch moss performs best in full-sun sites. Tiny, white, star-shaped flowers stud the bright green foliage in spring. It is an excellent candidate for placement in rock gardens or between paving stones.
Stonecrop (Sedum species)
This succulent-type plant is deceptively versatile. Sedum is drought and shade tolerant, but also grows well in full sun; in milder climates, it persists through the winter in a semi-evergreen state, and in the springtime puts on a flush of new growth along with flowers which range from white to yellow.
Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum)
A favorite ground cover for deeply shaded sites, sweet woodruff grows rapidly and is considered invasive by some when it is not consistently managed. One of the few edible herbs that thrives in shade, sweet woodruff's deeply divided foliage resembles that of lupine. Clusters of small white flowers appear in spring.