Shrubs and groundcover are both types of plants commonly used in landscaping. Shrubs are upright, while groundcover creeps along the ground. Some plants can be classified as both shrubs and groundcovers. There are a wide range of plant choices for shrubs and groundcover, with plenty of options to fit any climate, landscape, or preference of the home gardener.
Shrubs and groundcover plants can be grouped according to type. Evergreen plants are those plants that retain their foliage year-round. Deciduous plants lose their foliage in the fall. Shrubs and groundcovers are also classified as either broad-leafed or needled. Finally, shrubs and groundcovers are often defined according to whether or not they produce showy flowers.
Shrubs grow in a mound. These plants usually have to be pruned to retain their shape and are often grouped together to form hedges. Shrubs usually grow on multiple trunks, or branches. Some have a very compact form and foliage, such as English boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), while others have long, loose, arching branches, as is the case with weigelas (Weigela florida.)
Groundcover plants spread along the soil, usually on rhizomes, and are much shorter than shrubs. In fact, groundcovers are usually not much taller than 24 inches, according to Colorado State University. These plants are not usually pruned, save in those rare cases where the groundcover may invade garden areas or grow up trees. English ivy (Hedera helix) is one such groundcover that often needs to be pruned.
Shrubs are often used as specimen plants, especially if they have showy flowers, such as hydrangeas. They are also planted to form privacy hedges and screens, or to create barriers. Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergi) is a shrub that has long thorns and is often used as an effective deer barrier plant. Some varieties of Chinese holly (Ilex cornuta) are also very thorny and used in the same manner.
Groundcovers are used to prevent erosion, to fill in the areas beneath large trees, and to cascade over hillsides and banks, according to the University of Missouri. They are often planted in shady areas where more colorful perennials and shrubs will not grow well. Hostas (Hosta sp.) are popular groundcover plants that grow well in full shade.
Turfgrass is the most commonly grown groundcover, according to the University of Illinois. Most homeowners enjoy the look of a lush, green lawn. Turfgrass is one of the few groundcovers that can be walked on. Most other groundcovers are not comfortable or durable enough to be used in ways other than for ornamental purposes. Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) is a showy, flowering perennial groundcover often used to cascade over a retaining wall. This is one groundcover that needs full sunlight.
Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is a large shrub that has a lot of desirable features. It has fragrant leaves, attractive gray berries and beautiful fall color. This shrub is a good choice difficult areas of the garden, as it grows well on poor soil, according to the University of Missouri. The Redosier dogwood (stolonifera) has attractive, bright-red or yellow twigs that provide winter interest, especially against snowy drifts. This shrub is very adaptable to all types of growing conditions but grows best in moist climates.
Shrubs and groundcovers suffer from the same common plant problems as all other types of plants do. They can be bothered by insect pests such as aphids, Japanese beetles and scale. Minor insect infestations can be rinsed off with a strong stream of water. In severe cases, insecticides might be needed. Diseases can also affect shrubs and groundcovers, with the most common being fungal diseases. These frequently spread on water, so take care to avoid wetting the foliage of your groundcover and shrubs as much as possible. Systematic applications of fungicides can also help prevent fungal diseases.