Growing your native garden from the ground up.
Here are the six best ground covers I know of based on a preference for an evergreen, or almost evergreen, that spreads on its' own, adds color or texture, is easy to grow and is widely available. Some are tall; some are short. Ground covers are awesome for reducing maintenance in your garden. Experts often refer to ground covers as living mulch. They block weeds, help keep moisture in the soil and native ground covers provide essential habitat.
Full sun: pussytoes, native violet
Part sun: green & gold, heuchera 'autumn bride,' native violet
Part shade: Allegheny pachysandra, Christmas fern, green & gold, heuchera 'autumn bride,' native violet
Full shade: Allegheny pachysandra, Christmas fern, heuchera 'autumn bride,' native violet
Allegheny pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens)
This is the native pachysandra. It is about the same size as and flowers similarly to Japanese pachysandra that is prevalent throughout our landscapes. Unlike Japanese pachysandra though, Allegheny pachysandra emerges with light green new growth wich turns to a beautiful blue in summer and then mottled coloring in fall. The one criticism I often read is that it is slow to establish. I haven't really found that to be the case. I planted plugs of Allegheny pachysandra three years ago and now they have formed a carpet. It may be that plugs of Japanese pachysandra may have formed that carpet in two years ... I can't say. This grows well in all soils and requires no maintenance. It is semi-evergreen meaning it does not totally die back in winter. Allegheny pachysandra is usually always available at native plant nurseries and sometimes available at larger garden centers.
Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
This is a semi-evergreen fern that grows two to three feet high. It makes a great ground cover beneath trees and shrubs. It spreads, though fairly slowly. It tolerates dryer soils as well as moist soil so is versatile. It requires no maintenance and looks great en masse. Christmas is usually always available at native plant nurseries and sometime available at larger garden centers.
Green and gold (Chrysogonum virgnianum)
This is a semi-evergreen short plant that quickly forms a carpet, blooms with a flush of yellow flowers in spring and then blooms sporadically through the rest of summer. It looks fragile but it is not. Ours gets occasional foot traffic and seems none the worse for wear. Green and gold is usually always available at the native plant nurseries and sometimes available at larger garden centers.
Heuchera 'Autumn Bride' (Heuchera villosa 'Autumn Bride')
I know I include this plant on practically every list I compose but it is for good reason. This is a cultivar of the native alumroot plant and seems to do it all, except take foot traffic. It is a semi-evergreen plant that does well in dry or moist conditions, new foliage emerges early in spring and lasts through December and sometimes beyond. It flowers with 2 to 3 foot high spikes of tiny white flowers in the heat of August and September and looks spectacular en masse. It's also very easy to grow. You can easily separate new plants and place them around your garden where needed. Heuchera 'Autumn Bride' is sometimes available at native plant nurseries and often available at larger garden centers. Please note this will not be available at those nurseries that carry only local ecotype plants or straight species because this is a cultivar of the native alumroot.
Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia)
This is a relatively new ground cover to me and is touted for its tolerance of sunny, dry conditions. I planted plugs in compacted clay fill in a sunny, very dry location and two years in, it is forming a carpet. The foliage is the same blue as lamb's ears and has a bit of texture too. It's low growing and blooms with a small white flower on 6" stems in early summer. It is super tough. Pussytoes is likely to only be available from native plant nurseries.
Violet (Viola sororia)
Yes, this is the native blue violet you may have spent considerable time trying to keep at bay from your lawn! When I first saw it for sale at the now closed Behnke's Nursery I thought, wow, if I had known you could sell that ....! After learning more though, I am using this ground cover. When planted en masse, to the lower right in the first photo above, the purple flowers in spring are pretty nice. The flowers and leaves provide native insects pollen and other food at a critical time. It is a strong ground cover which easily creates a carpet of dense green heart shaped leaves. The downside though, as you probably know, is its' tendency to spread. It's a great ground cover and ecologically beneficial but please think carefully whether it is for you. If you are still incredulous at this suggestion, and I don't blame you, here is a more detailed assessment from the experts at the Penn Extension Service. If at all in doubt, please choose green and gold instead. It has none of these worries. Native violet is often available from native plant nurseries and occasionally available from larger garden centers.
Ok, we have covered a lot of ground. Please let us all know if you have another favorite ground cover by adding it in the comments below. Thanks for reading!