Wild Seed Project tree background
by Heather McCargo

Groundcovers are low-growing plants that fill in quickly to make a dense carpet of foliage. Once established, they’ll crowd out weeds, provide year-round protection to the soil, and offer overwintering habitat for native fauna.

Ideally, a groundcover should include several species combined to create a beautiful tapestry of foliage and blooms, offering a long season of interest to humans and pollinators. Choose species with a similar growth rate (aggressiveness) for low-maintenance planting.

Below are some of my favorite groundcover combinations for a variety of growing conditions ranging from shade to sun. Once you’ve determined your site’s conditions, choose at least three to combine for your plantings.

For a visually dynamic planting and to create a more diverse habitat with safe places for birds and pollinators to forage and hide, include larger shrubs and trees.

Species marked with an * are tolerant of tough urban and roadside conditions such as infertile soil and salt spray.
Species marked with a # indicate an American plant native south or west of Maine.

Part to Full Shade for Large Sites

These four species are aggressive growers and make a great combination for large, low-maintenance shady sites. These species are too dominant for small landscapes, unless bordered by pavement or lawn:

  • May-apple (Podophyllum peltatum) #
  • Canada windflower (Anemone canadensis)
  • Eastern hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula)
  • Large-leaved wood-aster (Eurybia macrophylla)

Plants for part to full shade for large sites

Part to Full Shade with Medium Moisture and Moderately Fertile soils

  • Canada wild ginger (Asarum canadense)
  • Golden star (Chrysogonum virginianum) #
  • Wild bleeding-heart (Dicentra eximia) #
  • White wood-aster (Symphyotrichum divaricata)

Ferns:

  • Creeping wood phlox (Phlox stolonifera) #
  • Foam-flower (Tiarella cordifolia)
  • Maidenhair fern (Adiantum peltatum)
  • New York fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis)
  • Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina)
  • Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilities)
  • Allegany spurge (Pachysandra procumbens) #
  • Golden groundsel (Packera aurea)
  • Spreading Jacob’s-ladder (Polemonium reptans) #
  • King Solomon’s-seal (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum)
  • New England violet (Viola novae-angliae)

Plants for part to full shade with medium moisture and moderately fertile soils

Part Shade, Moist to Dry Acid Soils (near spruce, firs, and pines)

  • Bunchberry (Chamaepericlymenum canadense)
  • Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
  • Large-leaved wood-aster (Eurybia macrophylla)
  • White wood-aster (Symphyotrichum divaricatus)
  • Canada-mayflower (Maianthemum canadense)

Ferns:

  • Eastern hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula)
  • New York Fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis)
  • Common strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)
  • Lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium)

Plants with part shade, moist to dry acid soils

Full Sun and Dry Sandy or Gravelly Soil

  • Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
  • Sand/moss phlox (Phlox bifida, P. subulata) #
  • Common strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)
  • Bush-honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera) *
  • Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis)
  • Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) # *

Plants for full sun and dry sandy or gravelly soil

Full to Part Sun for Medium Moisture and Fertile Soils

  • Canada windflower (Anemone canadensis)
  • Heart-leaved golden Alexanders (Zizia aptera) #
  • Wild bleeding-heart (Dicentra eximia) #
  • Spreading Jacob’s-ladder (Polemonium reptans) #

Note: In full sun with moist fertile soil, weeding will still be needed.

Plants for full to part sun for medium moisture and fertility soils

These Woody Shrubs Make Very Low-Maintenance Plantings.

Once again, combine several species with the same growing needs.

  • Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
  • Sweet-fern (Comptonia peregrina) *
  • Bush-honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera) *
  • Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis)
  • Virginia-creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
  • Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) # *
  • Flowering raspberry (Rubus odoratus)
  • Shrub yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) #
  • Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Woody shrubs make very low maintenance plantings

Species with an * are tolerant of tough urban and roadside conditions such as infertile soil and salt spray.
Species with a # indicate an American plant native south or west of Maine.