Grass itself is actually a ground cover. But it is a ground cover that requires a lot of labor and expense to keep it lush and weed free. Many other ground cover plants can provide erosion control, fight back weeds, fill a hillside and thrive in dry conditions, while still adding a unique beauty to your garden.
There are far more choices than the hens and chicks, pachysandra and ajuga and even hostas typically seen, and some of them are gorgeous. Daylilies are lovely, but at the end of the season my neighbors' yards filled with these plants have only what appear to be bare soil. Here are a few groundcovers that I have grown I have grown with success that are still in evidence after the end of the season in colder climates. I am in zone 5a (rapidly shifting to 6b) but I will provide information for all zones for each plant.
A plant that I recently discovered that thrives in my yard is dwarf plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides), also known as leadwort, which is the zone 5 hardy perennial, although this may be debatable. I have seen listed as both zones 5 to 9 and 6 to 9. Please do not confuse it with the equally lovely zone 8 shrub Plumbago auriculata. This terrific little plant has shiny green leaves that turn bronze red in autumn. It produces beautiful blue flowers in summer and into the fall. I find it fully hardy in my zone. I planted it under an evergreen, and it is thriving. It can accept full sun, as well as partial shade, and grows about eight inches tall and one to two feet wide. It does leaf out late in the spring. I have read that it can be pushy. I installed it under a taxus and it filled it out beautifully without being aggressive, and I intend to transplant the extras to other areas of my garden. I do intend to provide it with a winter mulch although I have not in the past, particularly since it is on the south side of my yard.
You have probably read articles about epimediums but may not have tried this tough and beautiful plant. My recommendation is Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphureum', a plant that I have grown in both half sun and full shade. A slowly expanding, weed-resistant cultivar, it is commonly available, one of the best cultivars and one of the least expensive. The flowers are lovely. The plant grows to 12 inches tall and spreads to 18 inches, and is hardy in zones 5 to 9. It is quite drought tolerant once established, and I found that it could be easily divided by simply cutting through it with a sharp shovel. That is how I divided a mature one for a move to a new home.
Athyrium nipponicum var.pictum was the 2004 Perennial Plant of the year with good reason. It is not aggressive, but it gently spreads. Both height and spread are about two feet.
But if you are seeking a fern with a little more get up and go - a beautiful spreader by clumping - try the much newer Athyrium 'Branford Rambler'. It is a cross between Athyrium nipponicum var. pictum and Athyrium felix-femina aka Lady Fern. It's dark green fronds grow to 24 inches and it is notable for its burgundy or maroon central stripes.
Here is a picture of Athyrium nipponicum var. pictum and 'Branford Rambler' on the left and pictum on the right. Both can take full to part shade, have no disease issues, and require little care other than providing some moisture, which is easier in shade. Looking at the plant, it’s a stunner, and – in my gardens – it handles part to full shade. Rabbits leave both plants alone. Both of these ferns are zone 4 to 8 hardy.
Eragrostis spectabilis, also known as purple love grass, is a bunching grass that is hardy from zones 5 to 9. I discovered this completely charming plant a few years ago and was delighted to find that it was in fact hardy in my zone. The height and spread are one to two feet, but perhaps the nicest thing from my perspective is that it is juglone tolerant, so I could grow several plants near my neighbor's dreaded walnut trees. It blooms in the summer for two to three months, and then it dries and remains ornamental over the winter. It's stunning covered with snow. And it is extremely drought tolerant, requiring no maintenance. It tolerates air pollution! It just needs good drainage, which is probably why it does so beautifully on my driveway.
The blooms are a beautiful reddish purple. They can be cut for the house. It does seed, but the seedlings are easy to recognize and remove.
The winter brings another spectacular display.
Fragaria vesca 'Reugen', also known as woodland strawberry, is an exceptional plant that can be used as a groundcover or edger. It can easily be divided to make more plants, and if the delicious edible berries are not removed, the seeds from them will cause an increase in the number of plants. Better yet, it can be easily grown from seed. It does not have runners. It is a clumping plant, so it will get larger - making division that much easier. It is hardy in zones 5 to 9. Just a word of warning - make certain that any strawberry you grow is not, in fact, a sterile and invasive one. If you are acquiring it from an uncertain source, I recommend that you place it in a pot for a season. If it flings itself everywhere, or has hard little inedible berries, keep it confined.
In the one man's meat is another man's poison is bergenia. Some people adore it, and others dislike it. I liked it enough to grow it from seed so that I could have a larger number of this part sun part shade plant in my yard.
Here it is before bloom. This is Bergenia cordifolia. A similar cultivar that is not only widely available but easy to grow is Bergenia 'Winterglut'. Zone 3 to 8 hardy, it spreads slowly by clumping, with heart shaped leaves. It is so versatile that I first saw it in San Francisco but it grows beautifully in zone 5a.
Please consider adding one or more of these easygoing plants to your landscaping. You’ll be glad you did.