“Plants that creep, crawl and spread over the earth like a warm quilt are called groundcovers. They are the fine linens of the landscape. Insulating in winter and sealing in the earth’s cool moisture in summer, these living blankets have an important place in the garden.”
Alison Arnold, Extension Agent, Agriculture-Consumer Horticulture
Mountain Xpress, April 28, 2004
Landscaping hot, dry places can be a challenge. When it comes to groundcovers, however, gardeners have a rich variety of options that not only protect against erosion, but also provide color and texture. Once you’ve tested the soil pH and done a sun study, it’s time to make your choices. These are plants that thrive in well-drained soil—sun-loving groundcovers don’t like, “wet feet.” They are especially well-suited to banks and slopes, borders, pathways, and rock gardens. Here are some winners that are low maintenance—and many are deer-resistant.
- Violet (Viola labradorica): This long-blooming North American native does surprisingly well in the south, especially in mountain gardens. Its purplish-green leaves and delicate lavender flowers are a welcome sight in spring and summer for butterflies and bees. This low-grower (4 to 8 inches) prefers moist, well-drained soil and succeeds in full sun to partial shade. With no serious insect or disease problems, this is a groundcover you plant and forget. Just make sure that you are buying the native Viola labradorica and not the non-native Viola riviniana!
- Dwarf mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus): Easily mistaken for Liriope, this dwarf grass-like plant is a finer-textured groundcover choice that makes a stunning feature along borders and pathways and between stepping stones. Just 2 to 4 inches tall, dwarf varieties have tiny flowers that are white or light lilac. It is both drought-tolerant and deer-resistant.
- Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum): Where does the thyme go? If it is creeping thyme, plant it in dry, warm, sunny spots. This makes a perfect groundcover for rock gardens, the edges of garden beds, between stepping stones, and cascading down rock walls where soil is dry, light-textured, and bathed in sunlight. This aromatic groundcover creates dense, sprawling green mats that can withstand “tromping,” making it an excellent choice for high traffic areas. It is evergreen, deer-resistant, and produces lilac to purple flowers in the summer months.
- Creeping St. John’s wort or Aaron’s beard (Hypericum calycinum): Creeping St. John’s wort is also an excellent groundcover, especially on slopes. Drought tolerant once established, this 12- to 18-inch plant spreads easily to 2 feet, so when planting be sure to allow plenty of room. St. John’s wort prefers fertile, loamy, well-drained acidic soil. Because it blooms on new growth, St. John’s wort benefits from old wood pruning in the fall but otherwise is maintenance free. The cultivar ‘Brigadoon’ sports chartreuse-yellow foliage and provides a pop of color that only intensifies in the summer when it is covered in yellow blossoms. Cooperative Extension Agent Minda Daughtry says “Brigadoon is one of my ‘set it and forget it’ low maintenance plants that makes me smile for the most glow with the least grappling. If you’re fond of gold plants, you’ll find this golden nugget a treasure.”
- Prostrate Japanese plum yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Prostrata’): This stunning deer-resistant evergreen satisfies the long-held desire of Southern gardeners for a yew that will thrive in hot, humid weather. Japanese plum yew is a slow grower, but don’t let that deter you from adding it to your garden. It thrives in a wide variety of soils but is happiest when it is moist and well-drained. At maturity this prostrate version reaches 2 to 3 feet in height and 3 feet in diameter. Allow plenty of room; it likes to spread! The Japanese plum yew has dark green linear flat-leafed needles like its Taxus namesake and sports striking lime-green new growth in the spring.
Article written by Janet Moore, Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer.
Plant Files by NC State Extension
Violet (Viola labrodorica)
Dwarf mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus)
Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum)
St. John’s wort or Aaron’s beard (Hypericum calycinum)
Prostrate Japanese plum yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Prostrata’)