the toughest groundcovers i rely on

geranium-macrorrhizumW HEN I AM GONE, SOME OF THE PLANTS HERE WILL PERISH, TOO; any finicky or timid ones will get swamped by their more ambitious neighbors. But not the great groundcovers, not Geranium macrorrhizum (above) or the toughest epimediums and others content to keep growing whether I pay them any mind or not, even in the hardest spots like the dry shade of trees. To knit things together without a lot of fuss, I’ve come to rely on plants like these:

Geranium macrorrhizum, the big-root geranium: I wonder how many square miles of this plant I have grown. The bigroot geranium is so named because instead of a clumping habit, it grows from a ropelike rhizome that seems to barely need to touch the ground to thrive. Its attractive foliage has an aromatic, spicy scent, and is nearly evergreen even in my Zone 5B garden.

It will survive, I think, except in the wet; sun or shade, and even dry shade. All I give it is an annual haircut, and I do that when spring is turning to summer, the flowers have gone by and the leaves are stretching upward. Deadheading would be another option, but just shearing the whole plant is faster in masses, and also keeps it tighter and denser.

The straight species is pink (but not pastel); if Pepto Bismol isn’t going to work for you, there is the more prim ‘Ingwersen’s Variety,’ with nearly white blooms (and a less rampant overall demeanor, too, I think).

epimediumEpimediums, or barrenworts: Thanks in large part to the passion of Darrell Probst, the esteemed Epimedium collector and founder of Garden Vision Epimediums nursery in Massachusetts, a dizzying selection of the charming barrenworts is now in the marketplace. I have some choice ones, but two of the less rarified (and therefore less expensive) varieties have served me particularly well for groundcover: E. x rubrum (above, slower but steady, and very floriferous) and E. versicolor ‘Sulphureum,’ (more ambitious from the start, with early yellow blooms, a real do-er, as they say).

Shady locations suit epimediums, and once established they can really take it dry. In fact, their woody rhizomes will resent a wet spot, and rot.  Like many woodlanders with these woody underground parts, I find they like an intervention every now and again: When a clump gets really full, I go in and divide it, and repeat my success elsewhere with the divisions.

Plan to cut back their nearly evergreen foliage in late winter, as we have discussed before.

I highly recommend calling or writing for a catalog from Garden Vision, now owned by Karen Perkins, who has worked with Darrell since the operation’s founding in 1997. A website is in the works, but for now: (978) 249-3863 or email to epimediums at earthlink dot net.

hellebore-hybrids-massedHellborus orientalis hybrids: At the risk of repeating myself, the hybrid hellebores (massed above) are incredibly durable, increasing as their evergreen clumps widen and also by sowing themselves liberally around. The crash course on these toughies (and a slideshow of some beauties).

trachystemonTrachystemon orientalis is a fourth great groundcover lurking here at A Way to Garden, one I’m about to press into wider service than I have until now. Trachystemon orientalis, with its blue early spring flowers and bold, heart-shaped foliage from spring through fall, will put up with almost anything. You may recall my saying so not long ago.

Do you have areas where a one of these would help thwart weeds, shade the soil, and just tie things together visually? Or do you have any other reliable great groundcovers to recommend?

May 20, 2009


  1. Eric says

    Another rampantly growing groundcover to consider is Lamiastrum, a.k.a. Yellow Archangel. It grows well in shade and tolerates dry conditions when the soil is rich. Its variegated foliage makes it a nice foil for dark green leaves of hellebore and hosta. It can become a bit invasive here in Philadelphia but its runners are relatively easy to yank out where they are unwanted.

  2. says

    We have despaired of our dry woodland beds because of the drought for the last two years but 2 shrubs that have done very well are Eleutherococcus sieboldianus ‘Variegatus’ (beautiful) and Euonymous fortunei ‘Kewensis’ (bizarre). The gound has been bone dry until last week. On the day that a hosepipe ban was introduced in our region, East Anglia (UK) it started raining and hasn’t stopped since…

    • says

      Hi, Liz. Just int he kick, huh…all that rain! High-drama the last year here, too — all rain last year, none this year, snow till April last year, none this year…and so on. Crazy-mad. Nice to see you, and please come say hello again.

  3. sonali says

    Hi Margaret, your groundcover slideshow is wonderful! I am looking for some groundcover varieties that would do well and grow fast under pine trees (only 1-2 hours of sun if at all) and acidic, mostly dry soil. The only one I have growing so far is Pachysandra. Which others should I go for (looking for a combination of 3 or 4)? Would much appreciate your response!

    • says

      Hi, Sonali. The shade of evergreen trees is the hardest — the least light, moisture, nutrients. Buy one or two small pots of epimedium and see if it will do it there, and certain ferns are also very tough (here, male fern, lady fern, Christmas fern and hay-scented fern all tolerate a lot of tough spots). Under two big dwarf white pines I have had success with hellebores (orientalis types), and also oddly the ostrich fern. The key is to start with SMALL plants and not try to have big things shocked into submission in dry/dark all of a sudden.

    • Eli says

      Lamium (not false lamium) does well under pine and spruce trees. We’ve used it that way for years with great success.

  4. Beth says

    Love your site! The ground covers seem really tempting, however do they really keep out weeds, I mean reall? And what about fall clean up with all the bushels of maple leaves collecting all over them??? I have a very steep narrow bank under maple trees O have been trying to plant for years. Some shrubs are doing okay to keep. Everyone says plant ground covers now. But I gasp in horror when I think of how they would trap weed seeds, camouflage weeds, and how hard to mulch them then as I said before, the fall leaves! Am I missing out on a good thing by living in fear?

    • says

      Hi, Beth. I think ones like Geranium macrorrhizum or epimediums can deal with tough spots and thwart weeds/require only once-yearly care. Compared to weeds….groundcovers you CHOOSE are a salvation.

  5. says

    I am using nearly all of the groundcover plants mentioned above in my woodland garden. Two new groundcovers introduced by Terra Nova this year are Heucherella ‘Yellowstone Falls’ and ‘Redstone Falls’ – both only 6″ high and trailing to 3 feet, rooting where they touch earth. Recommended for hanging baskets and groundcover in part to full shade. Both have beautiful foliage and the typical foam flowers and supposedly, moderate water requirements. Hardy in zones 4-9 ought to make them usable just about anywhere. Sometimes the hype on new introductions turns out not to be reliable so I shall see how good a groundcover they will be – I do love both the chartreuse and the deeper reddish green of both forms.

  6. debby goldberg says

    Thanks so much for this newsletter. I have a question –

    About Big root geranium – you say

    “It will survive, I think, except in the wet; sun or shade, and even dry shade.” I am confused. Do you mean that it will survive in anywhere dry?

    • says

      Sorry, Debby. How unclear of me! :) In my Zone (5B) it will grow in sun or shade, and even dry shade (or regular — but not in a wet spot, where I think its big rhizomes would rot off).

  7. Joanna Spaulding says

    Ever wary of the possibility of early snow, I have pulled my nasturtiums. Then, of course, I harvest the seeds for next year. My spouse calls my “harvesting” another sign of my thrift*. I call it conservation for future plantings; the same with Allium and the many varieties of CA poppies (lots of different colors

    *this is not the term she uses. j

  8. Steve says

    Two more good shade groundcovers that work well for me upstate are Salvia koyamae, a pale yellow Fall-Blooming salvia for shade and Saruma henryi, a Spring-blooming yellow flowered Asarum relative. They both look great with Symphytum grandiflorum, which was already mentioned. The Symphytum has some Winter presence, but the two others are completely deciduous. All tolerate dry shade and if you add Disporum lanuginosum and Disporum sessile ‘Variegatum’ you get some height and even more foliar interest and more cream and yellow floral color.

  9. says

    Dear Margaret,

    I’m a recently reader of your fabulous blog.
    I was happy to discover Trachystemon and I hope I’ll find it here (I’m near Montréal, Canada).
    For my part, I just love Tiarella canadensis who is delicate yet a good performer as a groundcover.
    I wish you a happy autumn!

    • says

      Thanks, Jasmine. I bet you can mail-order it somewhere. I don’t know the Canadian places as well as the US ones, sorry to say. Tiarella is a charmer, you are right. Nice to see you, and thanks for saying hello.

  10. says

    Some ground covers that do well for me in my dry woods garden in Western North Carolina are Brunnera macrophylla (seeds and spreads and is not eaten by slugs like Jack Frost or Hadspen Cream), Aster divaricatus – the White Wood Aster, Carex siderosticha ‘Variegata’ and Hakonechloa ‘All Gold’. These last two grasses supposedly require more moist conditions than I provide but both are great ground covers for me. ‘All Gold’ planted 3 years ago has been divided this year to give me 12 new plants plus the old one, left in place, is already again 2 ft. wide. Granted we had a LOT of rain this year.
    New this year for me are Heucherella ‘Redstone Falls’ and ‘Yellowstone Falls’. I planted them in midsummer from gallon containers and already they’re making new plants from runners. I think these two will be great ground cover additions for my dry woods.

  11. Sarah F says

    for under my lilacs which are ancient and therefore leggy I have periwinkle. It creeps until it reaches a very sunny spot and then stays pretty compact. Its been around for such a long time that the purple blooms in spring are 2 ” in diameter.

  12. Chris Baswell says

    Ceratostigma plumbaginoides (aka Hardy Plumbago, or less happily Blue Leadwort) is a wonderful groundcover. It seems to grow anywhere, sun or shade, moist or dry. I grew it up against the trunk of a maple, where the soil was like powder all summer. It’s about 8″ high, spreads slowly to maybe 18″ wide, strong but not invasive. Its shiny dark green leaves make a cool picture all summer, nice color and texture contrast with Hakonechloa, but come late summer, the blossoms of true sapphire blue come out, then seed heads tinged with red, and with the cool weather the leaves turn scarlet then mahogany. Completely reliable.

  13. Sherrye Henry says

    Martha, I’m the person who asked the question about possible plants before an impressive doorway, with some height, that would be located in heavy shade…but I don’t know where to find your answer. Could you possibly email it to me? I’ve checked the blogs, but get lost trying.

    Thanks in advance, so much!


  14. Karen Palmer says

    Aegopodium variegata is a wonderful ground cover used at the lovely “Gilroy Gardens” in Gilroy, California.

  15. Carol says

    Have not grown the Trachystemon- will check it out. Love the other 3. Deer have left my Hellebores and Geranium macrorrhizum alone. Also like Vancouveria hexandra for tough dry shade. Do you grow it?

  16. Debbie Gregory says

    I only just discovered you after watching Growing a Greener World. Your mature landscape is what I’ve been attempting to create. I foolishly landscaped all of my 1-1/2 acre yard and am trying to keep up with the maintenance all on my own, and with a full time job. I’m in the Seattle area so everything grows fast and lush, including weeds. Previous owners logged the whole property so I have no shade……yet. I’ve planted many baby trees, which really tests my patience waiting for them to grow (7 years in now). So everything is full sun for now. I had started to plant hardy geranium in the shrub beds, but I am thinking the Geranium macrorrhizum would be better. How do you keep that aggressive plant from overwhelming other desirable plants such as hakonechloa? Also, I have completely dug up part of a perennial bed trying to get rid of runner grass, at wits end, any suggestions?

    • margaret says

      Hi, Debbie. G. macrorrhizum isn’t invasive, in that it grows from near-the-surface thick rhizomes so it’s very easy to “edit” (pull some out) without even a shovel. Which is what I do regularly, through the season, anywhere that it is past the bounds I want it to stay within. Constantly editing here on all fronts! :)

  17. Sandra says

    I live in the CT River Valley. My hellebores are not as lush this year. My Helleborus foetidis is nearly dead. I was wondering how your hellebores fared after this rough winter?

  18. Bob Hennessy says

    Can you recommend any groundcover that is particularly deer resistant? I saw the previous post from Carol and will try the geranium macrorrhizum for sure. Any other ideas?

  19. cintra says

    So…..I have all this pachysandra and periwinkle……I what to fill in with other plants ( epimediums) but where are these two groundcovers useful? Should I just give them all away? throw them away? I have deer yet ….working on the thought of putting in a fence. And….I love hellebores…..why are they as expensive?

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