Groundcover Plants Rescue Sloping Shaded Bank


Question: We wanted to know if a ground cover would be our best solution for a front yard landscape which has a sloping bank, gets a lot of shade and is difficult to mow? Trey, Owensboro, Kentucky

Answer: Trey, ground covers are great landscape solutions for a particular problem spot:

  • A bone-dry area where lawn grasses shrivel in July heat
  • A shady spot beloved on August afternoons
  • A sloping, sandy bank which the least downpour grooves with countless small rivers
  • A lawn so small it is hardly worth mowing regularly

… there are a number of attractive alternatives to grass.

Beauty Of Ground Covers

The beauty of groundcovers, once they are established, is the way they more or less look after themselves, growing lovelier with each spring and summer, not to mention the charming and varied landscape effects they create. The demands of upkeep are much slighter, much less insistent than those of a lawn.

Of course you can’t just forget about them entirely. If the soil is not too good, give it a feeding at least once a year. See that the plants have sufficient moisture. Groundcovers are best planted in the early fall or early spring; the fall is best in warm areas and the spring in colder regions. Keep the young plants well watered after planting.

pachysandra procumbens

Rich Range Of Groundcover Plant Material

The range of suitable plant material is wide and infinitely rich in variety. The list is never complete, as the possibilities of many plants have not been explored. The virtues of the suburban favorite, Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis), are undisputed, except for the fact, it grows a bit tall (12 inches), with a too sharply marked edge. It prefers part shade but tolerates fairly deep shade and grows in most soils except very alkaline ones.

In such a case low-growing English ivy (Hedera helix) would be better. For pachysandra the soil should be dug from 8 inches to 1 foot deep and well enriched with cattle manure if available. If the soil is too poor, the leaves do not keep their deep green.

Creeping myrtle or periwinkle (Vinca minor) prefers moisture and part shade, but it is fairly tolerant of almost any soil and thrives in all but deepest shade. With its dark glossy, evergreen leaves and blue or white flowers, produced in earliest spring, it is one of the most delightful of trailing groundcovers. Neither myrtle nor English ivy is so close-growing that it would hinder the growth of spring-fl6wering bulbs or such plants as leadwort (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, commonly known as Plumbago), which bears fine blue blossoms on 1-foot-stems in late summer and early autumn.

Euonymus obovatus, the running strawberry bush, is an excellent native groundcover which is too little used. A creeping vine about 12 inches high, it has attractive pink and orange fruits. E. radicans coloratus has leaves of brilliant red in autumn. Varieties of E. fortunci radicans are useful where a walkover as well as a groundcover is desired, since they are of climbing habit, evergreen and hardy.

Gardeners in the New York area and southern New England can enjoy the beautiful galax of the southern Appalachians, which grows about 6 inches high. Galax aphylla’s glossy, round green leaves and white flower stalks thrive in deep shade. In sheltered positions in this area, the creeping holly-grape (Mahonia repens) is an interesting choice for its leaf form and blue berries with a bloom. This species grows about a foot high. It is not a good groundcover for wheat-growing regions, as it carries a wheat rust. Pachistima canbyi, a native trailing evergreen from the Virginia mountains, is of about the same height as pachysandra, with narrow, oblong, leathery leaves about 1 inch long. It is hardy as far north as southern New England.

A Single Choice Plant For A Groundcover In Shade

ajuga reptans flowering

If one must choose a single plant for a groundcover in shade or part shade, perhaps bugle-weed (Ajuga reptans) deserves the most votes, although it is hardly exotic enough to obtain them. This little native plant is of a neat, ground-loving habit, with small, deep blue flower-stalks in May. There is a white-flowered form as well as varieties with colored and variegated leaves. It spreads to a marvel, grows from 3 to 12 inches tall and is tolerant of most soils but does object to too much sun or drought.

Over a dry lawn spot where grasses shrivel and burn brown in early summer, the wild white clover is often green and cool, iced with dainty pink and white flower heads. Wood ashes and lime encourage the spread of clover. The pretty little rabbit-foot or stone clover (Trifolium arvense) often appears in poor soil and should be cherished for its fuzzy, gray-pink flower heads on 1-1/2-foot stems. The little yellow-flowered hop clover (T. procumbens) and the trailing bush clover (Lespedeza procumbens) may also appear. Neat clumps of bluets (Houstonia caerulea) are perennial charmers and seed well. These “Quaker ladies,” which may grow about 7 inches tall, prefer acid soil and some moisture but they are fairly tolerant of many soils and do their blooming early in the season, before drought sets in. The creeping bluet (H. serpy-Ilifolia ) is a short-lived perennial which also seeds well.

Along with bluets, try to introduce as many violets as possible. Except for the true swamp violets, most of them will tolerate poor soil and drought to a considerable degree. The beautiful stemless bird’s-foot violet (Viola pedata) and the purple-and-light-blue V. pedata bicolor are especially good for sandy soil but somewhat difficult to naturalize. Most of the violets spread rapidly. The long-blooming, fragrant English violet (V. odorata semperflorens) prefers part shade; it naturalizes well, however, under most conditions, making long runners.

Silvery cinquefoil (Potentilla argentea) is a silver-leaved vine with sulphur-colored flowers. The common speedwell (Veronica officinalis) is a stout-rooted vining plant about 1 1/2 feet tall which is often destroyed before its pretty lavender flower stalks appear in midsummer. Its neat gray-green leafage makes it an attractive groundcover and it grows easily anywhere. Add to these gifts of the wild the invaluable low-growing rhymes (Thymus serpyllum and varieties) and you have a green flower-embroidered carpet throughout the summer. Enrich the embroidery as you like by means of the host of cultivated rock plants. Mazus reptans, for instance, prefers part shade. but it naturalizes easily in lawns and its blue lobelia-like blossoms are charming. It grows only 2 inches high.

Banks too sloping for grass can be covered with ease by that rampant, nearly evergreen vine, Hall’s honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica halliana).

Do Not Forget The Ivies

Varieties of the Boston or Japanese ivy (P. tricuspidata) also have brilliant autumn color, a climbing habit if walls are to be covered and extreme hardiness. For shaded situations and alkaline soil, English ivy, which is evergreen, is to be preferred. Trailing roses, especially forms of Rosa wichuraiana, the memorial rose, and Max Graf, are admirable; the number of these is legion. The creeping lily-turf (Liriope spicata) makes a decorative grasslike mat for locations in sun and light shade in the New York area; it has narrow leaves and lavender blooms followed by black berries. In the south and on the west coast, the ivy geranium makes a colorful bank cover.


A good shrub for banks in protected locations with some moisture is Leucothoe catesbaei of the southern Appalachians. It may grow as high as 6 feet and is evergreen, with drooping branches and 3-inch, waxy white flower racemes in May. Three-foot Cotoneaster horizontalis and varieties, as well as a number of the dwarf cotoneasters, tolerate rather dry conditions. Early-flowering Forsythia suspensa sieboldi, which may grow 10 feet high, is useful for its slender, trailing branches. The dwarf junipers give interesting dark contrast. Lovely pink- flowered Daphne cneorum grows about a foot high, is evergreen and hardy in the New York area, as are a number of the heaths and heathers, which are worthy of more attention than they receive.

A bank of flowering plants in full shade could include fragrant lily-of-the-valley and funkia. Certain of the dwarf hemerocallis are suitable as sloping groundcovers. German iris is excellent for banks which receive full sun. The 2-foot native evergreen, box sandmyrtle (Leiophyllum buxifolium) is also a good choice; it offers small pink and white flowers in spring.

The ever useful moss pinks (Phlox subulata) make 6-inch mats and are now obtainable in a fine color range.

Selection of a groundcover from such a long list may not seem easy to make. Choose carefully with the soil and location in mind and you will be rewarded by a thick, green, ground-hugging growth which will need little subsequent care to maintain a good appearance.

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