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Alternatives to Lawn: Groundcovers

Authors: Vijai Pandian and Lisa Johnson

Groundcover plants are low growing perennials that spread by trailing stems and cover an area of the ground. Groundcovers provide an excellent alternative for turfgrasses in shade and other tough areas in the landscape. Established groundcovers require relatively low maintenance, outcompete weeds, reduce soil erosion, provide habitat for pollinators, and enhance aesthetic beauty in the landscape.

However, groundcovers are not ideal for all site locations and are not totally maintenance free. Unlike lawn, most groundcovers will not withstand heavy foot traffic very well. Groundcovers require initial maintenance like irrigation, fertilization, mulching and weed control until they are fully established. Some groundcover plant species can be aggressive and may require trimming and edging from time to time to control their spread.

Geranium x cantabrigiense Biokova
Biokova Geranium (Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokova’), a vigorous mat-forming groundcover that grows best in moist shaded areas.

Below is a list of common groundcovers recommended for Wisconsin landscapes. 

Common NameBotanical NameCultivarsLight RequirementsCold HardinessGrowth Habit (Height x Width)Soil ConditionOther Characteristics
Bugleweed, CarpetweedAjuga reptans‘Binblasca, ‘Bronze Beauty’, ‘Burgundy Glow’, ‘Catlin’s Giant’, ‘Princess Nadia’, ‘Carpet Bulge’, ‘Tropical Toucan’Shade,
part shade
Zone: 43-8” x
Slow growth rate, small blue-purple tubular flowers in spikes, blooms in spring, pollinator friendly
Alpine Lady’s MantleAlchemilla alpina Part sun to part shadeZone: 32-3” x
to dry
Deeply lobed star-like leaves with silvery edges, small clusters of tiny chartreuse flowers, tolerates light foot traffic
Pussytoes, CatsfootAntennaria dioica‘Rubra’ (Pink Pussytoes)Full sunZone: 30.5” x
DrySlow growth rate, soft gray foliage, tiny white to pale pink flowers, blooms in late spring, takes heat well, tolerates light foot traffic
European wild gingerAsarum europaeum‘Eco Choice’, ‘Eco Red Giant’Part shade to shadeZone: 43-6” x
Moist, well-drainedSlow to moderate growth rate, glossy dark green rounded leaves, semi-evergreen
Canada wild gingerAsarum canadense Part shade to shadeZone: 46-12” x
Native to Wisconsin, moderate growth rate, small red triangular flower under the leaves, pollinator friendly, tolerates somewhat drier shade once established
Serbian, Dalmatian BellflowersCampanula poscharskyana, C. portenschlagiana,  ‘Aurea’, ‘Blue Waterfall’, ‘Alba’Sun to part sunZone: 3 Zone: 42-5” x
Average to moist well-drained to dry soilsSmall heart-shaped leaves form a mat, purple starry bell-like flowers in late spring, tolerates some drought and very light foot traffic
Variegated Japanese sedge,Carex ciliatomarginata‘Treasure Island’ (plant is usually sold as this cultivar only)Light shade to shadeZone: 52-4” x
Average to moistWide, variegated low-growing and arching blades, needs fall or spring cleanup
Blue Sedge, Glaucous SedgeCarex flacca‘Blue Zinger’, ‘Mini’Sun to part shade to shadeZone: 48-10” x
Moist, moist well-drained to drier sites (in shade)Blue foliage, blades arching to laying horizontal
Pennsylvania Sedge  Carex pensylvanica ShadeZone: 36-12” x
DryNative, moderate growth rate, grass-like blades, medium green, arching narrow leaves, spreads by rhizomes, pollinator friendly
Creeping broadleafed SedgeCarex siderosticha‘Banana Boat’,’Snow CapFull shadeZone: 54-8” x
Average to moist‘Banana Boat’; bright yellow and green variegated arching wide blades, will burn in sun, ‘Snow Cap’: white and dark green variegation, same growth habit
Dianthus (low growing cultivars only)Dianthus caesius (gratianopolitanus), D. simulans, hybridsMountain Frost™ White Twinkle, ‘Fire Witch’, Cheddar pinks (various)Sun to part sunZone: 4b2-6” x
Average to dry soils, need good drainageSlow growth rate, short grass-like leaves, some blue in color, white or dark  pink long-blooming flowers with fringed edges (shear back stalks after bloom to re-bloom), some cultivars tolerate light foot traffic
Barrenwort, Bishop’s HatEpimedium sp.‘Violaceum’, ‘Crimson Beauty’, ‘Lilac Fairy’, ‘Nanum’, ‘Rose Queen’, ‘White Queen’, X rubrum, ‘Sulphureum’Shade, part shadeZone: 48-12” x
Dry, moist well-drainedSlow growth rate, co-exists with tree roots in dry shaded areas, heart- shaped leaves, blooms in late spring, attractive fall color in a few  species
Purple leaf WintercreeperEuonymus fortunei‘Coloratus’Part sun, part shadeZone: 48” x 12”Moist, well-drainedModerate to fast growth rate, evergreen, foliage turns purplish bronze in fall
CranesbillGeranium sp.‘Biokovo’, ‘Karmina’, ‘Ballerina’, ‘Claridge Druce’ ‘Striatum’ sanguineum ‘Nanum’Sun, part sun part shadeZone: 46-8” x
Moist, well-drainedModerate growth rate, blooms late spring to summer, light pink to magenta flowers pollinator friendly, good fall color, some tolerate very light foot traffic
Sweet woodruffGalium odoratum Shade, part shadeZone: 43-6” x
Moist, well- drainedModerate to fast growth rate, fragrant white flowers in early spring, star-shaped foliage, not tolerant of dry shade
English IvyHedera helix‘Thorndale’, ‘Wilsonii’Full  sun, shade, part shadeZone: 46-8” x
Moist, Well-drainedFast growth rate, evergreen foliage
CandytuftIberis sempervirens‘Snowflake’Full sunZone: 38-12” x
Average well-drained to dryModerate growth rate, clusters of white flower late spring to early summer, does not tolerate wet soils
Hosta (dwarf stoloniferous varieties only)Hosta sp.‘Blue Mouse Ears’, ‘Lemon-Lime’, ‘Thumb Nail’Shade, part shadeZone: 32-6” x
Moist, well-drainedSlow to moderate growth rate, may tolerate drier shade once established, flower scapes are taller than leaves
Lamium, Spotted deadnettleLamium maculatum‘Beacon silver’, ‘Aureum’, ‘Chequers’, ‘Ghost’, ‘Orchid Frost’, ‘Red Nancy’, ‘Shell Pink’, ‘White Nancy’Shade, part shadeZone: 38-12” x
Moist, well-drainedFast growth rate, aggressive, variegated silver or gold foliage, clusters of pink, purple, or white flowers in spring
MoneywortLysimachia nummularia‘Aurea’Part sun, part shade, shadeZone: 31-2” x
Moist, well drainedFast growth rate, yellow flowers in early summer,  ‘Aurea’ -yellow leaves. Will tolerate morning sun if moisture is sufficient. Tolerates light foot traffic. Note: The all-green form (but not this gold-leaved form) is on the WI DNR invasive plants list
MazusMazus reptans Part shade,  part sunZone 51-2” x
Moist, well drained to moistLow ground-hugger, tolerates light foot traffic, does not tolerate dry soil, pale purple three-lobed flowers in late spring
Golden OreganoOriganum vulgare‘Aureum’Full sun, part sunZone 46-8” x
Moist, well-drainedModerate growth rate, golden foliage, lavender flowers in summer, also has culinary use, will tolerate some drought once established
Moss phloxPhlox subulata‘Emerald Pink’, ‘Emerald Blue’, ‘Purple Beauty’, ‘Snowflake’,Full sunZone: 43-6” x
Moist, well-drainedModerate growth rate, carpet of blooms in late spring
Creeping PhloxPhlox stolonifera‘Sherwood Purple’Part shade, shadeZone: 52-6” x
Average  to moist, well-drained, not tolerant of dry shadeOval leaves on reddish ground-hugging stems, purple pinwheel-like blooms on 6” flower stalks,  good bloomer in shade for spring
Allegheny spurge, mountain pachysandraPachysandra procumbens Part shade, shadeZone: 56-10” x
Average  to moist, to drier soilsU.S. native, tolerates some drought when established, slow growth rate, green to mottled silver leaves, 4” tall spikes of white fragrant flowers in late spring
Pachysandra, Japanese spurgePachysandra terminalis‘Green Carpet’, ‘Variegata’, ‘Silveredge’Shade, part shadeZone:46-8” x
Moist, well-drainedSlow growth rate, evergreen, spikes of white flowers in late spring
Dwarf Solomon’s SealPolygonatum humile Part shade, shadeZone: 56-8” x
Moist, well-drainedSlow to moderate growth rate, bell-like creamy white flowers in late spring, intolerant of dry shade
Alpine CinquefoilPotentilla neumanniana‘Nana’Full sun, part shadeZone: 33-6” x
Average well-drained to drySlow to moderate growth rate, yellow flowers in spring, salt tolerant, not tolerant of heavy clay or moist soils
Self-heal, heal-allPrunella vulgaris ssp. lanceolata‘Magdalena’ (6” x 12”), ‘Under the Sea’Full sun, part shade 12-24” but can keep mowed to 3” tall x 8-15”Moist, well-drainedNative, great for attracting bees, blooms June-August, purple flowers, moderate growth rate, may be aggressive in moist shade, deer resistant
Rock SoapwortSaponaria ocymoides Full sun, part sunZone 24-6” x
Dry to averageSemi-evergreen, slow to moderate growth rate, likes slightly alkaline soils, does not tolerate heavy clay, tolerates some drought once established, bright pink flowers in spring-summer, after flowering shear back by half to encourage more branching and re-flowering, intolerant of wet heavy soils
StonecropSedum sp.Aureum’, ‘Coral Carpet’, ‘Green Ice’, ‘Murale’, Bertram Anderson’, ‘Bailey’s Gold’Full sunZone: 3  1-3” x
Dry, well-drained soilSlow growth rate, evergreen succulents, blooms mid- to late summer, pollinator friendly, not tolerant of heavy clay or moist soils
Lamb’s earStachys byzantina‘Cotton Boll’, ‘Big Ears’ ‘Silver Carpet’Full  sun, part sunZone: 36-8” x
Dry, well-drained to average soilsModerate growth rate, very fuzzy silvery foliage, spikes of purple,  or fuzzy silver flowers in early summer
Dwarf GermanderTeucrium chamaedrys‘Nanum’Full sun, part sunZone: 54-8”Dry, well-drained to average soilsSemi-woody stems, moderate to fast spread, not tolerant of moist soils or much shade, purple flowers in summer
Creeping ThymeThymus sp.‘Doone Valley’, ‘Coccineus’, ‘Pink Chintz’, ‘ Purple Carpet’, ‘Elfin’, ‘Dorothy Klaber’, ‘Mother-of-Thyme’, Wooly thymeFull sun (preferred) to part sunZone: 41-6” x
Dry, well-drainedSlow to moderate growth rate, aromatic foliage, pink, purple, white or red flowers in early summer, very pollinator friendly, tolerates light foot traffic
Dutch White CloverTrifolium repens Full sun, part sun, part shadeZone: 33-5” x
 Forms a mat, takes foot traffic, pollinator friendly, creamy white flowers May to September
Verbenaxhybrida‘Lizzie’Full sun,  part sunZone: 56-8” x
Average to dryForms a solid mat, fast to moderate growth rate, magenta pink 1.5” flower clusters, in full sun will bloom late May to October, pollinator friendly
SpeedwellVeronica sp.‘Tidal Pool’, ‘Waterperry Blue’, Crater Lake Blue’, ‘Trehane’, ‘Aztec Gold’, ‘Whitewater’, ‘Crystal Lake Blue’Full sun, part shadeZone: 33-6” x
Average to dry,Fast to moderate growth rate, white to blue flowers in late spring
Barren StrawberryWaldsteinia ternata Sun, part shadeZone: 36-8” x
Dry  moist, well-drainedStrawberry-like plant, moderate growth rate, yellow flowers in mid spring to early summer, evergreen, inedible fruits

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