Groundcovers for Nebraska Landscapes

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Groundcovers for Nebraska Landscapes
Sarah Browning, Extension Educator
Groundcovers for Nebraska Landscapes
Sweet woodruff can perform well in dry shade. Image from High Country Gardens,

Ornamental groundcovers are a great way to reduce landscape maintenance while adding color and textural patterns to areas in the landscape. They are also a good tool for dealing with those difficult landscape sites where maintenance is a challenge or it’s hard to get other plants to grow. Steep slopes, narrow or irregular patches, and shady areas under low-branched trees and shrubs - these are all natural places to use a groundcover.

Benefits of Groundcovers

  • On slopes too steep to easily mow turf, groundcovers provide beauty and help control soil erosion, while eliminating the need for mowing.
  • In small or irregularly shaped areas, where turfgrass and mowing don’t make sense, groundcover plants are a great option.
  • When planted in areas between buildings and walks, groundcovers can often reduce weed growth.
  • When an area has dense shade, a shade-loving groundcover may be your only real alternative due to the sun requirements of turfgrasses. (Note: turfgrasses – even shade blends – need a minimum of 6-hours full sun to be healthy and vigorous.)

Groundcovers can also serve as a natural transition at the front of a tree/shrub bed into the lawn or provide positive benefits when planted with other plants. When planted in a bed of spring-flowering bulbs an evergreen groundcover not only sets off the blossoms, but hides the fading leaves after the flower has bloomed. They also can provide as a living mulch for plants that do best under cool soil conditions.

Choosing a Groundcover
The key to success with groundcover plants is to first consider the effect you want it to achieve. Then, among the plants providing your desired effect, chose one with growing requirements - soil, sun light, drainage - that match your site.  Matching the plant to the site ensures it will grow and thrive.

There are a wide variety of groundcovers to choose from. Most are usually wide-spreading and low-growing, although the exact definition of “low-growing” varies by plants species and may range from a few inches to a couple feet. They also vary in their tolerance of dry or wet sites and preference of full sun to dense shade.

For a sunny, dry area here are a couple options to consider.

  • "Gro-Low" fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’) is a winter-hardy groundcover shrub reaches 2-3 feet in height, tolerates dry soil, and has orange fall color. Zones 3-Gro-Low sumac has beautiful fall color. Image from The Tree Center Supply Company9.
  • Low-growing sedums (Sedum spurium), such as the cultivars 'Dragon's Blood' or 'Gold Dust,' are succulents that thrive in full sun and even poor rocky soil. Zones 3-7.
  • Creeping thyme (Thymus serphyllum) makes a very low, fragrant carpet in dry soils, such as around flagstones. Zones 5-8.
  • Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) is a Great Plains native plant with soft hairy leaves and nodding purplish-red flower buds, opening to fluffy smoke-like seed heads which persist on the plants for several weeks. Zones 3-7.

Prairie smoke, Geum triflorum, is native to the Great Plains. Image from High Country Gardens

The shade loving groundcovers often have the ability to compete successfully with the roots of trees for the available supply of nutrients and moisture. They are often a wonderful addition under the canopy of a large tree.

Dry shade - While there are many plants that can tolerate shade, most plants struggle in the dry shade common under trees.

  • Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is a plant that can handle dry shade. This plant offers white blooms in May and has attractive fine leaves. Zones 4-7.

Moist shade - Other groundcover plants perform well in shade when some moisture is available.

  • Carpet bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) forms a dense mat of rosettes of dark green, bronze or variegated foliage and produces blue, purple, pink or white flowers, depending on the cultivar. Zones 3-9.
  • Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis) is a commonly used, rapidly spreading evergreen groundcover that prefers moist, well-drained, organic soil and a site protected from winter winds. Zones 4-9.
  • Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is a very low growing plant with fleshy, deciduous leaves. Wild ginger's common name comes from the gingery odor of the roots when bruised or cut, however, wild ginger is not edible; true cooking ginger comes from the plant Zingiber officinale. Wild ginger's leaves are heart-shaped, glossy, dark green and often mottled with silvery-white or yellow markings. The plants are adapted to woodland conditions including low light and moist, highly organic soils. The urn-shaped flowers are an unobtrusive, greenish-purple and often hidden under the plant's foliage. The plants spread by underground rhizomes and are usually 6-10" in height. The variegated, glossy green foliage can be very eye-catching in shady locations. Zones 3-7.
  • Alpine barrenwort (Epimedium alpinum) forms clumps of green foliage and produces columbine-like flowers. There are up to 20 small flowers, crimson with a red or yellow flush, produced in loose clusters in mid spring. An excellent groundcover that spreads slowly and will tolerate dry, shady conditions, although it does prefer evenly moist soil. Zones 4-7.
  • Don't be alarmed by the last plant's common name. Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia) is not at all related to the common lawn weed that bears the same common name. The cultivar 'Aurea' is a wonderful plant for shady areas. Its lime green and yellow foliage and fragrant, yellow flowers brighten up dark corners of the garden. Plants are prostrate, growing only 4-8" tall with stems that spread along the top of the ground to form large patches. Zone 3-9.

More ideas on great groundcover plants.


Gro-Low sumac has beautiful fall color. Image from The Tree Center Supply Company,

Prairie smoke, Geum triflorum, is native to the Great Plains. Image from High Country Gardens,



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Associated Video

Gardening on Slopes

UNL Extension Landscape Horticulture Specialist Kim Todd talks about meeting the challenges of growing plants on slopes. Produced by Backyard Farmer, Nebraska's premier gardening program. Sep 17, 2007