Groundcovers, Thinking Outside the Box

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

Part of the Idea Garden at Longwood Gardens

I recently visited Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.  I have no hesitancy in saying that Longwood is one of the premier gardens in the world and should be on everyone’s life list.  However, there is so much there that it is difficult to post about it.  Also, “familiarity breeds contempt.”  I hold two Certificates in Ornamental Horticulture from Longwood and have taken a total of 18 courses to earn them.  Each course involved a minimum of 8 visits to the gardens so you can see that I have spent a lot of time there.  If you are local, these courses are the absolute best plant education available.

Italian Water Garden, viewed while resting in the shade.

Because I have spent so much time at Longwood, I didn’t photograph the usual sights or even visit the fabulous four acre indoor conservatory (with one exception mentioned below).  As a shade gardener I headed straight for Peirce’s Woods, which is seven acres devoted to shady plants native to the eastern U.S. deciduous forest.  I hoped to augment my library of photographs and get some ideas of plants to sell at the nursery and add to my own gardens.  I wasn’t disappointed.

The straight species of smooth hydrangea, H. arborescens, lined the very shady paths by the lake.  I think it is more appropriate to a woodland garden than the cultivated forms like ‘Annabelle’.

Smooth hydrangea has a lovely flower whose size is in keeping with other native woodland plants.

While walking through Peirce’s Woods, I returned to the thoughts I have been having lately about groundcovers.  This time of year, with the weeds running rampant, my customers are more interested in groundcovers.  But it is clear from their questions that they mean plants that form runners to creep and cover the ground.  The classic examples are vinca, ivy, and pachysandra.  However, my definition of groundcover is much broader than this and includes any plant massed to effectively choke out weeds.

Native maidenhair fern, Adiantum pedatum

When you look at the masses of native maidenhair fern above, you are probably thinking that’s all very nice that Longwood uses masses of these fairly pricey, non-creeping plants as groundcover, but I could never afford that quantity of plants.  However, think of the alternative: weeds and the hours if not days it takes to remove them, not to mention how their presence detracts from the look of your garden as well as your satisfaction with it.  Your time is valuable, and you wouldn’t be reading my blog if the look of your garden wasn’t important to you.

Native semi-evergreen coralbells, Heuchera villosa, often sold as the cultivar ‘Autumn Bride’, has gorgeous white flowers in the fall.

Yes, you can use mulch to keep down the weeds.  However, commercial shredded hardwood mulch is not attractive, is generally not produced sustainably, and requires a significant time investment to apply it.  Most importantly, it requires a monetary outlay every year because it must be re-applied every spring.  Perennial plants are initially more expensive to buy and plant but once they are there, you never have to do anything again.  It is kind of like buying a compact fluorescent light bulb versus the bulbs we grew up with.

Here are some more plants that Longwood uses in masses to make effective groundcovers:

Mexican feather grass, Nassella tenuissima

Native evergreen Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides

Native semi-evergreen coralbells, Heuchera villosa purple form.

Shredded umbrella-plant, Syneilesis aconitifolia: I can only dream of achieving this in my garden, and, yes, it is very expensive.

Native hay-scented fern, Dennstaedtia punctiloba, creeps to fill in large areas.

This bellflower, Campanula takesimana, was growing and apparently self-sowing in dense shade on the hillside near the Chimes Tower.

Fall-blooming yellow waxbells, Kirengoshoma palmata, is more like a shrub than a perennial but it dies to the ground ever year.

Native coralbells, Heuchera villosa ‘Caramel’, is my favorite heuchera and retains its lovely color 365 days a year.

Giant butterbur, Petasites japonicus, grows in dense shade and covers a lot of ground.

Lavender mist meadow-rue, Thalictrum rochebrunianum

Native sensitive fern, Onoclea sensibilis, does creep.

Shrubs can be used as groundcover also, two examples from Longwood:

The straight species of oakleaf hydrangea, H. quecifolia, gets quite large and spreading.

Native southern bush honeysuckle, Diervilla sessifolia, suckers to form a colony.

Lastly, I want to show you why I briefly visited the conservatories:  groundcover for walls, the new fern wall at Longwood.  It is worth a visit just to see it:

This is a beautiful hallway containing individual restrooms, and the walls are totally covered in ferns.

Some of the ferns are quite large, and all are healthy and beautiful.

I hope I have convinced you to think outside the box and mass all kinds of unusual plants as groundcovers.  You will have more time to enjoy a better looking garden and save money in the long run.


Nursery Happenings:  This coming weekend we will have our final open hours at the nursery on Saturday, June 16, from 9 am to 2 pm, and Sunday, June 17, from 11 am to 1 pm.  We close on June 17 until September.  Customers on my email list will receive an email with details.

If you are within visiting distance and would like to receive catalogues and information about customer events, please send your full name and phone number to  Subscribing to my blog does not sign you up to receive this information.

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67 Responses to “Groundcovers, Thinking Outside the Box”

  1. This is exactly what I needed since I am absent from my garden for such long periods. Mulch is fine, but I soooo would rather look at some beautiful plants.

  2. Very inspirational post!

  3. Not only does Longwood have beautiful gardens but it also has a great music program during the summer so you can combine your love of plants with your love of jazz and alternative sounds.

  4. A very nice post and very good selection of plants to carpet the garden. And a must at large park and estate properties. It keeps down all kinds of maintenance for the ground keepers. I plan to get to Longwood this September. I am interested in the fern wall, it looks beautiful.

  5. Carolyn, I so enjoy your blog! This posting has great pictures and info to get people to think beyond pachysandra. Thanks!

  6. I have a country garden near New Hope where I use many very large plants as ground covers. But now I’m making a small garden in Brooklyn, and I find I need plants of much smaller scale. Your nursery is a treasure trove of such plants. I only wish I could make your last sale of this year, but unfortunately can’t.

  7. I love that fern wall. I have been trying to achieve a bit more massing in certain areas of the garden…as you have pointed out there are some wonderful plants suited for this purpose….I love maidenhair ferns and dream of a colony of these.

  8. Mary Douglas Says:

    Thank you for this inspirational posting! I have large areas of dry shade under deciduous trees and am looking for ground cover plants. Perfect options. Lovely photography.

  9. The area with all the maidenhair ferns is certainly impressive as are the walls of ferns! Larry

  10. Beautiful choices of groundcovers here. All so healthy and wonderful. I have many of them growing here including: sensitive fern, waxbells, ‘Autumn bride’, heucheras, and bitterbur. Some do much better than others in my dry soil. Does Longwood irrigate the woods? Or do you all get plenty of rain. So far since April we’ve had 1.8″ of rain in my garden. It’s so dry. Congrats on your certifications! It sounds like great training. One day I must visit here.

    • Tina, I would love for you to visit. So many incredible gardens in the Philadelphia area. I don’t think that Longwood irrigates the woods but I don’t know. We have had plenty of rain lately but we are prone to droughts in the summer. The plants survive though. Carolyn

  11. You’ve got it covered Carolyn! Pleased to see all those Heucheras as I’d planted some in shade only to see the parks here have it in full sun so was beginning to doubt myself! Agree about the hydrangeas – woodland shade better with woodland plants rather than just plants that can tolerate shade.

  12. The fern wall certainly beats any of the vertical planting I saw at Chelsea this year. I agree, any plant that covers the soil and stops weeds growing can be considered ground-cover, it does help if it is evergreen. Christina

    • Christina, I find evergreen a bonus but not a necessity. I agree, the fern wall is better than the ones I saw at the flower show and various trade shoes. When Longwood does something they don’t do it half way. It helps that they have plenty of money. Carolyn

  13. So many beautiful Ferns…I just love Ferns…and that golden Heuchera…gorgeous!

  14. I really like the ground covers shown. I have lots of places to use these plants. Thanks for the fantastic, and very helpful, post.

  15. what a great group of “ground cover’ plants, thanks for sharing this info. I love the Adiantum pedatum and the Heuchera villosa, Lots to think about

  16. wifemothergardener Says:

    So many beautiful selections. I am totally with you – more plants, less bark mulch, or even lawn. I saw those bellflower a few year ago near the Tower… just beautiful!

  17. That fern wall is stunning! I loved your examples of ground covers – I especially loved the look of the umbrella plant, and the bellflower. I need more groundcovers in my garden, but you are right – they seem so expensive, perhaps because so many need to be purchased all at once. Perhaps one year I’ll buy nothing but groundcovers with my yearly plant budget.

  18. I had to laugh to myself because I had been wondering what groundcover to plant in a difficult area and then I see your post. Always super informative Carolyn. I am off to check on a couple of your suggestions. P.S. thanks for the nursery info you sent me.

  19. Great post Carolyn. I have used so much mulch this year it’s created a vast gaping hole in my wallet. I can’t wait until my perennials fill out and close up the space in my garden. Using multiples of perennials makes more sense anyway since the mass of them creates such a striking effect.

    • Marguerite, You really understood what I was trying to say. In some ways, the title of the post should have been “Massing, …” It is hard to resist the idea of planting one of every plant just to try it, but once you do the results are immediate. Carolyn

  20. Love the fern wall. I wonder how they did it.

  21. Longwood has been on my must-see list for a while now, and is one of the gardens I thought I would get to this spring. I’m determined to make better use of my light teaching load next spring!

    This was a very good lesson for me; I need to work on making better use of groundcover plants.

  22. Your post is very timely – I have just finished planting multiple flats of Ajuga, in moist, shady areas and Mexican feather grass in sunnier spots. Like Marguerite above we had to spend too much $ on mulch this year as our garden is still new and filling in. These perennials will be easy to thin out later and look better than bare earth now. geranium ‘Biokovo’ is another excellent ground cover which I’m begging from friends and neighbors!

    • Karen, Ajuga is a great groundcover which I think is underrated. I especially like the cultivar ‘Black Scallop’—365 days of interest. I have ‘Biokovo’ used as a groundcover too. It is very pretty but I find that it waxes and wanes. I still can’t get your posts. Carolyn

  23. These photographs have inspired me to take ground cover plants,they look so awesome and beautiful.

  24. My philosophy is to plant so thickly there is no room for weeds, and groundcovers are a key to that. My two favorites are Trachelospermum asiaticum and Asarum splendens.

    You are fortunate to live a short distance from Longwood.

    • Les, Massing is the key to a maintenance free garden. I love A. splendens but can’t get it to grow as a groundcover—I am just happy when my clumps expand a little each year. I have much better luck with European and native ginger, and I have tried every kind of ginger that comes my way. Trachelospermum looks beautiful but it is not hardy here. Carolyn

  25. Great post again Carolyn – For a small garden, my ideal groundcover would flourish in winter when the flower-beds are bare and die back in the summer.

  26. Great examples of groundcovers (and wallcovers)! The Heucheras are lovely, but I’ve had trouble establishing them in my garden–they seem to prefer a little more sun. Ferns definitely function as a groundcover in my garden. If we let them go, they would take over the yard! Great post!

    • PP, Heucheras suffer from over-selection. There are a lot of bad ones out there. I don’t think it has anything to do with sun because the native east coast ferns, H. villosa and H. americana, grow in full shade in the woods. Carolyn

  27. It has been about 20 years since I visited Longwood. I need to plan another trip to see this lovely garden. I have been experimenting with various groundcovers, and so far, I like sedum because it is less aggressive and easy to pull out. The ivy I planted in spots spreads too far and too quickly.

    • SB, Sedum makes a great groundcover and there is a shade loving variety, Sedum ternatum, that I have used successfully. You just have to be good about keeping out weeds. Ivy is very aggressive. What about creeping phlox, P. stolonifera—wintergreen, beautiful flowers, native, not too aggressive, full shade. Carolyn

  28. you are so lucky to have such a lovely garden and bonus gardening courses near you Carolyn (or was the garden part of chosing to live where you do),
    beautiful ground covers and I love the fact that they are local natives another bonus, I have found the trick/difficulty is the difference between good ground cover and thug! I also find it very annoying when the ground cover does not properly suppress and the more agressive grass and weeds come up among the plants, the photos you show are sooooo perfect do they really never need to weed them,
    another slightly less expensive option is to buy one or two plants and keep diving, I only discovered the benefits of division 2 years ago and I can’t believe what an amazing resource I had missed out on for so long, it still surprises me how quickly divided plants reach back to full size, Frances

    • Frances, In the shade if I plant plants closely together and they fill in, I do not have to do any significant weeding. I have not weeded my woodland since last fall, and the only places that need weeding right now are a couple of bare spots and along the sides of the paths where the pine needles have worn away. Gardens that are in full sun are a whole different story and require a lot more weeding. However, I find that even there, if I fill in completely the weeding is sporadic. Dividing is great as is growing from seed. Carolyn

  29. what an informative and interesting post, Carolyn. when I saw the heading I thought it was going to be about alternatives to Buxus – which it was, in a way, because box is terribly common and used too often and without considering other things. Longwood gardens look fantastic, made me briefly consider migrating to Pensylvannia. But I couldn’t, it’s too hard to spell. So I’ll put it on my bucket list instead. The vertical plantings are divine too. The trick is to match the plant to the ecosystem, so it naturalizes. I find there is damp shade and dry shade, needing different plants. cheers, catmint

    • Catmint, I hope you do get to Longwood. I think the trick with growing any plant is to match it with the conditions so it fills in completely and smothers weeds. In our ares, which is full of huge old trees and rocky clay soil, we don’t have much moist shade. All the plants the I profiled grow in dry shade. Carolyn

  30. Such excellent points you’ve made here Carolyn about plants vs. barkdust especially. I think in general letting plants grow together will eliminate most weeds, will result in a natural looking garden and keep in moisture too. I loved the picture of the maidenhair fern colony!

  31. That Kirengoshoma palmata is beautiful… I’d like to have a patch of that as a companion planting to Malvaviscus arboreus.
    How much heat and drought can it tolerate?
    I googled it… Doesn’t look like I could grow it… 😦

    • Stone, I am not sure how much heat it can take. It is routinely in the 90s here in the summer. I have it planted in my dry woodland soil but a lot of compost has been added. Could you ask at a local public garden? Would Callaway Gardens be a similar zone to you? Maybe they could help if you called and asked to speak with a horticulturalist. Carolyn

  32. […] Groundcovers, Thinking Outside the Box ( […]

  33. Do the shredded umbrellas keep their foliage all season Carolyn? I just purchased some from Hillside gardens and in all the research I’ve done it says they are similar to may apples. May apples of course go dormant and disappear here in my garden. I was wondering as I must plant mine soon.

  34. I have been massing ferns to act as groundcover at my Ontario cottage (garden ) for a couple of summers. Why have brown leaves on the ground when you can green it up with abundant native plants I ask?

  35. wow, love all your pictures, great information too!!

    We have alot of different native ferns growing on our property here in SC mountains. Check out a few pictures I posted,

    Netted Chain Fern

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