The Myth of Groundcover
by Jason Neumann
I didn’t plant it, but there it is at the bottom of my wood privacy fence: wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei). As a naturalist, I know that this unwanted botanical surprise is courtesy of neighborhood birds that relieved themselves before taking flight, depositing seeds of wintercreeper. There’s a mature wintercreeper vine somewhere in the neighborhood.
My subdivision in Blue Ash was built in the late 1950s, at a time when groundcover, then all the rage, provided an evergreen well-kept look at a low cost. Groundcovers are known for their vigorously spreading, colony-forming propensity. Groundcovers like wintercreeper along with periwinkle (Vinca spp.), moneywort/creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), and English ivy (Hedera helix), quickly fill planting beds and look great for a few years…until the honeymoon period is over and they start to wander. From a landscaping point of view, this wandering tendency starts to expose the myth of low maintenance groundcover.
From an ecological point of view, wintercreeper, periwinkle, moneywort, and English ivy have some other issues. They are all horticultural introductions from Europe and Asia – very few of our native wildlife, especially the leaf-eating insects, are able to make use of them as food – their chemistry is simply too exotic for our native insects to use them as food. Couple this with their propensity to spread, uninvited, into natural areas (and my yard) where they have no business being and you have a recipe for a wildlife dead zone. Wintercreeper, perhaps the worst of the groundcovers mentioned here, will eventually cover large areas, crowding out most other kinds of plants. Wintercreeper even affects what happens below ground, altering nutrient cycling and preventing seeds of native plants from germinating. Given the opportunity, wintercreeper will grow up a tree and begin fruiting.
So what’s an ecologically-minded homeowner to do? Few of us, myself included, have the puritanical zeal necessary to immediately eliminate introduced groundcovers from our property – that’s a whole lot of work – but we can take small steps.
Keep groundcover in check. If you have beds of groundcover, keep groundcover in check by mowing and trimming to prevent unwanted spread. Don’t let wintercreeper or English ivy climb up trees. Consider options for future replacement.
Use a native groundcover. Native plants offer less spreading, less problematic alternatives to introduced groundcovers. During Nature Center native plant sales, we’re frequently asked about native groundcovers – we’re working on building the capacity to be able to offer these but we don’t have a lot of them yet, sorry. See list of where to find native plants here.
Native alternatives to introduced groundcovers:
- Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) – available at the spring 2020 Cincinnati Nature Center online plant sale
- Wild ginger (Asarum canadense)
- Plantain-leaved sedge (Carex plantaginea)
- Muskingum sedge (Carex muskingumensis)
- Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica)
- Woodland aster (Eurybia divaricata)
- Alumroot (Heuchera villosa)
- Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens)
- Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) – keep it trimmed as it will climb trees
- Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera)
- Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum)
- Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
- Gro-low fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica 'Gro-low')
- Wild stonecrop (Sedum ternatum)
- Common blue violet (Viola sororia)
Think differently—plant a tapestry. I recently came across the writings of landscape architect Thomas Rainer who espouses a complete shift in thinking regarding groundcovers. Rainer surmises that groundcovers were an ethic of the post-WWII housing boom, when builders used groundcovers to cheaply fill leftover beds. From his perspective, monoculture beds of groundcovers reveal low expectations for a piece of land. Instead, Rainer surmises, we should fill garden beds with a rich tapestry of grasses, perennials, shrubs, and low trees. Instead of evergreen groundcover to please the eye in the winter, it’s the stems of native plants that will provide winter interest. By swapping a monoculture of groundcover for a broad array of native plants, we can turn a dead zone into an ecological hot spot.
As I learn more, I’m taking small steps to turn my yard into a haven for wildlife. Since my volunteer wintercreeper is small enough, I can dig it out by hand. I’ll keeping adding to my tapestry every year.