While ground covers hide unsightly areas and help create a seamless transition between planting sites, they serve more than a purely cosmetic purpose. The plants are useful tools in fighting erosion and crowding out weeds, surviving where many plants won’t grow. With creeping or spreading ground covers, you don’t need as many plants to establish a uniform blanket of growth, as the plants will fill in empty spaces, saving you time and money.
Several creeping ground covers are suitable for use on sites that see partial sun/partial shade conditions. Select the best ground cover for your site based on the needs of the plant, any shortcomings of the site you need to overcome and how well the plant meets your needs. These evergreen ground covers all require a well-drained site and will grow under trees and shrubs.
Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei) ranges in height from 2 to 18 inches, but the plants can grow outward to a distance of 70 feet to cover sloped sites, walls and large areas. Cultivars of the plants offer variations in fall color and leaf size. The plants are suited for USDA hardiness zones 5 and 6 and need protection from winter winds. Wintercreeper may damage brickwork, and scale infestations cause issues with the plants.
Periwinkle (Vinca minor) grows on sloped sites that offer the plants the good drainage and the air circulation they need to prevent the development of fungal diseases. The plants are adapted to USDA hardiness zones 4 and 5. Periwinkle averages 6 inches tall, and cultivars offer you a choice of flower colors.
The adaptability of creeping lilyturf (Liriope spicata) allows it to fit into a wider range of sites. The plants grow in USDA hardiness zones 6 through 10 and adapt to a range of soils — including poor soils such as clay — while offering moderate salt spray and drought tolerance. Creeping lilyturf has a height of 6 to 12 inches, a spread of 1 to 2 feet and summer flowers. The plants are not significantly troubled by pests or disease.
Creeping ground covers are low-maintenance plants and generally do not need trimming, saving you the hassle of trying to mow a steep grade and the risk of damaging plants that cannot tolerate foot traffic; however, if you find your expanse of plants developing an unsightly appearance, you can clip wintercreeper and mow creeping lilyturf and periwinkle during the winter.
Several good ground cover options for partial sun/partial shade are also considered to be invasive, including wintercreeper, periwinkle and creeping lilyturf. The University of Missouri Extension singles out wintercreeper as a significant risk, noting that it tolerates shade very well, which can allow it to outperform understory plants.
If you like trees, what to do with the ground beneath them is always a puzzle. For over ten years in the Ozarks I managed a plot of shade-grown ginseng on my property and was always looking for ways to expand the operation. It’s a tricky business to grow plants in the shade, but ginseng and goldenseal demand it, and there are other interesting plants that might do well. Alpine strawberries grow in shady areas and if you’re lucky enough to have the right climate for them, they grow well enough to rate as a ground cover. Not where I lived in the Ozarks, though. The Complete Shade Gardener gave me more good ideas than any other book I found.
Resources and References:
Utah State University Extension: Ground Cover: The Next Best Thing to Cement
Virginia Cooperative Extension: Selecting Landscape Plants: Ground Covers
Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service: Ground Covers for the Landscape
University of Minnesota: Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series: Ground Covers
University of Missouri Extension: Selected Ground Covers for Missouri
Clemson Cooperative Extension: Groundcovers
Clemson Cooperative Extension: Euonymus
Clemson Cooperative Extension: Periwinkle
University of Florida IFAS Extension: Liriope Spicata Creeping Lilyturf