The Plant Layer You are Missing That Saves Time and Money

The Plant Layer You are Missing That Saves Time and Money

The Plant Layer You are Missing That Saves Time and Money

Nature hates bare dirt.

Bring in topsoil and make a new raised bed. Plant your annuals and perennials in cute rows. Step back and admire your work. By July it’s full of weeds.

Nature hates bare dirt.

Instead, the next year, we cover the ground with mulch. Paper, plastic, wood, rubber, all are things we throw down to stop nature. These things cost money and hurt our soil.

But maybe we should work with nature?

Layers in nature

Layers in a forest - you can see the canopy, understory and floor

Layers in a forest – you can see the canopy, understory and floor

If you look around a forest or prairie it is easy to miss the layers. Forests tend to make you focus on the large trees, or the tangle of shrubs in your way. Prairies draw you to their flowers, dots of color among the grass. But forests and prairies are really layers of plants.

Forests are usually 3 layers.

  • Canopy
  • Understory
  • Floor

The canopy is the tree tops, you can think of it as the roof of the forest. These are the big trees, oaks, maples, beech. It gets the most sunlight and shades everything below. The understory is shrubs and small trees. Dogwoods and redbuds grow in the understory. They fight for the sun that makes it past the canopy. Then there is the floor. It is covered in last year’s leaves, fallen trees, low plants and mosses.

Prairies also have 3 layers

  • Tall
  • Mid
  • Ground

The tall layer is made of the big plants – tall grasses and wildflowers. They catch your eye the most, like the compass plant or big bluestem grass. The mid layer sits just below the tall layer, it is shaded a bit by the taller plants, but not as much as in a forest. This can have the black-eyed susans, or bee balm growing. Then there is the ground layer, these low growing plants are shaded by everyone above.

In both examples, the lowest layer is the ground cover layer. And it’s very important.

Ground cover: the missing layer in the backyard

In its simplest definition, groundcover is any plant that covers the ground. Groundcovers tend to be aggressively growing low lying plants. They are very important. Most importantly they do 3 things:

1. Ground cover increases soil fertility

Most people think of soil as just dirt. But, it’s not just dirt, it is alive. Soil is able to breathe, transport nutrients and even grow. Ground cover plants are part of this.

Soil is able to breathe, transport nutrients and even grow. Click To Tweet

These plants, by living and dying, add organic matter to the soil. Over the long term, this creates better soil. The roots of these plants catch the nutrients that rain otherwise would wash away; some are able to add them back to the soil (think legumes) into a usable form.

Ground cover also can feed soil organisms themselves. Many soil living creatures eat root structures and fungi that live on the roots. Roots are also able to loosen compacted soil, allowing air and water to move more easily though it (breathe).

2. Ground cover controls weeds

Ground covers tend to be aggressive plants, and by their nature can out compete weeds in the garden. By covering the soil, they prevent germination of seeds that require light and smother out other plant seedlings after germination occurs. Once you have a thick stand of ground cover in an area, weeding is easy if not non-existent.

3. Ground cover prevents erosion

Healthy soil stores water. But, it is difficult for the soil to keep the water if it runs through too fast. Ground cover slows it down. It does this two ways: by blocking the water from hitting the soil and by increasing the soil’s ability to soak up the water. They make the soil more like a sponge.

It takes a long time for this all to work – sometimes decades. So planting groundcovers sooner is better.

And here is how it saves you time and money –

When you use native groundcovers you don’t have to buy mulch and you need to water less!

That’s it. Ground covers do exactly what mulch does, only you don’t have to buy them every year. They are ‘living mulch’. They may be slightly more expensive in the beginning, but they will soon pay for themselves.  And, if you use native plants as the ground cover, you also provide food and shelter for all the critters in your backyard! Picking groundcover over mulch is a win for everyone.

Ground covers are living mulch that saves you time and money! Click To Tweet

Groundcovers to avoid

Before I tell you my favorite groundcovers, I want to tell you which ones to avoid. Don’t plant these. Just don’t. These will take over your yard, your neighbor’s yard and their neighbor’s yard! You’ve been warned.

  • Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)
  • English Ivy (Hedera helix)
  • Periwinkle (Vinca minor)
  • Bishop’s Weed (Aegopodium podagaria)

Enough about the invasives – the following are great groundcovers for your yard.

Some Great Native Groundcovers

Canada Wild Ginger in the author's yard

Canada Wild Ginger in the author’s yard


Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) – while most ground covers should be aggressive spreaders, wild ginger (and our next plant) are a bit more well behaved. It can take full to light shade, and wet to dry soil. It will even grow under maple trees – not many plants can pull that off. It is tough, so you don’t have to keep it watered unless it is in a really dry spot. This plant is hardy in the north, but may not be a good choice for the heat of the deep south. You can buy seeds, but they are not easy to start so this plant is best through divisions.

Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) – almost any fern can be thought of as a groundcover, but my favorite is the maidenhair. This also likes full to part shade, but is a bit more picky about moisture. When happy in moist, humus rich soil, it will slowly form a colony. This fern also loves humidity, so if you live in the deep south or midwest it will be right at home. Most ferns are a bit toxic, and this one is not bothered by deer.

Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) – for part shade, this sedge is the perfect choice. Most other sedges like moist soils but this one likes it a bit on the dry side. Some even use it as a replacement for lawn in shady areas. When you want more, just divide the plant as it is difficult from seed. It has a small flower in the spring producing seeds that are loved by many of the smaller bird species (including the Towhee).

Allegheny Pachysandra at Cincinnati Nature Center

Allegheny Pachysandra at Cincinnati Nature Center

Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) – another part shade plant, wild geranium likes moist soil but will tolerate other soil. It makes small mounds and spreads slowly. It is loved by bumblebees, mason bees, cuckoo bees, long-horned bees, halictid bees and andrenid bees. It is also a host for some species of  butterflies and moths. The eastern chipmunk also eats the seeds.

Allegheny pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens) – for our southern friends looking for a well behaved groundcover, this is it. Don’t confuse it with the non-native pachysandra. This will not take over your yard. Not a fan of sun, this plant is great for deep to light shade. In the north, it dies back every winter, but it is evergreen in the south. Unlike wild ginger, this flowers in the spring!


Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis) – this native aggressive spreader is wonderful if you have a lot of ground to cover. It likes moist soil and is natural in much of the United States. It blooms in spring and is pollinated by small bees and syrphid flies. It is avoided by deer and rabbits due to some toxic compounds but the ground mealybug eats the roots.

Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta for eastern US and Antennaria plantaginifolia for western US) –  these short plants top out at 1 inch. They have cute small flowers that look like tufts of hair. They are very drought tolerant and can grow in dry clay soils. It forms colonies from stolons off the mother plant spreading slowly. It is allelopathic, which means it releases chemicals that stunt the growth of surrounding plants. This awesome ground cover is food for many small bees and flies. It is also the host plant of the American Painted Lady butterfly and some moth species. Ground birds love the seedheads so plant this if you are looking to attract grouse, quail or turkey to your backyard.

Prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata)– another excellent plant for dry soil. Coreopsis in general are great plants for dry ground with humid conditions. They get slightly taller than pussytoes and when in bloom it will be the star of the yard for pollinators. It feeds many types of bees, wasps, flies, butterflies and moths. Hummingbirds have been known to visit the blooms too!

Harebell in Yellowstone National Park

Harebell in Yellowstone National Park

California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica) – this western native is a magnet for hummingbirds. It flowers in late summer, and does not struggle with heat making this a great addition to any sunny garden. They spread by underground rhizomes and may seed in an area where it is happy.

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) – another plant for dry areas, harebell is great for a rock garden. It has delicate purple bell like flowers and is found mostly west of the Mississippi. It is a nectar source for many native bees, and is generally not eaten by deer and rabbits.


Now that you have some ideas, go out and plant some ground covers. Many of these are easy from seed so check out Prairie Moon Nursery, Swallowtail Seeds and Garden’s North if you want to try it.

What are your favorite native ground covers. Tell me in the comments!

Paige Nugent

The Plant Layer You are Missing That Saves Time and Money

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