Truth be known, the least expensive and lowest maintenance ground-covering plant you can grow is turfgrass. So if grass will grow in a given part of your yard, and if those facts are of importance to you, stick with the turfgrass.
However, whether for aesthetic reasons or because grass simply won’t grow in particular places, many of us turn to groundcover options. Some are much better than others.
Since this is prime planting time for them all, I thought it might be a good time to list the best of the bunch. These are by my own very arbitrary rankings, so don’t take them as gospel. They’re offered only as a good starting point.
Groundcovers for shade …
▪ Mondograss, also known as monkeygrass. Fine texture with grass-like leaves. Grows to 6-8 inches tall and holds soil securely. Space tennis-ball-sized clumps 6 or 7 inches apart, so that leaves just touch. Should not be mowed as a regular practice, and does not stand daily pedestrian traffic, but very dependable substitute when you want the look of a fairly low grass.
▪ Liriope. Big sister to mondograss. Leaves are wider and longer. Bears spikes of lavender or white blooms in summer. Slower to fill in, so if you truly want a groundcover, plant clumps 4 to 5 inches apart. Variegated types are slower to fill, and Silvery Sunproof specifically often develops a fungal leaf problem.
▪ Asian jasmine. Does just as well in shade as it does in the sun, although in extremely dense shade it may not produce thick cover. Deep evergreen foliage, but may brown in extremely cold winters. Grows to 6 to 8 inches tall. Space gallon pots 15 inches apart.
▪ Purple wintercreeper euonymus. Superior and very winter-hardy. Deep green in summer and maroon in winter. As with Asian jasmine, stems may make leaf removal more challenging. Space 4-inch pots 8 to 10 inches apart. Do not allow to climb trees — that’s the only time I’ve ever seen euonymus scale bother it.
▪ English ivy. Longtime favorite for shade beds. Must have perfect drainage or will suffer root diseases. Also subject to fungal leaf spot, but it’s manageable. Lovely evergreen foliage. Will try to climb fences, sides of houses, tree trunks. Space 4-inch pots 8 inches apart.
▪ Lamium (dead nettle). I’ve grown this for 35 years, and I’d rank it much higher if it were only widely available. There are clump-forming lamiums, but they’re more for the perennial garden. This one spreads quickly, yet is easily cut back if it starts to invade. If you see it, buy a few and give them a try.
These shade groundcovers have one or more blemishes that score them farther down. Wood ferns (deciduous, so bare five months of the year). Ajuga (southern blight fungus can wipe out entire planting almost overnight). Dwarf mondograss (too slow to be useful in large areas). Trailing periwinkle or vinca (vinca leaf rollers turn it brown every summer).
Groundcovers for sun…
▪ Purple wintercreeper euonymus. In the past 30 years this has become the go-to groundcover for hot, sunny spaces.
Its foliage is vibrant bright green in spring, shifting to deep green all summer and then maroon with winter’s cold. It will sprawl and start to fill in the first year.
Be prepared to peg down the stems that stick up too high. It will start to thicken the second year, and you’ll need to trim it once or twice a year by the third year to keep it at 6 or 7 inches tall.
▪ Asian jasmine. Our most popular Texas groundcover for decades, but it’s turned brown in enough North Texas winters that some people have switched over to purple wintercreeper.
Asian jasmine always comes back from freezes, however, and it is as insect- and disease-free as any groundcover in Texas. It, too, will thicken and fill by the second year.
▪ Tam juniper. This is a lovely, heat-tolerant groundcover to 12 to 16 inches tall and several feet wide. Its needles are fine-textured and very dark green.
Subject to spider mites and occasionally bagworms, but both are easily stopped. Far more dependable here than blue rug, blue Pacific and Andorra junipers in my experience.
▪ Flirt and harbour dwarf nandinas. The only thing that keeps me from praising these as groundcovers is the fact that it’s hard to find good examples in landscapes. It’s also sometimes hard to find enough 1-gallon plants to plant a full bed of them.
However, these are glorious low, spreading nandinas that grow to 12 to 16 inches tall. Winter color is maroon, with red tones across the green leaves in summer.
Bed preparation is critical…
If you want to succeed in growing groundcovers:
▪ Prepare the soil carefully. Remove or spray to eliminate all existing vegetation. Rototill to incorporate 2 inches of sphagnum moss and 1 inch each of compost, rotted manure, finely ground bark mulch and expanded shale.
▪ Plant in a checkerboard design for quickest cover. Apply nitrogen fertilizer every four to six weeks, and keep the bed consistently moist.
▪ Pull weeds as they appear. Once the groundcover thickens, you will no longer see many weeds.