Great Plants for Northern Gardens: Day 23 — Groundcovers


Ground covers give texture and calm to the garden. This is 'Black Scallop' ajuga and lamb's ears.

Today is Black Friday -- so take a break from the insanity and the materialism, and think about a lush carpet of fragrant thyme beneath your feet, a bright patch of lamium or lamb's ears surrounding your perennials with foliage and flowers; and the heart-shaped leaves of wild ginger hiding a tiny bloom that you can discover in spring.

Don't you feel better now?

Groundcovers help gardeners relax and that's one reason they are among the great plants for northern gardens. When thinking about our 30 great plant list, we could not limit ourselves to just one groundcover. There are too many wonderful choices. The benefits of groundcovers are many as well: They are tough plants that tend to tolerate a wide range of soil and sun conditions; they spread freely and surround shrubs, perennials and trees with a visually appealing carpet that connects lawn and garden; they grow well on slopes, preventing erosion; they block weeds and they keep the soil cool in hot weather. The University of Minnesota Sustainable Landscape Information Series has an informative article on groundcovers and a long list of options.

Here are four groundcovers to consider:

wild gingerWild Ginger (Asarum canadense)  is native to deciduous forest floors, so it likes moist soils and shade. Its heart-shaped leaves cluster together to form a floating carpet of green, but if you look carefully, you will find a tiny flower near the ground in spring. Native plant expert Lynn Steiner recommends planting wild ginger with spring ephemerals, such as trillium and pasque flower, because the ginger will fill in after the ephemerals have faded.

walking on thyme

Some groundcovers, such as thyme, can take foot traffic. It feels lovely to walk barefoot on them.

Thyme (Thymus sp.) is a large group of herbs and ornamentals, some of which are low-growing groundcovers. Many thymes can stand some light foot traffic, making them a great choice around paths or stone walkways. The blooms last a few weeks, adding another dimension to the foliage. Some popular choices for Minnesota are Elfin creeping thyme (Thymus praecox 'Elfin'), which is hard to USDA Zone 2; 'Doone Valley' creeping thyme, which as fragrant foliage and pink flowers; and wooly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus), which has a more purple flower and looks stunning in rock gardens. Like most herbs, thyme prefers full sun and well-drained soil.

Ajuga (Ajuga reptans) is sometimes called bugle or bugleweed and is a very low-growing perennial with an early summer flower. One of the most popular cultivars of ajuga is 'Burgundy Glow', which grows in shades of purple, pink and green. Ajuga performs beautifully on a slope and we have seen large slopes covered with it, which is an arresting sight when the flowers are in bloom. It's hardy to USDA Zone 3.

sweet woodruff bloom

You see why they call it sweet woodruff -- so pretty.

Sweet woodruff (Gallium odoratum) What a sweet plant! The foliage is bright green and the dainty white flowers lighten up any shady spot in May. Like all groundcovers, it spreads, but sweet woodruff is very easy to pull by hand if it ends up somewhere you don't want it. It likes semi-shaded locations and rich soil. It does very well under a deciduous tree. What is your favorite groundcover?


Unlock a year of expert gardening support when you join the hort...


  1. luciearl on January 3, 2021 at 3:58 pm

    Be careful with the thyme. Thyme-Speedwell, non-native, weedy from Asia. Thyme-leaf Spurge-native (key ID has hairless stems).

    • Mary Lahr Schier on January 3, 2021 at 9:35 pm

      Thanks for the heads up!

  2. Lee Cornell on July 16, 2022 at 1:40 am

    Are there native groundcovers that could be planted in areas of Creeping Charlie and choke it out?

    • MSHS on July 16, 2022 at 2:12 pm

      Yes! Wild ginger is native and will provide a thick groundcover and squelch most weeds. You could try wild strawberry or wild geranium, too. Native ferns, sedges and even varieties of coreopsis can also fill in areas and keep creeping Charlie and other plants at bay. Some non-native groundcovers that will do the trick are Vinca (a great perennial groundcover with glossy, dark green leaves and pretty purple/blue blooms), Pachysandra and Lamium (both can do well in shadier spots where other groundcovers may be hard to grow).

Leave a Comment