I have shady and sloping areas where it is difficult to maintain a lawn. I have been told that ground covers could be a better choice. What kinds would you recommend?
Ground covers are a good lawn alternative. They do not require weekly mowing, although some benefit from occasional trimming. Ground covers are especially good in shady areas where grass does not receive enough light to grow thickly. Ground covers can be planted on sloping areas, poorly drained areas, and areas that are hard to reach with a lawn mower.
Ground covers will require some effort until they become established to avoid weed infestation. Ground cover plants are more expensive when compared to the cost of establishing a new lawn. However, the lower long-term maintenance costs greatly outweigh the initial cost of establishment.
Our native kinnikinnick is the best adapted ground cover. It is very drought tolerant once established and grows 3 to 4 inches in full sun to fairly heavy shade.
For hot, dry areas in full sun, snow-in-summer (cerastium tomentosum) is a good choice. Once established, it is tough as nails and resistant to weed invasion. It has silvery gray foliage reaching as high as 4 to 5 inches. Its prolific white flowers make it look like a snow bank in June. Snow-in-summer does not grow well in wet areas.
Another tough ground cover that will grow in shade to full sun is sweet woodruff (galium odoratum). It grows about 3- to 4-inches high and produces a mass of tiny white flowers in the spring. It is tolerant of a wide range of soils and moisture levels.
My favorite for shady or morning sun areas is lamium. The variegated silver and green leaves are very attractive. Varieties with white, pink, lavender and crimson flowers are available. Lamium produces flowers all summer.
Carpet Bugle (ajuga) is an excellent choice for shady areas (it also does reasonably well in sunny areas). The most popular varieties have bronzy leaves, although there are green and tricolor leaf varieties. Small, blue spike flowers are produced in the spring. Typical height is 3 to 5 inches, although there are some large leaf cultivars which are taller and have larger flowers.
Stonecrop (sedum) can be grown in sun or shade. There are a variety of leaf types and flower colors available. They are popular for rock gardens and will grow on very poor soil. Golden Carpet sedum is the most shade tolerant. It has golden yellow flowers in June.
Creeping potentilla is another one of our natives which grows in sun to moderate shade. It grows close to the ground and produces yellow flowers.
Rock cress (arabis and aubrieta), gold alyssum (aurinia), moss phlox and vinca minor are other good ground covers. Local full service nurseries and garden stores can provide even more choices.
Another popular use for ground covers is to plant them over spring blooming bulbs like daffodils and tulips. Bulbs will come right up through the ground cover.