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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Anderson

Better Together: Ground Covers in Triplicate

Hello Native Tree Lovers!

I learn so much every time I pick up a book about native plants.  My latest adventure: Native Ground Covers for Northeast Landscapes, by Anna Fialkoff and Heather McCargo.

Usually I fixate on my glorious native trees and shrubs.  But increasingly I’m focusing on the plants that form the ground layer, the lowest of the low.

What to plant? 

In the book, Fialkoff and McCargo talk about growing not one ground cover but three or more.

They even have a word for the combinations: guild

I love this idea because it gets away from the traditional monoculture, which can become like a piece of furniture in the yard.  

Case in point: It’s taken me about six years to even realize I have Japanese pachysandra growing underneath my Southern Magnolia.  There is nothing about it that draws the eye.

Guilds, on the other hand, create “a beautiful patchwork of foliage textures and blooms that offer interest throughout the growing season to both humans and pollinators,” the authors explain.

A Tale of Two Gardens

The traditional garden (pictured left), lovingly created by my neighbor, features clump-forming plants and no ground covers.  Mulch is used to suppress weeds, cool the soil and keep a nice, tidy appearance.

She has some native plants but mostly non-native and cultivars, and she gets compliments from passers-by.

Native perennial garden
My garden (and Lizzy)

My garden (right) is comprised entirely of native plants, and no mulch. 

Plants include Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor), Common Rush (Juncus effusus), Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana) and several others.

My natives are densely packed and provide food, nesting and shelter for birds, insects and other wildlife.  Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia) fills in the bare spots.

My garden is not perfect, but I love the arrangement of plants, and the white fence gives it a tidier look and keeps our furry neighbors off of it, including my dog, Lizzy ☺.

Quick Word About Slopes

Plants with deep roots are best for soil stabilization, and in general these are the native grasses. This chart by the National Park Service shows the root systems of several native grasses with names of the four dominant prairie grasses in red boxes.  Lawn grass is on the far left.

Sedges, like Fringed Sedge-pictured (Carex crinita), often are shorter than grasses, prefer shade and have fibrous root systems that spread out, holding the soil. (Fringed Sedge is among those rare sedges that prefer full sun to part shade.)

Choosing Plants

Once you’ve assessed your sun and soil conditions, it’s time to choose your ground covers.  

Below are examples of guilds based on landscape conditions (Adapted from Native Ground Covers for Northeast Landscapes).  The combinations include plants that bloom at different times of year, like the same sun and soil conditions and also offer cover or shelter for wildlife.

Sunny Slope: Black-eyed Susan-pictured top (Rudbeckia hirta), Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Shady Slope: Blue-wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium), Wild Bleeding Heart-pictured (Dicentra eximia), Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica)

Sunny Patio Areas:

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia), Lyre leaved Sage (Salvia lyrata)

Underneath Deciduous Trees: Stonecrop-pictured (Sedum ternatum), Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)

Under Pine Trees and Other Acidic Sites

Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), Pennsylvania Sedge

Sunny with Medium Soil: Fragrant sumac-shrub, pictured (Rhus aromatica), Pearly Everlasting-pictured (Anaphalis margaritacea), Wild Strawberry, Tall Anemone (Anemone virginiana)

Sunny and Wet: Blue Flag Iris, Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris), Wool Grass, Cattails (Typha latifolia)


About the author:

Jennifer Anderson Tree Talk Natives

Jennifer Anderson is the owner of Tree Talk Natives, a native tree and plant nursery in Rochester, Mass. She loves to talk native plants and can be reached at



  • Adams, C. Native Alternatives to English Ivy, Japanese Pachysandra and Periwinkle. Houzz.  June 22, 2016. 

  • Ask Mr. Smarty Plants. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

  • Cullina, W. Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada. Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000.

  • Fialkoff A. and Heather McCargo. Native Ground Covers for Northeast Landscapes. Wild Seed Project, North Yarmouth, Maine. 2022.

  • Plant Native Ground Covers & Make America Green Again.  Choose Natives.  April 20, 2021. 

  • Whitmeyer, A. Plant Portrait: Lyre leafed Sage.

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