Managing slopes and embankments is one of the hardest aspects of landscape design. Grading them down is messy and expensive, and installing a retaining wall isn’t always a good option. Meanwhile, the longer you leave an embankment to its own devices, the more eroded it will become. Thankfully, many embankments can easily be remedied by being planted with ground cover.
Any type of plant that grows low to the ground while also propagating readily is considered to be a ground cover. Depending on the severity of your slope and the hardiness of the ground cover you choose, you can cover your whole bank with greenery and stop erosion in just one or two seasons.
If you’re in search of a solution for your problematic embankment, read on to learn about some of our favorite ground cover options. We’ve divided the ground cover plants into three categories of climate: cooler (zones 2b-5b), temperate (zones 6a-7b), and warmer (zones 8a-10b). To find out which zone you’re in, visit the USDA’s online zone map. Within each category, you’ll find two species of low growing ground cover to choose from for your embankment.
Cooler – Zones 2b-5b
Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina)
Native to the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada, Sweetfern, which actually isn’t a fern at all, is a stout, deciduous shrub with remarkable drought and frost tolerance. Those with dryer embankments will find that it easily propagates in dry conditions and maintains attractive foliage year round. This ground cover performs even better in dry, sandy, acidic soil. Basically, the more inhospitable your embankment may seem, the more Sweetfern is going to love it.
Two added benefits of planting Sweetfern are that is attracts butterflies during its summer bloom and its foliage repels deer.
Plant Sweetfern 3-4 apart in order to get good ground coverage within three seasons. After one growing season, you can attempt to propagate cuttings to fill in gaps on your embankment. There’s no need to worry; Sweetfern is very resilient, and it can handle the stress of harvesting cuttings.
Bearberry (Kinnikinnik) (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
Having originated in northern, subarctic Europe, it’s no surprise that Bearberry is such a tough, cold hardy plant. A perennial shrub with small jade colored leaves and bright red berries, Bearberry isn’t just an effective ground cover. It’s pretty too. Fascinatingly, Bearberry is also regarded in the alternative health community as an appropriate treatment for ailments of the urinary system. All we know is that it’s great for covering banks. We’ll let you test the rest.
Temperate – Zones 6a-7b
Boyd’s Pendulous Creeping Willow (Salix repens ‘Boyd’s Pendulous’)
You don’t typically think of ground cover when you hear planters talking about willow. Rightly so, because there are only a few species of willow that crawl and creep on the ground. Boyd’s Pendulous is one of those few. Its mildly glossy leaves and light orange stems make it an unusual alternative to evergreen ground covers.
Boyd’s Pendulous can grow in practically all soil conditions, so if your bank is composed of unfavorable soil it’s a good choice. It won’t grow higher than 1’, so plan to have a beautiful blanket of willow-like vegetation. Like Sweetfern, Boyd’s Pendulous can be propagated from cuttings, so feel free to jumpstart your ground cover project with cuttings once you’re a season or so in. However, at this plant’s typical rate of growth, you might not have to!
Yellow Ripple Ivy (Hedera helix ‘Yellow Ripple’)
For an elegant, traditional cover of foliage, Yellow Ripple Ivy fits the bill perfectly. Its shiny green leaves are accented with gorgeous yellow borders and swirls, and it grows quite quickly. If you want to add some ornamental value, plant your ivy near a trellis or other structure that it can climb. You can also bring cuttings inside to use as houseplants.
Yellow Ripple Ivy is drought tolerant, but it does best in fertile soil. If your embankment is made up of clay or low quality dirt, then you should select a different species.
Warmer – Zones 8a-10b
‘Angelina’ Sedum (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’)
Angelina sedum is a succulent ground cover that’s notorious for its ability to spread rapidly. In fact, many gardeners issue passionate warnings before selling it, due to its aggressive nature. However, if you’ve got a big, bare bank in a hot, dry climate, then it’s just the right plant for the job.
Shades of green, yellow, and orange dominate the foliage of Angelina sedum, and it performs best in dry, well-draining soil. Again, before you plant it, be sure you have plenty of room for it to grow. Once it takes off, it can be hard to stop.
St. John’s Wort Silvana (Hypericum cerastoides ‘Silvana’)
More commonly known for its related varietal that’s used in dietary supplements, St. John’s Wort Silvana is an effective ground cover that flourishes in high heat planting zones. The “Silvana” on the end of its name describes the matte silver color of its leaves, which when paired with its bright yellow flowers make for a gorgeous ground cover.
St. John’s Wort is best for covering small embankments, and it will require watering during extended periods of high heat (90 degrees and up). Only choose this ground cover if you can handle a little extra attention and maintenance. Your added effort will be rewarded with gorgeous foliage and blooms!