University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

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LOW NATIVE SHRUBS AND GROUNDCOVERS
 
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 
            
When choosing low shrubs or woody groundcovers for landscaping, consider some of these northern natives.  All the following plants are hardy to at least USDA zone 4 (-20 to -30F low in winter), and grow in sun or at least part shade unless noted for full sun.  Calling our region home, they are often better adapted than non-native plants (meaning they need less care and have fewer pests), and may provide more benefits to birds and pollinators.
           
Small shrubs are generally those under 6 feet high, fitting well in the middle to front of borders, and for low plants along building foundations.  They are often effective planted in masses.  Those with attractive flowers or leaves can be used as specimens, either alone or planted among other shrubs and perennials.
           
The black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa var. elata) is very hardy, reaching up to 5 feet high with an upright oval shape.  Yet it can spread a bit wider.  The shiny green leaves turn a wine-red in fall.  The white flowers yield purplish-black berries favored by wildlife.  You may find cultivars (cultivated varieties) with larger fruit and even brighter fall color.  This plant is adaptable to either wet or dry sites.
           
The quite hardy fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) needs to be sited carefully as it can spread rapidly to 8 feet or more.  This makes it a good choice for slopes, especially ones that are dry, or too steep to mow.  The glossy green leaves with three parts (“trifoliate”) somewhat resemble poison ivy leaves, and turn lovely fall colors in yellow, orange, or red in some years. When crushed they are aromatic, hence the species name.  While the species can reach up to 6 feet tall, the cultivar ‘Gro-Low’ reaches about half that.
           
The snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus var. laevigatus) is mainly grown for its white fruit on arching branches.  This plant too can spread to 8 feet, but not as aggressively as the sumac, so is good too for slopes.  If it becomes scraggly after a few years, prune back in spring to near the ground and it will regrow.
           
There are several native shrubs you might consider for landscapes that are even shorter, only reaching 3 to 4 feet tall.  One of these is the less common sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) which is not a fern at all but has fern-like, dark-green leaves.   It too is a good choice for dry slopes or banks, is quite hardy, and will take sun or shade. Leaves on these are pleasantly aromatic, somewhat like leaves of the bayberry. 
           
The bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera) is not a honeysuckle, but has light-yellow flowers like those of the honeysuckle vine.  Leaves turn nice fall colors.  It only gets about 2 feet high, but can slowly spread to 5 feet or so.  It is good in sun or shade, and tolerates wet or dry soils.  You may find the cultivar ‘Copper’, so named for its coppery new growth.
           
The hardy native bush cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa) has small yellow, rose-like flowers in June and then sporadically through the summer. There are many readily available cultivars of this shrub from 2 to 4 feet high, and with various flower colors including white, pink, reds, and oranges in addition to yellows.  It grows rapidly, and grows well in dry and infertile soils, but needs sun.  You may find the species in old pastures, and cultivars along foundations and in borders.
           
Native spreading groundcovers under a foot or so high, and that prefer acidic soils, include three berries.  Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is good for sandy or gravelly soils, and is salt tolerant.  It has bright red berries in fall and bronze-red leaves then.  Lowbush  blueberry is the native version of the larger-fruited ones we all know. Mountain cranberry or lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) prefers cool sites, has evergreen leaves, and small white to pink flowers.  Plant at least two plants of the latter for best fruiting.
           
For a low, evergreen groundcover you might consider the common juniper (Juniperus communis) or, better yet, one of its cultivars such as Blueberry Delight, ‘Berkshire’, ‘Green Carpet’, or the upright ‘Pencil Point’.  You’ll see the native species growing in old pastures just as with cinquefoil, and the cultivars along walks, fronts of borders, and in sunny rock gardens.
    
For more examples of native plants, including larger ones, as well as many other good shrubs and trees for Vermont, see Landscape Plants for Vermont, available from the Vermont Master Gardener program (www.uvm.edu/mastergardener/).  Check your state nursery association for local nurseries that carry a wide range of hardy landscape plants (greenworksvt.org).

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