English ivy (Hedera helix) is ubiquitous as a ground cover. It is tough, evergreen and spreads in the shade. That, though, is the problem… It is widely regarded as one of the most detrimental invasives in the mid-Atlantic. Even if you keep it neatly trimmed as above on the left, birds spread it seeds. Legions of volunteers spend weekends removing it from our parks and forests.
The first and best thing you can do on the gardening front is to remove any ivy you have. My preferred method is to pull it by hand after a few days of rain (friends and teenagers can really make a difference here!).
Good news! There are many alternatives that are evergreen and tough too. Juniper, above on the right, is one that provides incredible interest year round through its phenomenal texture. One native that can take the shade is dwarf eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana ‘Grey Owl’). This is a cultivar of the wonderful eastern red cedar tree which is native to the mid-Atlantic. While most sources say this plant requires full sun, I have often seen it effectively used as a ground cover in partial shade, particularly along sidewalks and walls. As with all evergreens, it is best to plant in the spring or fall when temperatures are cooler and provide ample water until they are established.
If you like the look of pachysandra, the native Allegheny pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens), is semi-evergreen and has small flower spikes in the spring.
My personal favorite as an alternative to english ivy is the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichiodes) below. Yes, it is taller at 2 feet or so, but the textural year-round interest, the unfurling fiddleheads in spring and the way it moves in the breeze make it a great choice! Plant densely to get a total ground cover.
One more alternative that is virtually evergreen in the mid-Atlantic is foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) below. It spreads by runners seen below at the lower right and, given enough moisture, makes an excellent ground cover for shade. It’s spring white flowers are a bonus.
For more information
- More about christmas fern here and here
- More about foamflower here and here
- Information about removing ivy here and here