The best plants for erosion control are those ground covers or shrubs that are vigorous, attractive, and have a root system effective at holding back soil on a hill. If you live in deer country they should also be plants that deer tend not to eat. The following list gives you a variety of choices, each of which meets these criteria.
In your plant selection, aim for a balance between beauty and practicality. The prettiest plant you find in a garden catalog will disappoint you if you grow it under... the wrong conditions (too much shade or sun) or to serve a function it is not suited to serve.
You also have to strike a balance between beauty and vigor, since you may not want to create a landscape-maintenance nightmare by introducing plants to your yard that are going to spread beyond the bounds you intend for them. Some of the best plants for erosion control will be too aggressive for some homeowners (but not for others), so evaluate the selections on a case-by-case basis.
Few landscaping issues are more pressing and more challenging than erosion control, particularly when you are trying to protect a steep slope from eroding away. In addition to growing perennial ground covers and shrubs such as Deutzia that will spread and strike down roots to retain soil, consider creating terraces or having a professional install them. The average DIY'er is quite capable of making terraces via small stone retaining walls on a gradual slope, but, for steep slopes in imminent danger of eroding, the job is best left to pros.
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Creeping junipers are among the ground covers that like a lot of sun. Happily, they stay short (generally no more than 1 foot), and they're cold-hardy (many being suited to zone 3 to 9). Juniperus plants give you landscape color year-round because they're evergreen. There are a number of different cultivars, including:
- Blue Rug (J. horizontalis Wiltonii): valued for its blue foliage
- J. horizontalis Prince of Wales: one of the shorter kinds, being just 6 inches tall
- J. horizontalis Lime Glow: for those who prefer yellowish-green foliage
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In contrast with creeping juniper, creeping myrtle (Vinca minor) is one of the ground covers that can take shade. But, like creeping juniper, it's a short (3 to 6 inches) evergreen.
Another of the convenient features of creeping myrtle (zones 4 to 8) is that it's a drought-tolerant ground cover. Steep hillsides can be some of the least accessible areas of a landscape for homeowners, meaning that watering plants in such spots can be problematic. Plants that are naturally drought-tolerant take some of the pressure off you to care for them.
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Don't think that you are limited to ground covers (perennials and short shrubs that grow horizontally) in fighting erosion (although, in some cases, for aesthetic reasons, you may prefer shorter plants). In fact, in severe cases of erosion where you need quick results, shrubs can be the best plants for erosion control: They can strike bigger, tougher roots down into the soil. They can form tenacious root systems that are great at retaining soil.
Forsythia (zones 5 to 8, 4 to 6 feet tall) is one such plant, a shrub that flowers in early spring. The weeping form (Forsythia suspensa) can be a particularly good choice for retaining soil on a slope: Where the drooping branches touch dirt, they will strike down roots, thereby acting as ground covers.
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Like creeping myrtle, Pachysandra terminalis is a short (6 inches), evergreen ground cover for shade. Japanese spurge (zones 4 to 8) is considered a foliage plant. Although it does put out small, white flowers, they add little value. The leaves have a leathery feel and look that lends further interest to your property.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
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Tolerant of sun or partial shade, Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens (6 inches tall) is grown for the black color of its grass-like blades. Even the berries that sometimes succeed its flowers are black. In a sunny spot, grow this zone-6-to-9 oddity as a companion plant for Sedum rupestre Angelina; the gold color of the latter's leaves will create a striking contrast.
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Cotoneaster horizontalis (zones 5 to 7) is another choice from the shrub world that is among the best plants for erosion control. You'll like its horizontal plant form if you're looking for a selection that doesn't get too tall (3 feet) but that spreads and puts out big, tough roots that will stabilize the ground on a slope. Like Forsythia suspensa, its branches root where contact is made with the soil. Its fall foliage and red berries are each a pleasant bonus.
When growing conditions permit, there's nothing like the showier flowering ground covers to blanket a hillside. When in bloom, they make a powerful statement in the landscape. If you have sufficient room, consider growing a mix of them with different blooming periods. This way, you can stagger your display rather than having to endure periods during the spring and summer when your slope is devoid of floral color. Even those that lack root systems vigorous enough to retain soil can serve a purpose: Intersperse them between the better erosion-busters to add greater beauty to the slope.