Fight Garlic Mustard with Native Groundcovers

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), and Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). If plants could ride horses, these would be the three horsemen of the Invasive Plant Apocalypse – at least for shady areas in the Midwest. However, a recent post in The Native Plant Herald (the blog of Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin) tells us how native woodland groundcovers can be used to keep these botanical barbarians from running amok. To read the post, click here.

Wild Ginger on the west side of our garage. This picture was taken on May 2 of this year.

To be clear: the plants discussed here are generally native to parts of the eastern and central regions of the US and Canada. In other regions, this information may not apply.

Wild Ginger
Here’s a picture of the same bed from May 12, 2013.

I have experience with some of the plants discussed in the post. Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), for example. According to Prairie Nursery, Wild Ginger “forms a solid mat of roots at the soil surface … Once established, a bed of Wild Ginger is essentially impervious to invasion by garlic mustard, buckthorn and honeysuckle.”

2014-05-18 15.50.28
Lady ferns with wild ginger from late May, 2014.

I can attest to the solid mat of roots. What’s more, Wild Ginger is a darn good-looking groundcover for shady gardens. On the west side of our house, I have a couple of patches of Wild Ginger, in some places interplanted with Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina). They seem to live comfortably together. Wild Ginger roots do smell like ginger, but the plant is entirely unrelated to culinary ginger.

Unfortunately, to establish a bed of Wild Ginger you first have to remove the Garlic Mustard.

Long Beaked Sedge in our back garden, early May.

Another native recommended in this post is Long Beaked Sedge (Carex sprengelii). I planted a patch just last year in our shady back garden and it has already formed a very solid mass.

long beak sedge pr nursery
Long Beaked Sedge. Photo from

Long Beaked Sedge has pretty nice seedheads.

2014-07-16 10.52.43 northern sea oats
Northern sea oats in early summer.

There’s a lot of Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) in our garden. It definitely forms a solid mass, and it’s a really beautiful grass in summer and fall.

DSC_0619 northern sea oats
In August.

However, be careful where you put it, because it is a bear to remove and has definite expansionist tendencies.

2014-09-01 17.40.40 Big Leaf Aster
Big Leaf Aster

There’s one plant mentioned in this post that in my garden has not been much of a weed inhibitor: Big Leaf Aster (Eurybia macrophylla). Or as my kids like to call it, Big Ass Leafter. Not sure if I don’t have the right conditions, or what.

Anyway, this post  mentions a couple of other plants and I’d recommend it to anyone who has a shady or woodland garden.




37 Comments on “Fight Garlic Mustard with Native Groundcovers”

  1. The plants may differ from region to region, but the overall advice is genius and (in my experience at least) very true — if you want to block invasive plants or weeds, you only have two options:

    1) Get on an endless treadmill of mulching, pulling, hoeing and putting down sprays and pellets of herbicides containing who-knows-what


    2) Plant a native (or non-invasive exotic) that’s tougher than the weeds and able to outcompete them.

    #2 seems like the clear winner to me.

    (Most of the specific plants recommended by Prairie Nursery aren’t native down here in Tennessee and I don’t think would grow well down here. I tried one native ginger and it has survived – barely – but has not thrived and not spread. I also don’t have much shade. But I am trying several different sedges and think I have some that have sprung up naturally too in garden beds. The other day, I watched a male cardinal eating sedge seeds. A beautiful sight!)

  2. An excellent post–it’s always good to discuss the downsides of the “botanical barbarians” (love that, btw!) and promote useful and appropriate native alternatives. Like you, I also enjoy the Inland sea oats– a beautiful native plants and especially for shady spots.

  3. What a coincidence. I heard Robin Wall Kimmerer speak today, she’s the author of Braiding Sweetgrass which I’m reading, and she mentioned garlic mustard. I’ll probably write about the book in my next post. She mentioned “invasive” species and said a tiny bit about balance – how nothing is inherently bad, we just need balance and sometimes we have to consciously cut back a plant and make space for another kind.

  4. Thanks for this info, Jason. I started noticing garlic mustard here just a few years ago. There’s an area under and right in front of a large evergreen that is prone to it and another invasive weed I haven’t identified. I did plant a few wild ginger plants as well as a type of Lamium known as “Golden Archangel.” Both are spreading and seem to be doing the trick in keeping out other intruders. The friend who gave me the Lamium warned me it could spread, but said it was easy to control, though now I see it’s called invasive by many sites. Still, it’s much better than garlic mustard.

  5. The Wild Ginger that I have relocated from a natural woodland have performed much better than nursery grown potted plants, making me wonder if it does better with Mycorrhiza in the soil. Terrific plant and great choices you have suggested!

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