If you are tired of putting down loads of mulch twice a year, consider planting some of your areas with groundcovers. They will keep down the weeds and their shallow root systems will not compete with trees and shrubs. Spring bulbs like daffodils will push right through them. While both ivy and vinca are rather invasive, there are other options.
Sweet Box (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis) is a short dense evergreen groundcover with small glossy leaves. It spreads well without being too aggressive. The small white flowers appear in February and are very fragrant. This is an excellent choice for dry shade. Other species of Sweet Box are shrubby rather than spreading. Confusa is about 4 to 5 feet tall and wide. Ruscifolia is shorter, reaching only 3 feet. Both share the same dense glossy foliage and sweet fragrant flowers. Learn more.
Photo credit: Megan Hansen
Ardisia japonica is another underutilized groundcover. The large leaves resemble those of the hellebore and it spreads quickly in shady areas. There are both green and variegated selections. Ardisia is not as cold hardy as sweet box, and the leaves may be damaged by the low teens, but when planted in a shady protected area, it is both beautiful and durable. We planted it here at the nursery many years ago and it has performed beautifully.
Podocarpus lawrencei ‘Red Tip’ and ‘Purple King’ are two cultivars of podocarpus almost completely unknown in the South. They are low growing evergreen shrubs that like some afternoon shade. Their needle-like leaves have a bluish cast that is a pretty contrast to dark green shrubs like hollies and magnolia. Red Tip has new growth with a reddish tinge. It is slow growing, reaching only 3 to 4 feet tall and wide. Purple King is more spreading, reaching 3 feet tall by 6 feet wide. Both require some extra water in periods of drought, but will perform well in shady areas. Best of all, deer seem to ignore them.
Photo credit: Monrovia