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Best Plants for Retaining Walls to Beautify Your Yard

Growing plants is a fantastic way to soften the look of a retaining wall. But some plants are better suited for this role than others. To learn more about the best plants for retaining walls, read on.

Best Plants for Retaining Walls

The Top 8 Retaining Wall Plants

If you are searching for the best plants to grow around your retaining wall, reviewing this list is an excellent place to start. Each of the species below will offer you incredible ornamental value and can aid your retaining wall with erosion control.

Creeping Dogwood, Cornus canadensis

Most gardeners know about dogwood trees and the amazing blooms they can add to the springtime landscape. But what many people don’t know is that there is a creeping groundcover version of dogwood that is excellent for erosion control.

Creeping dogwood has leaves, flowers, and fruits that look just like those you would find on a dogwood tree. The major difference is that creeping dogwood grows just a few inches tall and spreads across the ground.

Common Periwinkle, Vinca minor

Common Periwinkle, Vinca minor, is a colorful plant that is ideal to plant on a retaining wall.
Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Common periwinkle is an evergreen groundcover plant with glossy leaves. It also holds long-lasting purple flowers that are shaped like pinwheels. This plant is admirable for its ability to cover the ground comprehensively.

This retaining wall plant option comes with a bit of a caveat. While many states will allow you to plant it, others list it as invasive. Regardless of where you grow common periwinkle, be prepared to control its spread.

Creeping Phlox, Phlox stolonifera

Creeping Phlox, Phlox stolonifera, makes a great retaining wall plant.
Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Creeping phlox may be one of the most visually pleasing plants on this list. When in bloom, this species covers the ground with bright flowers that can range from purple, pink, to white. These groups of flowers form a colorful mat on the ground.

That same growth habit is what allows creeping phlox to help so much with erosion control. This plant also looks astounding when it grows over a retaining wall. The cascading effect of the flowers will impress your garden visitors every spring.

Heartleaf Foamflower, Tiarella cordifolia

Heartleaf Foamflower, Tiarella cordifolia, is an ideal plant for a retaining wall.
Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Heartleaf foamflower is a valuable native plant species that will grow well near a retaining wall. As the name suggests, this plant has leaves with a vague heart-shaped form. However, those leaves are not the only impressive quality of this plant.

The flowers of heartleaf foamflower sit on stalks that are about six to 12 inches tall. The flowers are small, white, and star shaped. They grow in small, spike-like clusters that can make for a foamy appearance when growing in a large group. 

Ivy-Leaf Geranium, Pelargonium peltatum

Ivy-Leaf Geranium, Pelargonium peltatum, is an ideal plant for a retaining wall.
cultivar413 from Fallbrook, California, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

People often grow this plant in hanging baskets. Its trailing form makes it well-suited to that setting. This plant can also grow along the ground and develop into an effective form of erosion control. For that reason, it is a smart idea to include this species in your retaining wall planting scheme.

Ivy-leaf geranium thrives in warmer climates such as zones ten and eleven. Anyone living in those regions will enjoy this plant for its prominent flowers, which have large, vibrant petals. 

Muhly Grass, Muhlenbergia capillaris

Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is an ideal plant for a retaining wall.
Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Muhly grass is an ornamental species that is sure to stand out as much as any other plant. This tall grass creates a purple fuzzy texture that is sure to catch your eye. It grows in clumps that can reach about four feet tall.

This plant is also highly adaptable as it will survive in many kinds of soil. Although this plant is larger than most of the others on this list, its roots system is not too pervasive, making it a worthy choice for retaining walls.

Hay-Scented Fern, Dennstaedtia punctilobula

Hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) is an ideal plant for a retaining wall.
Homer Edward Price, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You are probably familiar with the large leaves that hay-scented fern hold. This plant thrives in the shade moist settings throughout much of the United States. Since it spreads to form large groups, this plant can do well to cover the area above your retaining wall.

This plant also has ecological merit. In woodland settings, it often provides cover for many native animals. That means adding this plant to your retaining wall will not only help your garden but also help the environment as well.

Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is an ideal plant for a retaining wall.
NY State IPM Program at Cornell University from New York, USA, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The final plant on our list is another species native to the eastern part of the United States. Virginia creeper grows as a vine or as a groundcover depending on the setting. The most notable characteristic of this plant is its broad leaves, each of which has five leaflets.

In fall, those leaves turn red, giving this plant ornamental interest in multiple seasons. The spreading nature of this plant also allows it to take a firm hold of the soil in which it grows to keep it in place.

Why Add Plants to a Retaining Wall?

Plants are essential to nearly every garden and can offer many benefits. However, there are two specific ways that the correct set of plants can be advantageous to retaining walls.

Improved Aesthetics

The most obvious benefit of including plants with your retaining wall is that they will improve your wall’s appearance. At times, a plain wall with bare soil surrounding it can look a bit unwelcoming.

By contrast, a wall with plenty of vibrant plants growing around and over it can have a lovely charm. Choose plant species that complement the materials of your wall to achieve the best effect.

You may find growing areas available both above and below your wall. You can also find some interesting plants that will grow along your wall. To add even more healthy plant life to your retaining wall, consider placing container plants on it as well.

Erosion Control

One of the most impressive aspects of retaining walls is that they can help control erosion. In fact, erosion control is often one of the top motivations to build a retaining wall in the first place. Fortunately, plants can aid in this effort as well.

The root systems of the plants you grow help to hold the soil in place. Without those plants, rain, wind, and runoff can displace the soil above your wall.

Remember that growing plants with deep, woody roots can be detrimental to your retaining wall. However, roots that spread horizontally and form a strong mat through the soil are ideal for keeping erosion in check.

What to Look for in a Retaining Wall Plant

A few crucial traits dictate whether a plant will work well in a retaining wall planting scheme. While you already know a few species you can use, here is what to look for in general when choosing a retaining wall plant:

  • Shallow, spreading roots: Deep roots may eventually damage your retaining wall. Plants with shallow roots that mainly spread horizontally are ideal. 
  • Quick growth rate: The quicker your plants grow, the sooner they will fill the area around your wall. Choosing a plant with a fast growth rate means it’ll take less time for your plants to add beauty and erosion control to your garden.
  • Ornamental features: Planting near a retaining wall is more than a practical matter. Select plants with interesting flowers and foliage to enhance the look and feel of your garden wall.

If you find a plant that meets those needs, it will likely perform well near your retaining wall. However, there are also a few types of plants you should never plant near one of these structures.

What Not to Plant Near a Retaining Wall

You now know of several plant varieties that you can grow near a retaining wall. However, you should also know about a few plant types that you should avoid growing in that location. Generally, you should not grow trees or large shrubs near a wall or any other type of hardscape construction.

Woody plants tend to have tougher, deeper roots. Over the years, the roots of a woody plant can expand and begin to compromise the structural integrity of your wall.

You’ve likely seen this effect in driveways and sidewalks. While it seems somewhat improbable, the roots of a tree are strong enough to crack pavement and displace the materials that comprise your wall.

To give your retaining wall the greatest opportunity to remain intact, don’t plant any plants that have large woody root systems near it. Likewise, when building a new retaining wall, it is wise to locate it away from any large existing woody plants.

Watch Out for Invasive Erosion Control Plants

The best plants for erosion control have vigorous roots and often spread relatively quickly. Unfortunately, those characteristics are present in many invasive species. For many decades, people used invasive species such as these to control erosion above and around their retaining walls:

  • Bugleweed
  • Evening primrose
  • Goutweed
  • Oriental bittersweet
  • Pachysandra

Some people continue to use such plants despite what we know about their harmful environmental effects. Do your part to mitigate that issue by always choosing native and non-invasive ornamental plants to grow near your retaining wall.

Regarding invasive species, the location of your garden is critical. In many cases, a plant that is invasive in one region may be allowed in another. Be sure to check which species are permissible to plant where you live.

Final Thoughts on Best Plants for Retaining Walls

Next time you want to find the best plants for a retaining wall, review the options we’ve included in the list above. With the right group of plants, you can help improve the aesthetics of your wall and keep soil erosion to a minimum.

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