Winter Greenhouse

Ground Cover Plants

Choosing, Locating, Planting and Maintenance

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Thymus praecox 'Coccineus' - Creeping Thyme
Thymus praecox 'Coccineus' — Creeping Thyme
(photo courtesy Walters Gardens Inc.)

The plant world is full of stand-out flowers, trees, shrubs, and other living things, from dignified palm trees to delicate roses, all keen for attention in the garden or yard. What about the often-overlooked, occasionally forgotten ground cover plants? Far from a throwaway, ground cover plants are some of the most useful, beautiful, and growable plants in nature. They can be used as borders and accents, helping to put the spotlight on paths and other garden features, or they can take center stage, covering an entire lawn, draping elegantly across a rock garden, or billowing out of a container, star of the garden show.

Of course, you don’t want to plug-and-play just any ground cover plant variety. As with all plants, there are many details to take into consideration. While you don’t need to be an expert gardener to take on the adventure that is the ground cover plant, you will want to read up on some basics and have a handle on the care that your specific ground cover plants require. Ready to get started? Let’s dig in!

Choosing a Ground Cover

The world of ground cover plants is an incredibly dense one, for even if they might look alike at first glance, each ground cover plant has its own characteristics, growth pattern, maintenance, and specific uses. Their varieties run the gamut from grassy to leafed, floral to spiky. There is truly a ground cover plant variety for each individual’s unique “dream garden,” or even your “dream front yard” or — as it happens — “dream small, awkward area between the sidewalk and the tree line!” Trust us: ground cover plants should be at the top of any homeowner’s list when considering landscaping projects both large and small. Whether you are using them to unify a design, define a space, or fill in gaps, ground cover plants have got you, well, “covered!”

Ground Cover Plants as Lawns

When you think of the phrase “ground cover,” you might picture a large swathe of land completely covered in a certain type of plant. If you are looking to replace your grass lawn, add greenery to a slope, or even build your own meadow, this image might not be too far off the mark! If you have areas where lawn grass will not grow, or if you just want to try out an alternative, there are many hardy and attractive ground cover plants to choose from.

Those interested in sustainability and their “carbon footprint” might be especially keen on this solution, as ground covers often need less water than a traditional grass lawn. Many ground covers are especially drought-resistant, making them ideal choices for dry climates.

Check out a few of our favorite lawn alternatives, suitable for large areas:

  • Ajuga reptans — Bugleweed (Shade)

    Ajuga reptans, Bugleweed

    Bugleweed is notable for its dense, dark leaf coverage and bright, purple-blue flowers that sprout vertically in the late springtime. Don’t let the name fool you — this ground cover does not look like a weed, but has a gorgeous, mat-like appearance that will blossom in shady as well as sunny areas.

  • Vinca minor — Periwinkle (Shade)

    Vinca minor - Periwinkle

    The pale blue flowers of the common periwinkle are easy to spot in the garden. This popular ground cover has a long flowering season and a quick spread. You will want to plant these 12 to 18-inches apart when covering a large area. This is a good rule of thumb to follow for most (but not all) ground cover plants when they are being used in large hillsides, lawns, or meadows.

  • Pachysandra terminalis — Japanese Spurge (Shade)

    Pachysandra terminalis - Japanese Spurge

    For a dense, fast-moving ground cover that features more leaves and less noticeable flowers, Japanese Spurge is a great choice. It forms a dense carpet, even in shady areas, and is especially deer resistant, so those who live near wilderness spots may want to take note.

Other notable ground cover plants that work well as lawns and meadows:

Fairy and Rock Gardens

Perhaps you are not in need of a full lawn cover, and are instead looking to beautify and enhance a garden that is already marked by plants and accessories other than ground covers. Yards that incorporate rock gardens and the perennially popular fairy gardens can be eye-catching, notable highlights of your neighborhood, or hidden spots of respite in your own private greenspace.

For fairy and rock gardens, you will want to choose ground cover plants that are expert crevice-fillers. Look for drought-resistant varieties, and be sure to provide proper drainage for all plants. We are particularly fond of sedums (also known as “stonecrops”), which are ground covers that are part of the succulent plant group. They are extra tough perennials that can be tucked into cramped quarters. They come in a near-endless number of varieties, shapes, colors, and more, so no matter the personality of your garden, there is probably a sedum that will work for you.

Looking for a bright red hue? Sedum spurium — Dragon's Blood is a great pick. For delightful, citrusy yellow, try Sedum Lemon Ball or Sedum acre — Goldmoss Stonecrop. These sedums work well in hanging baskets, containers, rock gardens, and walls. Place in the sun for the brightest possible color. And finally, if you’re looking for miniature leaves for your miniature garden, check out Sedum mentha requienii — Miniature Stonecrop. The teeny-tiny leaves on this plant grow slowly to form a tightly-woven mat, and its flowers, which appear in the summertime, are a light yellow-white color.

Another favorite ground cover plant for fairy gardens and rock gardens that can also be planted on a large scale is Baby Tears, Green — Soleirolia soleirolii. The small, delicate, bright green leaves will stand out among fairy houses and decorative landscaping. This plant spreads easily, forming a dense mat of foliage, so it is a simple solution for rock gardens in need of a little “greening up.” Moist, fertile soil in a shady area makes an ideal home for Baby Tears.

Crafting with Colors

Ground Cover Myth Buster

Some gardeners suspect that ground cover plants don’t have a smell, or even worse — smell bad — but this couldn’t be farther from the truth! Dianthus deltoides — Maiden Pink grows gorgeous pink flowers that emit a spicy, pleasant scent. The flowers even attract hummingbirds. Another fragrant flower is Arabis — Rock Cress. Easy to grow, brilliantly floral, and capped at a growing height of only six inches, rock cress is an easy and sweet-smelling addition to your garden.

These are just two out of many beautifully-scented ground cover plant varieties! Once you dig into all of the choices, it becomes clear that you can have all of the delightful smells of flowers or grass in an easy-to-care for ground cover plant.

Perhaps the thought of ground cover plants brings to mind large, lush, green fields marked with just one or two colors, or creeping green moss that covers rocks and ledges in its fresh hue. However, ground cover plants come in many varieties, and among them are several that bloom with astoundingly bright, colorful flowers. If, for you, gardening is an “art,” and plant choice is like perusing a wall of paint colors, you will definitely want to spend some time researching all of the colorful blossoms found on ground cover plants.

Yes, ground cover plants are often considered problem-solvers, and can be tucked between rocks, used as borders, and occasionally left to flourish in the shade. We’ll cover more of these uses later on. For now, it’s worth noting that ground cover plants are also important beautifiers in the plant world! They attract butterflies and hummingbirds with their bright colors, and their ornamental value should not be ignored. Whether you are looking for uniform foliage color or pops of color during special, seasonal months, ground cover plants simply have it all.

Standout Colorful Ground Covers:

  • In full sun, Phlox subulata — Moss Phlox grows clusters of fragrant, springtime flowers and can be found in pink, red, and purple varieties. If you have a large area with lots of direct sunlight, or a front-facing border wall, phlox subulata will drape elegantly and leave viewers stunned by the bright, delicate flowers.

  • The sunny, yellow, cheerful flowers of Potentilla verna — Spring cinquefoil are enough to bring an instant smile to any garden visitor’s face. Plant them in full sun to part shade for an April to June bloom window. This plant is winter hardy and does decently well in drought conditions. For areas with low foot traffic, these yellow blossoms can even act as a lawn substitute.

Here Comes the Sun

If you live in an area without much shade, especially in a warmer zone, you might worry about delicate ground covers getting scorched by the sun. Have no fear! There are plenty of ground cover plants that seek the sunshine. And if you love to cook, you’re in luck, because Thymus — Thyme is a sun-loving ground cover that also delivers on delicious flavor and smells. Its showy purple flowers attract butterflies, and thyme is known as a low-maintenance plant. These are a few other notable plants that you can plant in the full, bright sunshine:

  • Achillea tomentosa — Woolly Yarrow
  • Arabis — Rock Cress
  • Artemisia — Wormwood
  • Geranium macrorrhizum — Big Root Geranium
  • Juniperus — J. horizontalis types
  • Phlox subulata — Moss Phlox
  • Rosa — Low growing ground cover types
  • Sagina subulata — Scotch and Irish Moss
  • Sedum — Stonecrop
  • Veronica
Artemisia Schmidtiana - 'Silver Mound'
Artemisia Schmidtiana — Silver Mound
(photo courtesy Walters Gardens Inc.)
Geranium macrorrhizum - Big Root Geranium
Geranium macrorrhizum — Big Root Geranium
Juniperus horizontalis
Juniperus horizontalis
(photo courtesy Bailey Nurseries)
Phlox subulata - 'North Hills'
Phlox subulata — North Hills

Shade

Looking to fill in some spots in a shaded area, or hoping to find a plant that will fan out under a large patch of trees? Some ground cover plants are made for shady areas, whether they are dry to moist. Asarum — Wild Ginger prefers partial to full shade. Its coin-like leaves spread out across the ground, greening your space and even producing a light, ginger-like scent from the root. Other shade-loving varieties of ground cover plants include ferns, periwinkle, and more. A full list of our favorites appears below.

Athyrium niponicum - 'Japanese Painted Fern'
Athyrium niponicum — Japanese Painted Fern
(photo courtesy Walters Gardens Inc.)
Epimedium - 'Amber Queen'
Epimedium — Amber Queen
(photo courtesy Walters Gardens Inc.)
Galium odoratum - Sweet Woodruff
Galium odoratum — Sweet Woodruff
(photo courtesy Walters Gardens Inc.)
Lamium - Spotted Dead Nettle
Lamium — Spotted Dead Nettle

USDA Hardiness Zone Map

USDA Hardiness Zone Map

Ground Cover Plants Finder

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Traffic Jam: Locating Your Ground Covers

Now that we’ve taken a look at just a few of the different ground cover plant varieties, you’ll want to start thinking about where you might like to put your plants. Will you be filling containers, creating borders, or doing something completely different? Consider the traffic in your yard or garden at different times during the day, and even across the entire year. Since ground covers are often low to the ground, they can be at risk of getting stepped on, crushed, wheeled over, and more. You can reduce the risk of plant destruction by taking a few preventative steps.

Friendly Plants: Tolerate Traffic

If you are planting your ground cover plants in a high-traffic area (the space between the road and the sidewalk, the main yard area, or near a playground or swimming pool, etc.) you’ll want to choose something that is hearty and puts up well with feet, bicycle tires, and the like. Grass lawns are the ultimate when it comes to tolerating humans, but Ajuga — Bugleweed, Juniperus horizontalis — Blue Rug, Sagina subulata — Irish or Scotch Moss, and Veronica oltensis — Speedwell all take the steps and stomps in stride. The following plants tolerate occasional traffic, and can thus be planted in places where you might walk sometimes, such as next to a garage or under the sunroom windows, but they shouldn’t be located in busy areas.

Borders, Paths, and More

If you aren’t using your ground cover plants as large-area fillers, there are nearly endless ways to style them as complements to the rest of your garden or yard. Whether you need help defining a space or boosting the mood, ground covers are a fun and generally low-maintenance addition to an area. Common uses include borders between different plants and planters; transitions between lawns and plant areas; texture and color for green landscapes; hedging material for garden beds; visual barriers for driveways; and visual pathways leading to entryways or regions of your yard. Many ground cover plants can also aid in the control of weeds (see below)!

As a general rule, you will want to choose ground cover plants for these border, path, and barrier purposes that do not quickly creep or wind their way over large areas with ease. Otherwise, you will spend much of your time cutting back the plants to a more reasonable height and growing area. This is why it is important to always check the growing rates, heights, and spreads of the ground cover plants you are considering for your space. This rule can be broken, however, when it comes to slopes. Sloping portions of your property differ from lawn areas in that they generally can expect to receive less traffic, come in a variety of sizes from small to very large, and can be an ideal choice for vines and other creeping plants that completely cover a land area in a short amount of time.

Ficus pumila - Creeping Fig
Ficus pumila — Creeping Fig

Perhaps your garden includes fences, walls, pillars, or arbors that you’d like to cover with greenery. A smart choice is Ficus pumila  Creeping Fig, as it will quickly climb almost any surface you hope to cover. Thick green leaves grow into a dense evergreen pattern of clinging fines. Each plant can reach up to 30 feet in height and spread more than 3 feet across! You will only need to cut back this plant occasionally. If you’re feeling adventurous, you might even consider growing Creeping Fig for the wire topiary form of your choice.

Weed Control and Erosion

Sure, ground cover plants are beautiful, but did you know that they can also be helpful? In gardens that are plagued by weeds or frustrated by hillside erosion, the addition of ground cover plants can be a helpful fix. If you struggle with erosion issues in a hillside garden, choose ground cover plants that are well-rooted and low-maintenance. The deep roots will keep the plants from washing away during heavy rains. Vinca minor, Wintercreeper, and Japanese spurge are all solid plants with which to start. For best results, consider planting your ground covers alongside other trees and shrubs. This makes a visually appealing garden, lessens the maintenance necessary on a day-to-day basis, and helps break rainfall even more.

When planting your hillside ground cover plants, consider the use of jute netting. This netting, along with rocks, basins, and mulch, can help anchor the hillside against blowing wind and washing rains. Over time, the jute netting will disintegrate on its own, leaving you with nothing more than an attractive hillside garden.

Another area in which ground cover plants can be especially helpful is with the control and suppression of weeds. If planted with care, your ground covers can help control weeds on their own, covering the soil and reducing the need for herbicides. Choose quickly-creeping ground covers with dense growth that can choke out weeds, such as Phlox subulata — Creeping Phlox, Creeping Thyme, Dragon’s Blood Sedum, Mazus, or Moneywort. The most important step? Before planting ground covers, prepare the area by hand-pulling any weeds that are currently visible in the garden. Do not plant the new ground covers in an area that is already filled with weeds. In addition to your ground covers, you might consider synthetic or inorganic mulch as another tool to combat the weeds. They physically block the growth of weed seedlings while limiting light at the same time. Unlike organic mulches, inorganic and synthetic choices won’t break down. Crushed rock or coral, gravel, and landscape fabric are all options that can work alongside the ground cover plants to prevent future weed growth in the garden.

Containers

Ground cover plants look great when they spread their wings on hillsides, throughout backyards, and as borders or greenery between paver stones, among other places. They also make magnificent container plants both inside and outside the home. Some grass-like plants grow both tall and wide from a container, filling it and making a striking display for an entryway or garden, with regular trimming. Others grow to drape elegantly over the edges of containers or window boxes. Check out our favorites:

  • Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens — Black Mondo Grass

    Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens - Black Mondo Grass (photo courtesy Walters Gardens Inc.)

    Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens is made up of grass-like clumps that produce stunning container displays, splaying up and out from the container. They offer a dark, purple-black color and densely-growing foliage that gives way to flowers and berries throughout the year, so there will always be new visuals to enjoy. They can also be used for borders, accents, or ground covers in smaller areas.

  • Delospermum HotCakes, Pumpkin Perfection; Delospermum HotCakes, Saucy Strawberry; and Delospermum, Red Carpet

    Delospermum HotCakes, Saucy Strawberry

    In search of a succulent that has a green mat and bright, striking flowers? Ice plants are tolerant of drought, heat, and humidity, and would love to fill a container that offers great drainage and limited watering. Delospermum HotCakes are colorful and easy-to-care-for ice plant choices.

Ready to Plant!

So, are you ready to plant your newly-chosen ground cover plants? Have you planned out their location and checked to make sure they have the right amount of sunlight, moisture, and drainage they need? Perfect! Sounds like you’re ready to get planting.

Ground Cover Plants Spacing Chart

Plant Spread

# Plants to Cover 10 Sq Ft

4 in 90
5 in 58
6 in 40
7 in 30
8 in 23
9 in 18
10 in 15
11 in 12
12 in 10
13 in 9
14 in 8
15 in 7
16 in 6
17 in 5
19 in 4
22 in 3
27 in 2
38 in 1

When it comes to deciding just how many plants you will need for a given location, there is no single, authoritative rule. Our spacing chart will give you an idea of how many plants you might want to have on hand, but it also depends on the effect you are looking for. If you want very little soil to show through the leaves and flowers, you will want to plant a little closer together, or perhaps invest in more plants. Read up on each plant you are considering, for some form dense, mat-like carpets with just a few plants. Plant too many, and you’ll have way more greenery than time to maintain it! You’ll also want to take note of how quickly each ground cover plant grows, and how wide it grows compared to its height.

There is no “perfect” time in which to plant your ground covers, but springtime and autumn generally come with the least amount of environmental stress, which aids in the transplanting process. In cold-weather areas, avoid fall planting. Whenever you plan to plant, look for moderate temperatures and abundant rainfall. Remember, even though ground cover plants might seem easier or faster-growing flowers, trees, and some other plants, you need to prepare the soil for ground covers just as you would when planting anything else: carefully. For beautiful, successful ground cover plants, you need to invest in soil that is rich, moist, and well cared for. As you are preparing your beds, containers, or yard area for planting, be sure to take out all the perennial weeds that are currently growing. You don’t want to put healthy plants into soil that is already full of weeds! Take care with this step; it will save you time later. Consider the addition of a solid black plastic film under your mulch. As long as it is porous, allowing water and air to flow through, this type of film can be an excellent aid in the suppression and control of weeds. Aside from hand pulling and mulching, you might also consider the use of herbicides. Before planting, you can take care of existing weeds with a nonselective herbicide of your choice.

Planting ground covers can be a pleasing process, especially for those of us who like our plants lined up, spaced out, and meticulously placed. That care should also be taken when it comes to preparing the soil, as ground cover plants naturally compete with each other for water, nutrients, and space. A good, well-drained, rich soil can go a long way toward combating these issues. Plant roots desperately need a supply of oxygen and moisture. If the soil is too sandy, the roots may dry out quickly. Conversely, a soil with too much clay may retain water but prevent air from getting to the roots. Both of these issues can be remedied by adding lots of organic matter — peat moss, compost, or manure — to the soil. In sandy soils, the organic matter helps to hold in moisture and nutrients, while clay soils are loosened up by the matter, which churns more air through the root area.

If you’ve never worked with organic matter before, it’s simple! Just spread a layer of the compost over the soil. It should be about 2-inches thick. You can then use a tool or your hands to work the organic matter into the soil to a depth of about 6-inches. Use this method throughout the entire garden or in small “plant pockets” around each ground cover plant. The choice is yours to make.

Maintenance and Mowing

After you’ve properly prepared your soil for new ground cover plants and successfully transitioned your ground covers into their new homes, it would be nice to sit back, relax, and ignore the plants — but you can’t! Just like grass, flowers, or trees, ground cover plants need regular maintenance and care. If you want them to flourish, your ground covers deserve your dedicated attention.

While you may have planted ground covers in order to combat weeds, your plants could still benefit from a couple inches weed-free mulch spread liberally over the roots. Organic mulch can help smother weeds, conserve water, and regulate the temperature so that young, shallow roots can thrive. Consider two to three inches of sawdust, fir bark, ground bark, shredded tree leaves, or pea gravel. These mulch mixtures will not only prevent weeds from growing and make it easier to pull out those weeds that do appear, but some mulches can actively improve your soil by adding nutrients as they decompose.

Don’t put your old mower up for sale just yet. If you are considering replacing your grass lawn with ground cover plants, you will still need to perform routine mowing and maintenance on your plants. Cutting back old growth on ground covers helps to rejuvenate the plants and make room for fresh, new growth that will look healthier and better than ever. Read up on the ground cover plants in your yard to see if they can be mowed or simply clipped with a garden tool. Proper mowing and maintenance ensure that your ground cover plants will last. Water only when needed, with care taken to prevent over-watering.

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Last Updated on March 17th, 2019
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