14 Best Low-Maintenance Ground Covers

Hillside covered with creeping phlox in different colors.

DAJ/Getty Images

Turf lawn grasses are by far the most popular ground cover plant in residential landscapes, but sometimes grass just isn't practical, either because the conditions of the site aren't amendable to fostering grass or perhaps because the maintenance of a grass lawn is not something you want to commit to. Fortunately, there are a number of other living ground cover plants to choose from.

To qualify for this list of the best low-maintenance ground covers, a plant has to meet certain criteria:

  • It must be vigorous enough to fill in an area of the landscape that you need to dress up or where you need to keep the weeds down.
  • It must not be so vigorous that it will become a problem plant. Some spreading can be nice, but too much becomes a nuisance. Always research your plant-selection choices to find out if the plant is invasive in your region or if it will spread too aggressively for your needs.
  • The plant also must be pretty enough (or, at least, unusual enough) to draw attention and offer some sort of visual interest in the yard.

Here are 14 ground cover plants that shouldn't try to take over (too much) and don't need a lot of care.

Illustration of low maintenance ground covers
The Spruce / Kaley McKean

Shade Plants Can Be Invasive

The most common site problem that causes a homeowner to turn to a ground cover other than grass is too much shade. But be aware that only the most robust plant species will readily thrive and spread in shade. If you find such a plant (and several are included in our list), then you may find that it is invasive. Be quite careful when choosing a ground cover for shade.

  • 01 of 14

    Basket-of-Gold (Aurinia saxatilis)

    Yellow alyssum in bloom.
    David Beaulieu

    You can plant this drought-tolerant, low-maintenance ground cover at the edge of a rock garden or other space and more or less forget about it (except for occasional watering) during the summertime. The only real maintenance required is trimming it back after it has finished flowering, or whenever it becomes too scraggly for your tastes.

    Basket of Gold also goes by the name yellow alyssum, another reference to its adorable clusters of bright yellow flowers. When shopping for this plant, be sure to ask for Aurinia saxatilis or yellow allyssum, not sweet alyssum, which is an entirely different species.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 7
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained, can be poor
  • 02 of 14

    Amethyst in Snow (Centaurea montana 'Amethyst in Snow')

    Flower of Centaurea montana 'Amethyst in Snow.'
    Chris Burrows/Getty Images

    When you buy Centaurea montana 'Amethyst in Snow', you may be thinking of it as an upright perennial plant with attractive flowers. What plant labels typically fail to mention is that, under the right growing conditions, 'Amethyst in Snow' makes a flowering ground cover that will spread nicely. When grown as a ground cover, it is an easy-care plant that requires little maintenance.

    In ideal sunny conditions, Amethyst in Snow will spread quite quickly, but you can control it easily by pulling out stray shoots. If you prefer a similar but less aggressive variety, consider C. montana 'Amethyst Dream'.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 7
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained, low-fertility
  • 03 of 14

    Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata)

    Hillside covered with creeping phlox in different colors.
    DAJ/Getty Images

    Creeping phlox is a short plant often seen covering the side of a hill or retaining wall with colorful spring flowers. It is much less noticeable at other times of the year, but that doesn't detract from its role as a spring superstar.

    Care requirements for creeping phlox are few. Water it during dry spells and give it a haircut at the end of its blossoming period. It does spread under the right conditions, but it is fairly easy to pull it out and keep it from taking over areas where it does not belong.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Rich, well-drained, tolerates clay
  • 04 of 14

    Angelina Sedum (Sedum rupestre 'Angelina')

    Angelina sedum

     

    speakingtomato / Getty Images

    As with creeping phlox and 'Amethyst in Snow', 'Angelina sedum' can be regarded as a "Goldilocks" ground cover. Much like the fictional character, it has golden hair (flowers) that spread enough to be effective in covering a certain amount of space, but the plant is not so vigorous a spreader to create a nuisance.

    'Angelina Sedum' is easy to propagate by rooting, so you can quickly fill an area with its succulent foliage. On the other hand, keeping it in check requires occasional cutting back of the stems, which can actually self-root if they fall off naturally.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 8
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained, neutral
    Continue to 5 of 14 below.
  • 05 of 14

    Nepeta (Nepeta x faassenii)

    Nepeta x faassenii (catmint) in bloom.
    Neil Holmes/Getty Images

    Nepeta x faassenia, commonly called nepeta, nepeta catmint, or Faassen's catmint, is one of several perennial catmint plants. This one a horticultural hybrid developed by crossing Nepata racemosa with N. nepetella. It is, therefore, a sterile plant that will not come true from seeds.

    The nepeta genus includes roughly 250 species. Many are perennials, some are annuals, and some make good ground covers, though they can be overly aggressive in favorable locations.

    Nepeta x faassenii is one such species that does make for a good ground cover, since it has the ability to crowd out weeds. The 'Six Hills Giant' cultivar is a good choice for covering large areas. While it is not a spreader, it is large enough to take up space as the spring and summer months advance. Growing as high as 36 inches, it blooms all summer long with purple flowers.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 8
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Dry to medium moisture, well-drained
  • 06 of 14

    Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum)

    Pink-flowering creeping thyme growing in a field.
    Laszlo Podor/Getty Images

    Creeping thyme (also known as mother of thyme or wild thyme) is a creeping, woody-stemmed perennial that is a favorite plant to use for a low-maintenance ground cover serving as a filler between garden stepping stones. Growing only about 3 inches tall, this plant spreads over time, crowding out weeds and thus reducing maintenance further.

    The leaves are fragrant, and deep pink flowers bloom from June through July. This is not the form of thyme used in cooking, but its fragrance will attract bees and other pollinators.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 8
    • Color Varieties: White, pink, red, purple
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Low-fertility, well-drained, alkaline
  • 07 of 14

    Wall Germander (Teucrium chamaedrys)

    Germander planted with Alternanthea ficoidea to form a design.

    K M/Flickr/ CC BY 2.0

    If you are looking for something unusual, consider wall germander, a broadleaf woody-stemmed evergreen that is often massed or used as a low hedge along retaining walls or in knot gardens. This sun-lover grows to a maximum height of about 12 inches with a 24-inch spread, and it blooms with lavender to pink flowers in July. It should be pinched back frequently to keep the plants bushy and "shrubby."

    • USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 9
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Neutral to alkaline, well-drained, tolerates poor soil
  • 08 of 14

    Creeping Juniper (Juniper horizontalis)

    Wilton's Carpet creeping juniper growing between plastic on a hill.
    David Beaulieu

    The creeping juniper is a sprawling, creeping needled evergreen that grows to a maximum height of about 18 inches and with a spread that can go as much as 8 feet. It can be excellent for covering large areas of difficult terrain, such as slopes where growing grass would be difficult or impossible. A variety of cultivars are available, including Juniperus horizontalis 'Blue Rug'.

    To plant creeping juniper on a grassy slope, get rid of the grass, then lay down landscape fabric along the slope. Poke holes in the fabric and plant the junipers, then cover the fabric with ​mulch. If the hill is big, remove the grass in stages so as not to take unnecessary chances with erosion.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Medium to dry, sandy, well-drained
    Continue to 9 of 14 below.
  • 09 of 14

    Rock Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis)

    Cotoneaster bush with red berries covered in frost.
    Ken Leslie/Getty Images

    Rock cotoneaster is a deciduous shrub. While many shrubs give you flowers, the prettiest thing about Cotoneaster horizontalis is its colorful, red berries. This shrub also offers some fall-foliage value. This is a large plant with a horizontal growth habit (thus its species name). It grows best where it has plenty of space to spread out. Wherever its branches make contact with the soil, it will put down roots, creating new plants.

    Rock cotoneaster is considered a full-shun shrub but benefits from some afternoon shade. When planted in full sun it usually needs extra watering, at least until the plant is well established.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Moist, well-drained, loamy
  • 10 of 14

    Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis)

    Bunchberry plants with red berries.
    Alan Majchrowicz/Getty Images

    Bunchberry is a shade-loving deciduous shrub native to northern portions of North America. Its native habitat is wooded areas, so it is perfect for a shady woodland garden. If those conditions describe your landscape, then you may want to check out this wonderful little relative of the dogwood trees. This shrub flowers from May to July with white flowers, and grows to a maximum height of about 9 inches. It has excellent resistance to damage by deer and rabbits.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 2 to 6
    • Sun Exposure: Part shade
    • Soil Needs: Rich, moist, well-drained, acid
  • 11 of 14

    Spotted Deadnettle (Lamium maculatum)

    Dead nettle (Lamium maculatum 'Silver Shield') with pink flowers.
    Lamium maculatum 'Silver Shield' is one type of dead nettle.

    Neil Holmes/Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

    Consult with your local extension office before growing spotted deadnettle because it is invasive in some areas. But in regions where spotted dead nettle is not invasive, it acts as an effective ground cover for deeply shaded areas. Its ornamental value is twofold: It bears splendid blossoms in various colors (depending on the variety), and it displays eye-catching silver leaves, which provide color long after the flowers have faded.

    Note: This plant is considered invasive across much of the northeast, some areas of the northern Midwest, and parts of the Pacific Northwest. There may be restrictions on planting it in these areas.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 8
    • Color Varieties: White, pink, red-purple
    • Sun Exposure: Full shade to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained, acid
  • 12 of 14

    Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum)

    Sweet woodruff plants in bloom.
    Raimund Linke/Getty Images

    If you are looking for a low-maintenance ground cover, sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is a good pick, but only under certain conditions. This aromatic herb can be an invasive plant when grown in moist soil, where it sometimes spreads out of control.

    However, sweet woodruff can be a good ground cover choice for dry shade, such as in areas under big trees. It can even thrive in the acidic conditions under large pine trees. It grows to a maximum height of about 12 inches with an 18-inch spread, and it flowers with white blossoms in spring.

    This plant thrives in wet soils, which is why planting it in dry soil and denying it water helps keep it in check. You will have to experiment to arrive at the right balance between giving it enough water to keep it alive and giving it so much that it becomes invasive. Sweet woodruff foliage can be dried and used in wreaths, potpourri, and other craft creations.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 8
    • Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade
    • Soil Needs: Medium to wet, well-drained, loamy, acid
    Continue to 13 of 14 below.
  • 13 of 14

    Liverleaf (Anemone americana)

    Pink Hepatica in bloom.
    David Beaulieu 

    Liverleaf (Anemone americana, formerly classified as Hepatica americana) is a perennial wildflower native to North America. It is evergreen, but some of the leaves may turn brown during winter. Growing to a height of about 6 inches with a spread of 9 inches, it has waxy green leaves that should be removed as they turn brown. In summer, the leaves take on burgundy mottling on the way to becoming totally burgundy (hence the name liverleaf).

    Liverleaf's spring floral display makes this small perennial special. It is perfect for a small space, perhaps a little garden along a north-facing wall. It spreads by reseeding, but it never will spread enough to become a problem.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 8
    • Color Varieties: White, pink, lavender
    • Sun Exposure: Part shade
    • Soil Needs: Medium moisture, well-drained, humusy
  • 14 of 14

    Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana)

    Interrupted fern with raindrops on its foliage.
    Don Johnston/Getty Images

    Interrupted fern, like bunchberry and liverleaf, is a North American native that can serve as a low-maintenance ground cover for shade. It spreads via rhizomes, a trait that can be a double-edged sword. The success of many invasive plants is due to this means of spreading. But this plant with pretty foliage—and funny name—rarely becomes a problem for those who grow it in areas where it is already native.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 8
    • Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade
    • Soil Needs: Rich, moist, medium to wet, acid