13 Best Low-Maintenance Ground Covers for the Landscape

They Spread, but They're Well-Behaved

Hillside covered with creeping phlox in different colors.
A hillside covered in creeping phlox can be breathtaking. DAJ/amana images/Getty Images

In order to qualify for this list of the best low-maintenance ground covers, a plant has to walk a fine line:

  1. On the one hand, it must be vigorous enough to fill in an area of the landscape that you need to dress up and/or where you need to keep the weeds down.
  2. But it must not be so vigorous that it will become a problem plant that you have to work hard at controlling. Some spreading can be nice, but too much becomes a nuisance. Always research a plant first before buying it to find out if it is an...MORE invasive plant in your region or a plant that will spread too aggressively for your needs.
  3. 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.

Requirement #1 and requirement #2 are often at odds with one another, and never more so than when you are seeking a ground cover specifically for shade. Only the most robust plants tend to spread in shade. Even when you find such a strong grower, a problem will often arise: The plant is too aggressive for its own good (or, more to the point, for your good). That is why those pesky invasive plants have a way of cropping up on listings of ground covers for shade. Just because you see them included on such lists, that does not mean you should necessarily grow them.

Other factors to consider when making your choices include whether the ground covers in question are deer-resistant or drought-tolerant.

Taking all of these factors into account, this article will help you find just the right ground cover to meet your personal needs. Let's begin with some nice choices for full sun before tackling the thornier issue of finding selections suitable for shade.

  • 01 of 13
    Unlike white alyssum, yellow alyssum, pictured here, is a perennial. It's good for stone walls.
    David Beaulieu

    When requesting this plant at the garden center, be sure either to buy it when it is blooming (during which time its adorable clusters of bright yellow flowers will assure a correct identification) or to ask for it using its scientific plant name, which is Aurinia saxatilis. Why? Because if you ask for "alyssum," you are most likely going to be directed to so-called "sweet alyssum," which is an entirely different plant from yellow alyssum.

    You can stick this drought-tolerant,...MORE low-maintenance ground cover at the edge of a rock garden or other garden space and more or less forget about it (except for occasional watering) during the summertime. The only other time that you will have to pay it some attention is when you trim it back after it has finished flowering and whenever it becomes too scraggly for your tastes.

  • 02 of 13
    Flower of Centaurea montana 'Amethyst in Snow.'
    Chris Burrows/Photolibrary/Getty Images

    When you buy Centaurea montana ‘Amethyst in Snow,' you may be thinking of it as a perennial plant with attractive flowers. And that it is. But it is more than that (even though the plant label that comes with it probably will not say so). How much of a blessing this "more" is really depends on your landscaping needs.

    What plant labels typically fail to mention is that, under the right growing conditions, Amethyst in Snow is a flowering ground cover that will spread. This fact is a...MORE blessing if you are growing it in an area where you really want a spreading plant that will fill in x number of square feet and, in so doing, keep down the weeds.

    If that is what you are looking for, then Amethyst in Snow gives you a pretty ground cover that reduces your workload, too. This is because it saves you from the landscape maintenance required to fight weeds. It also saves you the money that it would cost to buy other plants to fill up the space.

    Let's look at a different situation, though. What if you are planting a flower border and have reserved a small spot in it for a nice perennial. You bought Amethyst in Snow for this spot, because it looked pretty at the garden center. You could end up slightly regretting that choice.

    This plant may spread and crowd out nearby perennials. In cases like this, what you may want, ideally, is a super-well-behaved perennial, not a spreading ground cover. You may want to grow something that is just going to sit there and look pretty (Sedum 'Autumn Joy', for example), not something you're going to have to stop in its tracks (even if only occasionally). If you still wish to stick with a Centaurea but seek a type that is better-behaved, try Centaurea montana 'Amethyst Dream,' which does not spread nearly as much as Amethyst in Snow. 

    Thus Amethyst in Snow is a better choice as a low-maintenance ground cover in some circumstances than in others. But even when you have to work a bit at preventing its spread, you should not find this challenge too great. Pulling a stray shoot here and there should get the job done. 

  • 03 of 13
    Hillside covered with creeping phlox in different colors.
    DAJ/amana images/Getty Images

    New gardeners may not be aware of the plants discussed above. But even total newbies probably know about creeping phlox (Phlox subulata). This is the short plant often seen covering the side of a hill with colorful flowers in springtime. It is not nearly as noticeable at other times of the year. But it is difficult to hold that fact against a perennial that is such a superstar of the spring season.

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

  • 04 of 13
    Angelina sedum ground cover sprinkled with fallen autumn leaves from tre.
    Leonora (Ellie) Enking/Flickr/ CC BY-SA 2.0

    As with creeping phlox and Amethyst in Snow (discussed above), Angelina sedum (Sedum rupestre 'Angelina') can be regarded as a "Goldilocks" ground cover. It spreads enough to be effective in covering x amount of space, but it is not so vigorous a spreader as to cause you to pull your hair out, asking, "Why did I ever start growing a perennial that spreads this much?"

    Its spreading ability, in other words, is just about right. It is the type of plant that Goldilocks (from...MORE the fairy tale) would choose for a ground cover. Oh, and it has golden hair (flowers) like Goldilocks, too.

    Continue to 5 of 13 below.
  • 05 of 13
    Nepeta x faassenii (catmint) in bloom.
    Neil Holmes/Photolibrary/Getty Images

    Not all types of catmint are robust enough to make much of an impact as ground covers. For example, 'Little Titch' catmint is, true to its name, a dwarf. It is a well-behaved perennial that could work well for you if you are looking for floral color in one small spot in your yard.

    Little Titch is low-maintenance. But it will not be very effective at helping you keep down weed growth. It simply does not cover enough ground to be good at crowding out weeds. Little Titch is too timid for our...MORE purposes. Weeds will take advantage of a catmint ground cover that's a scaredy-cat.

    On the other hand, some types of Nepeta x faassenii, such as 'Six Hills Giant,' become big enough to fill in an area and keep the weeds from popping up. Six Hills Giant is not a spreader, but this perennial does take up space as the spring and summer months advance, simply because it is such a big plant.

    Once again, this is a case where the name does not lie: Give this giant a lot of room, then let it go about its business. Six Hills Giant could be an ideal selection for the corner of a planting bed where you want something that will fill in an area of about 3 feet square.

  • 06 of 13
    Pink-flowering creeping thyme growing in a field.
    Laszlo Podor/Moment/Getty Images

    A favorite use for this low-maintenance ground cover is as a filler between garden stepping stones. Creeping thyme (such as Thymus serpyllum 'Coccineus,' the red creeping thyme) will spread over the years, thereby keeping the weeding that you have to do in such areas at a minimum. As a bonus, some types have fragrant leaves. Stepping on the plants releases the pleasing smell into the air.

  • 07 of 13
    Germander planted with Alternanthea ficoidea to form a design.
    K M/Flickr/ (CC BY 2.0)

    Do you have a friendly competition going on with neighbors who, like you, put a lot of thought into their gardens? Have you heard a few too many boasts from them lately about this or that unusual plant that they happen to be growing? Do you feel that it is your own garden's turn to reclaim the spotlight?

    Well, you can gain the upper hand by bringing them over to a hedge of germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) that you are growing. Tell them that this plant is famed for its use in European knot...MORE gardens. That should win you bragging rights for a while.

  • 08 of 13
    Wilton's Carpet (photo) is a type of creeping juniper.
    David Beaulieu

    Creeping junipers (an example being Juniperus horizontalis 'Blue Rug') are evergreen and very popular, partly because they are deer-resistant. Do you have a slope in your landscaping that is currently covered in grass? If so, would you like to convert this lawn area into a space that you do not have to mow? After all, mowing is no fun to begin with, but mowing on a hillside can be truly troublesome. Your answer may lie in growing creeping junipers in lieu of grass.

    After getting rid of...MORE the grass, lay black plastic down on your slope. Then poke holes in it to plant the junipers, and cover the black plastic with mulch. If the hill is a big one, remove the grass in stages (not all at once), so as not to take unnecessary chances with erosion.

    Continue to 9 of 13 below.
  • 09 of 13
    Cotoneaster bush with red berries covered in frost.
    Ken Leslie/Photolibrary/Getty Images

    Several choices have been mentioned above that give your landscape flowers, but 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 is best suited to an area where it has plenty of space to spread out. Wherever its branches make contact with the soil, they will put down roots, basically creating new plants.

  • 10 of 13
    Bunchberry plants with red berries.
    Alan Majchrowicz/Photolibrary/Getty Images

    All of the plants listed above prefer to be grown in full sun. Now let us turn our attention to a more challenging set of circumstances. Do you need an effective yet low-maintenance ground cover for shady conditions? 

    When gardeners are faced with this challenge, they sometimes find their solution in the form of native plants. Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is a shade-loving perennial native to northern portions of North America. It grows in the woods there, so it could be perfect for a shady wood...MOREland garden. So if that is where you live and landscape, you may want to check out this wonderful little relative of the dogwood trees.

  • 11 of 13
    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 county extension office before growing spotted dead nettle (Lamium maculatum), because it is invasive in some areas. In fact, as a general rule when making plant-selection choices, always conduct sound research first, so that you will know for sure what you are getting.

    In regions where spotted dead nettle is not invasive, it acts as an effective ground cover for shade. Its ornamental value is twofold: It bears splendid blossoms in various colors, such as purple in the...MORE case of 'Purple Dragon' and pink in the case of 'Silver Shield.' And for longer-lasting color, it displays eye-catching silver leaves (which will be providing color long after the flowers have faded).

  • 12 of 13
    Sweet woodruff plants in bloom.
    Raimund Linke/Getty Images

    If you are looking for a low-maintenance ground cover, then sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is a good pick only under certain conditions. Why? Because this aromatic herb can be an invasive plant when grown in moist soil. It may take advantage of that moisture and spread out of control. This quality is not compatible with the goal of low maintenance.

    Therefore, sweet woodruff deserves inclusion on this list only if it is to be grown in a spot that has dry soil. In essence, a lack of water will...MORE stunt sweet woodruff just enough to 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.

    You will find the work required for the experiment worthwhile, particularly if you enjoy crafts. Sweet woodruff can be dried and used in wreaths, potpourri and other craft projects. This shade-tolerant plant is also one of those tough enough to grow under trees, even big pine trees.

    Continue to 13 of 13 below.
  • 13 of 13
    Interrupted fern with raindrops on its foliage.
    Don Johnston/All Canada Photos/Getty Images

    Interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana), like bunchberry, is a native of North America that some gardeners may want to call upon to come to the rescue as a low-maintenance ground cover for shady spots. This plant spreads via rhizomes, which can be a double-edged sword. The success of many an invasive plant is largely due to this means of spreading. Happily, this pretty foliage plant with the funny name rarely becomes a problem for those who grow it in areas to which it is native.

Ground Covers Can Be Problem Solvers

Homeowners have many personal reasons for selecting one ground cover over another. In an ideal world, where no challenges existed in the landscape, most of us would simply choose the prettiest flowering ground cover possible. In the real world, however, our landscapes usually present us with challenges. Not to worry: Ground covers are some of the best problem solvers in the landscaping world. There are ground covers to handle sun or shade, deer or drought. Just be sure to consult the information above before buying, because some ground covers may spread too aggressively (depending on your needs) under certain conditions. That's important if you want to avoid high-maintenance landscaping: A plant too aggressive for your needs can create more problems than it solves.