14 Best Low-Maintenance Ground Covers for the Landscape

They Spread, but They're Well-Behaved

Hillside covered with creeping phlox in different colors.

DAJ/Getty Images

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 mustn't 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 your plant-selection choices first before buying to find...MORE out if they're invasive in your region or plants 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 shade ground cover. 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's 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 doesn't mean you should grow them.

Other traits to look for in ground covers can be deer-resistance or drought-tolerance. Taking all of these factors into account, let's seek just the right ground cover to meet your personal needs. We'll begin with choices for full sun before tackling the thornier issue of finding selections suitable for shade.

  • 01 of 14
    Yellow alyssum in bloom.
    David Beaulieu

    When requesting this plant at the garden center, be sure either to buy it when it's 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. If you ask for "alyssum," you are most likely going to be directed to so-called "sweet alyssum," which is an entirely different plant.

    You can stick this drought-tolerant, low-maintenance ground cover at...MORE 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'll 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 14
    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 a perennial plant with attractive flowers. And that it is. But it's more than that (even though the plant label that comes with it probably won't 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're 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's what you're looking for, then Amethyst in Snow gives you a pretty ground cover that reduces your workload, too. 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. Say you're 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 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's 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's better-behaved, try Centaurea montana Amethyst Dream, which doesn't 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 shouldn't find this challenge too great. Pulling a stray shoot here and there should get the job done. 

  • 03 of 14
    Hillside covered with creeping phlox in different colors.
    DAJ/Getty Images

    New gardeners may not be aware of Aurinia saxatilis and Centaurea montana. 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 spring flowers. It's not nearly as noticeable at other times of the year. But it's difficult to hold that fact against a perennial that's such a spring superstar.

    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's fairly easy to pull it out and keep it from taking over where you have decided it doesn't belong.

  • 04 of 14
    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, 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 isn't so vigorous a spreader as to become a nuisance.

    Its spreading ability is just about right. It's the type of plant that Goldilocks would choose for a ground cover. Oh, and it has golden hair (flowers) like Goldilocks, too.

    Continue to 5 of 14 below.
  • 05 of 14
    Nepeta x faassenii (catmint) in bloom.
    Neil Holmes/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's a well-behaved perennial that could work well for you if you're looking for floral color in one small spot.

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

    But 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 isn't a spreader, but this perennial does take up space as the spring and summer months advance, simply because it is so big.

    Once again, the name doesn't 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 14
    Pink-flowering creeping thyme growing in a field.
    Laszlo Podor/Getty Images

    A favorite use for this low-maintenance ground cover is as a filler between garden stepping stones. Creeping thyme (such asThymus serpyllum Coccineus) spreads over time, thereby reducing the weeding you must do in such areas. As a bonus, some types have fragrant leaves. Stepping on the plants releases the pleasing smell into the air.

  • 07 of 14
    Germander planted with Alternanthea ficoidea to form a design.
    K M/Flickr/ (CC BY 2.0)

    If you have a friendly competition with the neighbors to see who can grow the most unusual plants, germander should win you bragging rights for a while. Plant a hedge of germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) and bring the neighbors over for a look. They'll be impressed to learn that it's famed for its use in European knot gardens

  • 08 of 14
    Wilton's Carpet creeping juniper growing between plastic on a hill.
    David Beaulieu

    Creeping junipers (an example being Juniperus horizontalis 'Blue Rug') are evergreen and very popular, partly because they are deer-resistant. If you have a slope currently covered in grass and would you like to convert this lawn area into a space you don't have to mow, they're a great choice. Mowing is no fun, to begin with, but mowing on a hillside is dangerous. 

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

    Continue to 9 of 14 below.
  • 09 of 14
    Cotoneaster bush with red berries covered in frost.
    Ken Leslie/Getty Images

    Several choices have been mentioned that give you 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 grows best where it has plenty of space to spread out. Wherever its branches make contact with the soil, they'll put down roots, creating new plants.

  • 10 of 14
    Bunchberry plants with red berries.
    Alan Majchrowicz/Getty Images

    All of the plants listed so far prefer to be grown in full sun. Now let's consider effective yet low-maintenance ground covers for shade.

    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's perfect for a shady woodland garden. So if that's where you live and landscape, you may want to...MORE check out this wonderful little relative of the dogwood trees.

  • 11 of 14
    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 county extension before growing spotted dead nettle (Lamium maculatum), because it's invasive in some areas. In regions where spotted dead nettle isn't invasive, it acts as an effective shade ground cover. Its ornamental value is twofold: It bears splendid blossoms in various colors, such as purple in the case of Purple Dragon and pink in the case of Silver Shield. And for longer-lasting color, it displays eye-catching silver leaves (which give color long after the...MORE flowers have faded).

  • 12 of 14
    Sweet woodruff plants in bloom.
    Raimund Linke/Getty Images

    If you're looking for a low-maintenance ground cover, sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is a good pick only under certain conditions. 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 isn't compatible with lowering maintenance.

    Therefore, sweet woodruff deserves inclusion on this list only if it's to be grown in a spot that has dry soil. A lack of water will stunt sweet woodruff just...MORE enough to keep it in check. You'll 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'll 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 14 below.
  • 13 of 14
    Pink Hepatica in bloom.
    David Beaulieu 

    Liverleaf (Hepatica americana) is a wildflower native to North America. It's evergreen, but some of the leaves turn brown during winter. New, waxy, green leaves appear in spring. After they emerge, remove the brown leaves to improve the plant's appearance. In summer the green leaves take on burgundy mottling, on the way to becoming totally burgundy.

    But it's the spring floral display that makes this small (6 inches tall x 9 inches wide) perennial special. It's packed with white,...MORE pink, lavender, or lavender-blue flowers in April in zone 5. It likes shade and 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.

  • 14 of 14
    Interrupted fern with raindrops on its foliage.
    Don Johnston/Getty Images

    Interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana), like bunchberry and liverleaf, is a North-American native that can serve as a low-maintenance ground cover for shade. It spreads via rhizomes, which can be a double-edged sword. The success of many an invasive plant is 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's 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 do your homework 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.