14 Best Low-Maintenance Ground Covers for the Landscape

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.

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.

Other traits to look for in ground covers can be deer-resistance or drought-tolerance. Take all of those factors into account, and find just the right ground cover to meet your personal needs. Begin with choices for full sun before tackling the thornier issue of finding selections suitable for shade.

  • 01 of 14

    Basket-of-Gold (Aurinia saxatillis)

    Yellow alyssum in bloom.
    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 by using its scientific plant name, Aurinia saxatilis. Basket of Gold also goes by the name yellow alyssum, and if you ask for alyssum, you are most likely going to be directed to a plant known as sweet alyssum, which is an entirely different species.

    You can stick this drought-tolerant, 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 real maintenance required is when you trim it back after it has finished flowering, or whenever it becomes too scraggly for your tastes.

    This plant is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 7, and it grows to a maximum height of 12 inches. It is best suited for a full sun location.

  • 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. As a ground cover, 'amethyst in snow' is an easy-care plant that requires little maintenance. The plant prefers full sun, and will grow more slowly in part shade, which can be a desirable trait. In ideal sunny conditions, Amethyst in Snow will spread quite quickly, though pulling out stray shoots is not difficult. Another cultivar of C. montana, 'Amethyst Dream,' is less aggressive.

    This plant is hardy in USDA zones 3 to 7, and it grows to a mature height of 2 feet.

  • 03 of 14

    Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata)

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

    Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) is a short plant often seen covering the side of a hill or retaining wall with colorful spring flowers. 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 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.

    Best suited for full sun locations, creeping phlox is suitable for USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9, and grows to a mature height of only about 6 inches.

  • 04 of 14

    Angelina Sedum (Sedum rupestre 'Angelina')

    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. Much like the fictional character, it has golden hair (flowers) that spreads enough to be effective in covering a certain amount of space, but it is not so vigorous a spreader so as to become a nuisance.

    Like all sedums, this plant is best suited for full sun locations. It blooms all summer with yellow flowers and tops out at about 6 inches in height. It is suited for USDA hardiness zones 5 to 8.

    Continue to 5 of 14 below.
  • 05 of 14

    Nepeta (Nepeta x faassenia)

    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. This is, therefore, a sterile plant that will not come true from seeds.

    The nepeta genus includes roughly 250 species, many perennial but some annual, and some of them make for 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 Although 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. It is suitable for USDA zones 3 to 8.

  • 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, creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum )spreads over time, thereby reducing the weeding you must do in such areas. The leaves are fragrant, and deep pink flowers bloom from June through July. This plant is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8 and does best with full sun.

    A variety of cultivars are available, offering flowers in white, pink, red or purple. This is not the form of thyme used in cooking, but its fragrance will attract bees and other pollinators.

  • 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 is best suited for USDA hardiness zones 5 to 9. It should be pinched back frequently to keep the plants bushy and "shrubby."

  • 08 of 14

    Creeping Juniper (Juniper horizontalis)

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

    The creeping juniper (Juniper horizontalis) is a sprawling, creeping needled evergreen that grows to a maximum height of about 18 inches 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."

    These shrubs want full sun, and will provide excellent year-round interest. They grow best in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9.

    After getting rid of 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 big, remove the grass in stages so as not to take unnecessary chances with erosion.

    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. Many shrubs 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, it will put down roots, creating new plants.

    This shrub grows to a maximum height of about 3 feet, with a spread of up to 8 feet. It has good tolerance for partial shade, and is best suited for USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9.

  • 10 of 14

    Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis)

    Bunchberry plants with red berries.
    Alan Majchrowicz/Getty Images

    All of the plants listed so far prefer to be grown in full sun. Now we come to several low-maintenance ground covers that do well in 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 deciduous shrub native to northern portions of North America. It thrives in USDA hardiness zones 2 to 6. 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.

  • 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 county extension before growing spotted deadnettle (Lamium maculatum), 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, such as purple in the case of the cultivar '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 flowers have faded).

    Spotted deadnettle grows to a maximum height of about 9 inches, and flowers from May to July. Flower colors include white, pink, or red-purple, depending on cultivar. It is well suited for USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8.

    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.

  • 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 only under certain conditions. This aromatic herb can be an invasive plant when grown in moist soil, where it sometimes spreads out of control.

    But sweet woodruff can be a good ground cover choice for dry shade, such as under big trees. It can even thrive in the acidic conditions under large pine trees. Suitable for USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8, sweet woodruff 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 can also be dried and used in wreaths, potpourri, and other craft

    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)

    Its spring floral display makes this small perennial special. It is packed with white, pink, lavender, or lavender-blue flowers in early spring. It grows well in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8.

    Liverleaf 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 (Osmunda claytoniana)

    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, a trait that can be a double-edged sword. The success of many invasive plants is due to this means of spreading. This pretty foliage plant with the funny name rarely becomes a problem for those who grow it in areas where it is already native.

    Interrupted fern grows to about 3 feet tall with a similar spread. It is a North America native to woodland areas in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8.

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 is important if you want to avoid high-maintenance landscaping. A plant too aggressive for your needs can create more problems than it solves.