Ground Covers for Sun

The Best Plants for Sunny Areas

Lamb's ear (Stachys byzantina) growing in a mass.
Lamb's ear (Stachys byzantina) grows well in full sun. Lynne Brotchie/Photolibrary/Getty Images

As with my list of best perennials for the sun, one of my considerations in composing this list of the best ground covers for sun was variety: I wanted to supply you with plant choices that offered a variety of traits, including vibrant floral color, cheerful berries, interesting leaves, pleasing aroma, and evergreen foliage. My selections below are arranged roughly in order of size, with the biggest plants leading the way and the smallest ones bringing up the rear.

All of the plants that follow...MORE are cold-hardy to at least growing zone 5. You'll recognize some of them from my list of drought-tolerant ground covers.

  • 01 of 10
    Cotoneaster bushes (image) have bright red berries. The tiny leaves give a fine texture.
    Cotoneaster bushes have bright red berries and tiny leaves. David Beaulieu

    Rockspray cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis) can reach 3 feet in height, although you can train it through pruning to remain shorter. That may not sound like a "ground cover" to you. It is, indeed, a shrub. But its specific epithet isn't horizontalis for nothing. Living up to that name, rockspray cotoneaster exhibits a strong tendency to grow out horizontally, rather than vertically. That's how it gains ground-cover status. The bright red berries are numerous enough to...MORE furnish considerable ornamental value.

  • 02 of 10
    6 Hills Giant catmint (image) is a kind of flowering ground cover. It is related to catnip.
    6 Hills Giant catmint is one of the flowering ground covers. David Beaulieu

    Don't confuse this ground cover for the sun with the herb that Tabby goes nuts over. There's a difference between catnip and catmint. The type of catmint in the picture is one of the flowering ground covers. If you want to conduct further research on 6 Hills Giant -- or any other plant on this list -- click on its image. Doing so will take you to a full-length article on just that ground cover, detailing growing requirements, etc.

  • 03 of 10
    Lamb's ear (image) is valued for its silvery leaves. Flowers are secondary.
    Lamb's ear is known more for its silvery leaves than for its blooms. David Beaulieu

    Like cotoneaster (see above), lamb's ears isn't necessarily a short plant: if you count the flower spike, it can reach 18 inches tall. But that's just it: you don't really need to count the flower spike. I think the plant looks better when it's not in bloom (the flowers are nothing all that special). If you feel the same way, you might even opt to cut down the flower spikes, thereby keeping the plant "ground-cover short."

    As the common name suggests, the real...MORE attraction here is the velvety leaves, which are -- yes -- stroke-able as the ears on a cute, little lamb. There's a visual component, too: this is one of the plants with silver foliage.

  • 04 of 10
    Image of creeping juniper on hillside with landscape timber steps.
    Photo: creeping juniper and landscape-timber steps hold their own on this steep hillside. David Beaulieu

    Creeping junipers such as 'Blue Rug' share the "shrub" classification with cotoneaster. But the "creeping" in their name immediately indicates where they part ways with cotoneaster: these are short, surface-hugging plants. They're excellent for soil erosion control on sunny hillsides and represent the needled evergreens on this list.

    Other evergreen shrubs (albeit the broadleaf kind) that can serve as ground covers for the sun include three types of Euonymus:

    Note: some kinds of Euonymus are invasive in certain regions.

    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10
    Unlike white alyssum, yellow alyssum, pictured here, is a perennial. It's good for stone walls.
    Yellow alyssum is a cheerful perennial that blooms in late spring. David Beaulieu

    This perennial type of alyssum is one of those great yellows of the spring season (think witch hazel, Adonis, winter aconite, forsythia, daffodils, etc.). But it's not all about the flowers: the blue-grey leaves also hold the viewer's interest. That's important because if you're using it as a ground cover to adorn a good-sized sunny spot, it should supply some visual interest in the post-blooming period, too.

    Other ground covers for the sun that bear pretty spring flowers are...MORE snow-in-summer (mentioned below) and creeping phlox. I think both yellow alyssum and snow-in-summer have nicer foliage than creeping phlox. When it comes to creating a showcase of flowers, however, creeping phlox has few equals.

  • 06 of 10
    Silver Mound artemisia (image) is a ground cover. True to its name, it has silvery leaves.
    Silver Mound artemisia is a ground cover with silvery leaves. David Beaulieu

    Unlike its fellow silver-tongued devil, lamb's ear (see above), Artemisia schmidtiana 'Silver Mound' is strictly a foliage plant. There's no flower spike to deal with in growing this ground cover for the sun.

    It also has a very different texture from that of lamb's ears. And no, I'm not just referring to the velvety feel of the latter. I'm talking more specifically about plant texture, which is a visual attribute, not a tactile one. Whereas lamb's ears sport a...MORE coarse plant texture, that of Silver Mound is fine. Depending upon how you may be working with plant textures in your design, this distinction could make the difference in your plant selection.

  • 07 of 10
    Snow-in-summer (image) grows well in the Thuja Garden, Bar Harbor, Maine. It's a groundcover.
    This image of snow-in-summer comes from the Thuja Garden near Bar Harbor, Maine. David Beaulieu

    I've admired snow-in-summer during my travels along the Maine (U.S.) coast in late spring when it's in bloom there. How can one not be impressed with the "snow drifts" of flowers it can produce, spilling over stone walls and the like? But when I try growing it back home, I generally don't have much success. Maybe it profits from those cooling, moisture-laden breezes it gets during coastal-Maine summers (I live inland, where it's hotter and drier).

  • 08 of 10
    Iceplant is a flowering ground cover. The iceplant in this photo has purple flowers.
    Ice plant is a flowering ground cover. David Beaulieu

    People sometimes have trouble growing ice plant, as well. It's a succulent and doesn't look like it would be cold-hardy in New England, but it is. Cold isn't the problem. The issue is that you have to provide it with sharp drainage. Ice plant makes it worth your while to tackle this problem head-on, as it can produce a dazzling display of flowers.

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10
    Angelina sedum (image) is a trailing type of stonecrop. Its foliage is golden-green.
    Angelina sedum is a trailing stonecrop. David Beaulieu

    Like the prior entry (as well as the widely-loved hens and chicks, which is another ground cover for sun), this one is a succulent. But unlike ice plant, Angelina sedum is not grown for its flowers. The plant does bloom, but the flower stalks are, frankly, rather gangly-looking. It's the foliage that counts with this ground cover: it's golden to chartreuse and will have more gold in it the more sun that it receives.

    To create a color contrast with mine, I use black mondo grass as a plant...MORE companion. The latter can take significant sun in the North, although Southern gardeners may need to supply it with more shade. 

  • 10 of 10
    Red creeping thyme (image) has a spreading habit. I love the fragrance of its leaves.
    Red creeping thyme does bloom, but I grow it more for its spreading habit and the fragrance of its leaves. David Beaulieu

    To prove that I haven't forgotten my promise to include a fragrant plant on this list, let me conclude my selections with creeping thyme. Now, to be sure, you may think of fragrant flowers when the subject of scent surfaces and creeping thyme has little to offer there. But don't forget that there are also plants with aromatic foliage. Creeping thyme is one of them (although Thymus vulgaris is an even more fragrant type of thyme).

    The best way to enjoy its pleasing smell is literally to...MORE walk all over it! That's right: far from suffering damage if you step on it, this ground cover for sun doesn't mind a reasonable amount of foot traffic. Moreover, walking on it crushes the aromatic leaves just enough to waft some of that wonderful scent into the air.