What Is a Ground Cover Plant?

Pachysandra plant with small white flower clusters and leaves covering ground near stone edge

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

In landscaping, the term ground covers usually refers to any one of a group of low-lying plants with a creeping, spreading habit that are used to cover sections of ground while requiring minimal maintenance. It is also possible to use standard landscape ornamentals as a ground cover. Low-maintenance perennials, such as daylily, can be used to cover large expanses or slopes.

Typically, a ground cover plant is some form of a low-growing ornamental perennial plant, but there are also some creeping shrubs that can serve this function, as well as ornamental grasses or self-seeding annuals. 

Ground Cover for Landscape

Ground cover plants are often chosen for aesthetic considerations, such as to introduce new colors or textures into a landscape. Or they can be chosen for practical purposes to cover ground where turf grass does not thrive or is not practical. For example, areas of a yard that are deeply shaded might be a good spot for an alternative shade-tolerant ground cover plant, such as ajuga or pachysandra. Steep slopes that are difficult to mow can also be a good area to plant a ground cover. In arid climates where the high-water demands of grass are problematic, an alternative ground cover can replace grass entirely. 

When covering large expanses of ground on the landscape, the initial cost will be much greater than for sowing grass seed. But ground covers might save you money in the long run because they eliminate expenses, such as extensive feeding, watering, and lawnmower fuel and maintenance.

Plants Used for Ground Cover

When selecting a ground cover plant for your landscape, make sure to pick one that is suitable for the area's growing conditions. Also, note whether the plant can be invasive. Certain ground covers have a tendency to spread vigorously and even choke out other plants in their vicinity when left unchecked.

Some plants that are commonly used for landscape ground covers include:

  • Creeping myrtle (Vinca minor)
  • Lamb's ear (Stachys byzantina)
  • Hosta (Hosta spp.)
  • Creeping liriope (Liriope spicata)
  • Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)
  • Pachysandra (Pachysandra spp.)
  • English ivy (Hedera helix)
  • Yellow alyssum (Aurinia saxatilis)
  • Ice plant (Delosperma cooperi)
  • Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata)
  • Black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus)
  • Creeping thyme (Thymus spp.)
  • Spotted dead nettle (Lamium maculatum)
  • Angelina stonecrop (Sedum rupestre 'Angelina’)
  • Creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis)
  • Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens)
  • Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis)
  • Yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon)
  • Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum)
  • Wild violet (Viola sororia)
Creeping myrtle with small purple flowers and green and white leaves as groundcover
Hosta plant with variegated white and green leaves as groundcover
Ice plant with bright purple flowers and small leaves as groundcover

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Creeping phlox with small purple flowers clustered as groundcover

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Wild violet plant with small purple flowers and rounded leaves as groundcover

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Distinction Between 'Ground Cover' and 'Cover Crop'

The term ground cover should not be confused with cover crop. These are different groups of plants, despite some overlap. A cover crop is a plant that is used as a kind of living mulch, usually in vegetable gardening or commercial food production. A cover crop is usually an annual plant that is planted in a garden or field and is intended to grow for a season and then be tilled under to add nutrients to the soil. Ground covers, on the other hand, are ornamental perennial plants that are intended to cover an area of ground for many years. 

Uses for Ground Cover Plants

Ground cover plants can serve a variety of functions in the landscape: 

  • To cover slopes where mowing can be difficult with grass: Low-growing shrubs, such as 'Blue Rug' juniper, can work well here, as can low-maintenance perennial creeping plants. For large slopes, daylily makes a good ground cover. 
  • To cover shady areas where turf grasses don't grow well: A variety of shade-loving, spreading plants are suitable for this purpose. 
  • To serve as covers for intensely hot, dry areas: Choose arid-climate plants such as ice plant or sedum (stonecrop) for these locations. 
  • For extremely high-traffic areas that don't bear up well when planted with grass: Instead, try a sturdy creeping plant, such as baby's tears (Soleirolia soleirolii) or creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) in these locations.
  • To choke out weeds: Some ground covers grow dense enough that they block out weeds. Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera or P. subulata) or dragon's blood sedum are some examples. 

Fun Fact

A ground cover of creeping thyme or one of the creeping mint species can introduce delightful smells into a landscape and can serve to attract bees and other pollinators.