14 Ground Covers for Shade or Sun14 easy-care plants that solve a multitude of problems while carpeting your garden with beautiful color and texture.
Rock 'N Low™ 'Boogie Woogie' (Sedum hybrid) Photo by: Proven Winners.
Ground covers are the ultimate troubleshooters: they overpower weeds, fill in bare spots under trees, control erosion on slopes, and hide fading foliage of spring bulbs. Some also thrive in unfavorable conditions where nothing else will grow, such as rocky soils or deep shade. Even in relatively trouble-free gardens, nothing beats these zealous spreaders for quickly blanketing open spaces with a dense mass of beautiful foliage. As a bonus, many also put on a seasonal display of spectacular flowers.
Whether you need a ground cover for sun, shade, or somewhere in between, there are many options to choose from. Here are some of our top picks, all of which need little attention once established.
GROUND COVERS FOR SHADE
BISHOP’S HAT (Epimedium hybrids)
Also called barrenwort, this exceptional ground cover combines beautiful foliage and flowers. Heart-shaped leaves that are bright lime green with red accents, emerge in spring. In summer, the leaves become darker green, and turn bronzy red in fall. Clusters of small flowers bloom early-to-mid spring and nod daintily above the foliage.
Height/Spread: 6 to 12 inches tall, spreads up to 2 feet
Special attributes: Drought tolerant once established; no serious pest or disease problems; foliage remains evergreen in milder climates.
Where to use: Woodland gardens and other moist, shady sites; under large trees where root systems make life intolerable for other plants.
Plants to try: Red barrenwort (crimson and white flowers), ‘Pink Champagne’ (pink flowers with raspberry centers), 'Sulphureum' (light yellow flowers on bright red stems)
BLUE LILYTURF (Liriope muscari)
With its narrow, arching leaves and tidy clump-forming habit, lilyturf could easily pass for an ornamental grass; but in midsummer, it sends up showy spikes of white, lavender, or pink flowers that often resemble grape hyacinths. The grasslike foliage— which may be dark green or variegated—grows almost anywhere, from deep shade to full sun.
Height/spread: 10 to 15 inches tall, spreads 12 to 18 inches
Special attributes: Drought tolerant; grows in most soil types.
Where to use: Woodland gardens; erosion control on slopes; under trees and shrubs; as low edging plants along paved areas or in front of the perennial border.
Plants to try: ‘Monroe White’ (dark green leaves and large clusters of white flowers), 'Variegata' (green leaves with creamy white margins and lavender flowers), ‘Gold-banded’ (wide leaf blades with gold borders and lavender flowers)
BUGLEWEED (Ajuga reptans)
This resilient perennial quickly blankets the ground with low-growing rosettes of foliage in shades ranging from mint green to deep burgundy, often splashed with pink or white. In late spring through early summer, the leaves are topped by showy flower spikes with dark blue, pink, or white blooms. Cut them back to the ground after the flowers fade to encourage a flush of fresh foliage. Or simply run a lawn mower right over your plants with the blades set at the highest level, a method that works well for pruning many other ground covers.
Height/spread: 3 to 6 inches tall, spreads 2 feet or more
Special attributes: Heat- and drought-tolerant; withstands light foot traffic; foliage is evergreen in milder climates.
Where to use: Just about anywhere you need a dense, matlike ground cover. Adapts to a wide range of soil conditions and light levels, from deep shade to full sun. For the best foliage color, grow in a spot that receives some sun exposure.
Plants to try: ‘Burgundy Glow’ (pictured)(variegated green, pink, and white foliage), ‘Chocolate Truffles’ (glossy, nearly black foliage), ‘Pink Lightning’ (soft mint-green leaves with white margins)
JAPANESE PACHYSANDRA (Pachysandra terminalis)
You won’t find a lusher ground cover for shade than pachysandra, which spreads slowly by rhizomes to form a luxurious carpet of glossy, emerald-green foliage. Oval leaves clustered in tight whorls at the ends of their stems are topped by short spikes of white flowers in early spring. Although the sweetly scented blooms are short-lived, the evergreen foliage remains attractive year-round.
Also try Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens), a native American species with velvety blue-green leaves that turn bronze in the fall.
Height/spread: 6 to 12 inches tall, spreads 1 to 1-1/2 feet
Special attributes: Drought tolerant once established; deer and rabbit resistant.
Where to use: Under shade trees; in woodland gardens; in mass plantings on north-facing slopes. Avoid sunny locations, which will scorch the leaves.
Plants to try: ‘Green Carpet’ (a compact form growing 6 to 8 inches tall), ‘Green Sheen’ (extremely glossy deep-green foliage), 'Silver Edge' (a variegated variety with light blue-green leaves and narrow silver margins)
SPOTTED DEADNETTLE (Lamium maculatum)
A versatile ground cover adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions, spotted deadnettle grows in most soil types and tolerates everything from dappled shade to full sun. The scallop-edged leaves come in a variety of color variegations and remain attractive all season. From late spring through early summer, delicate flowers bloom in colorful spikes in white, pink, rose, or violet.
Height/spread: 6 to 8 inches tall, spreads up to 2 feet
Special attributes: Deer and rabbit resistant; long bloom period; foliage is evergreen in milder climates.
Where to use: In transition areas between shade and sun; as an underplanting beneath trees or shrubs; or to brighten shady areas of the garden.
Plants to try: Proven Accents? Pink Chablis? (pictured; silver and green foliage with light pink flowers), ‘White Nancy’ (green leaves with silver mottling and white flowers), ‘Anne Greenaway’ (dark and light green, chartreuse, and silver foliage with purple flowers)
SWEET WOODRUFF (Galium odoratum)
A favorite in woodland gardens, this enchanting ground cover bears clusters of tiny white flowers in spring, held above attractive whorls of lanceolate foliage. It loves a spot with heavy shade and rich, loamy soil, where it will spread far and wide by trailing roots. When crushed or rubbed, the foliage has the sweet scent of newly mown hay. The flowers are also lightly fragrant.
Height/spread: 6 to 12 inches tall, spreads 12 to 18 inches
Special attributes: Deer and rabbit resistant; fragrant flowers and foliage.
Where to use: Ideal for woodland gardens and naturalizing. Can become invasive if given the right conditions. Plant where you can control it easily. See where this plant may become invasive.
MONDO GRASS (Ophiopogon japonicus and Ophiopogon planiscapus)
Although often confused with its cousin liriope, the leaves are narrower and flowers are smaller. The main attraction is the evergreen, grasslike foliage, which comes in a variety of colors ranging from dark green to black, as well as variegated forms. Plants grow in tight clumps, with the leaves emerging from a web of rhizomes just below the soil surface. Prefers shade, but also does well in sunnier locations.
Height/spread: 2 to 12 inches tall, spread depends on the variety
Special attributes: Nearly indestructible. Tolerates many tough garden situations, including temporary standing water conditions as well as drought.
Where to use: Rock gardens; slopes along pathways; at the edges of garden ponds; as a turf substitute underneath trees where large roots interfere with mowing.
Plants to try: 'Gyoku-Ryu' (a dwarf variety growing to only 2 inches tall), 'Variegatus' (green foliage with silver striping), O. planiscapis ‘Nigrescens’ (dark purple, nearly black leaves)
GROUND COVERS FOR SUN
CREEPING THYME (Thymus spp)
This low-growing aromatic herb is highly resilient to foot traffic, making it a great filler between stepping stones and garden pathways, where the fragrance from its leaves will be released each time it’s stepped on. Many varieties also produce tiny flowers that completely cover the plants in spring. Unlike the culinary herb common thyme (T. vulgaris), creeping thyme is primarily used for its ornamental attributes and fragrant foliage.
Height/spread:1 to 4 inches tall, spreads up to a foot or more
Special attributes: Heat and drought tolerant; attracts butterflies; fragrant foliage.
Where to use: Rock gardens; herb gardens; along garden paths; as a lawn substitute.
Plants to try: 'Coccineus’ (dark green leaves and magenta flowers), ‘Pink Chintz’ (fuzzy gray-green leaves with salmon-pink flowers), ‘Purple Carpet’ (dark green leaves and bright lavender-purple flowers)
CREEPING PHLOX (Phlox subulata)
Few ground covers can match the beauty of creeping phlox when it blooms in spring. Unlike its taller cousin garden phlox, it grows to a maximum height of only 6 inches, covering the ground with a carpet of colorful flowers in shades of lavender, pink, rose, and purple. The blooms last for weeks, often continuing through early June, leaving in their wake an attractive evergreen cushion of needle-like foliage.
Height/spread: 3 to 6 inches tall, spreads 18 to 24 inches
Special attributes: Heat and drought resistant; attracts butterflies.
Where to use: Rock gardens; slopes; cascading over retaining walls; along garden paths. Grows best in full sun in sites with well-draining soil.
Plants to try: Mountainside? ‘Crater Lake', (cool indigo-blue flowers) ‘Candy Stripe’ (white flowers with broad pink stripes), ‘Drummond’s Pink’ (bright pink flowers with deeper pink eyes), ‘Eyeshadow’ (rosy purple flowers with dark-purple eyes)
ICE PLANT (Delosperma spp.)
Don’t let the name mislead you. This gorgeous flowering succulent is unfazed by summer heat. The common name is inspired by the calcium crystals that form on the leaves of some varieties, imitating the icy look of a heavy frost. The narrow, needle-like foliage is covered most of the summer with a showy carpet of vibrantly colored daisy-like flowers. Well-drained soil and bright light is all this easy-care ground cover needs to thrive.
Height/spread: 3 to 6 inches tall, spreads 12 to 24 inches
Special attributes:Drought and heat tolerant; long blooming.
Where to use: Rock gardens; xeriscapes.
Plants to try: Fire Spinner? (pictured; tricolored orange, red, and lavender blooms), ‘Cooper’s Hardy Ice Plant’ (large magenta-pink flowers), 'Jewel of the Desert Moonstone' (snow-white blooms with yellow centers)
CREEPING SEDUM (Sedum spp.)
These low-growing succulents come in a vast array of foliage forms and colors, including shades of blue, plum, red, purple, silver, gray-green, chartreuse, and gold. Many also put on a showy display of tiny flowers in summer. For an instant succulent garden, look for sedum “tiles", ready-to-plant mats of selected varieties chosen for their harmonious colors and contrasting forms.
Height/spread: 2 to 6 inches tall, spreads up to 24 inches
Special attributes: Evergreen in warmer climates; drought tolerant; rarely bothered by pests.
Where to use: Rock gardens; slopes; rocky or sandy soils.
Plants to try: Rock 'n Low? 'Boogie Woogie' (variegated green and cream leaves with yellow flowers), ‘Angelina’ (chartreuse foliage with yellow flowers), ‘Dragon’s Blood’ (green leaves edged with red and dark red flowers), Sunsparkler? 'Blue Elf' (blue-green leaves and bright pink flowers), Sedum Tile? Color Splash (a mix of sedum colors and varieties)
CARPET ROSES (Rosa spp.)
If you love climbing roses and shrub roses, you’ll swoon over the new generation of carpet roses, which are lower growing and ideal for use as a florific ground cover. They bloom nonstop from spring through fall, producing thousands of blooms on one plant in a season. Flower colors range from white and soft pastels to bold reds and pinks.
Height/spread: 2 to 3 feet tall, spreads 3 to 4 feet
Special attributes: Disease resistant; self-cleaning; drought tolerant once established.
Where to use: Cottage gardens; perennial borders; en masse for drifts of color; as a dense low-growing hedge.
Plants to try: Flower Carpet? Pink Supreme, Flower Carpet? Scarlet, Flower Carpet? Coral
CREEPING JUNIPER (Juniperus horizontalis)
These ground-hugging conifers are prized for their feathery needles, which range in color from blue-green to gold, depending on the cultivar. In winter, the foliage color often deepens, providing year-round interest. Sturdy and adaptable, creeping juniper thrives in a wide range of tough environments including coastal climates, rocky soils, and dry conditions.
Height/spread: 3 to 6 inches tall, spreads 8 to 10 feet
Special attributes: Tolerates salt exposure, drought, and alkaline soils. Deer resistant.
Where to use: Trailing over ledges or retaining walls; on slopes.
Plants to try: ‘Bar Harbor’ (blue-green foliage that turns plum-colored in winter) ‘Blue Rug’ (very low growing with silvery blue foliage), ‘Mother Lode’ (gold foliage that changes to bronze)
LAMB’S EARS (Stachys byzantina)
Soft oblong leaves make this plant so irresistible. Their fuzzy texture and silver overtones contrast beautifully with many other garden perennials. Upright stalks of pink or purple flowers in early summer add to the overall height, but you can find cultivars that bloom rarely or not at all if you only desire the velvety mats of foliage.
Height/spread: 3 to 10 inches (taller when in flower), spreads up to 2 feet
Special attributes: Not bothered by pests or diseases; coordinates well with almost everything in the garden.
Where to use: Any sunny spot where you need a dense, weed-suppressing ground cover. Grows in most soil types as long as you provide good drainage.
Plants to try: ‘Big Ears' (especially large leaves up to 8 inches long), 'Silky Fleece' (a dwarf variety with tiny 1-inch leaves), ‘Silver Carpet’ (silvery blue foliage, nonflowering)