Groundcover Go-tos

The best low-growing/low-maintenance plants for coverage density and aesthetic appeal.

By Erik J. Martin

Gardening and landscaping can sometimes be a real chore – especially if your yard has areas where it’s difficult to get grass, plants, or flowers to take root and flourish. Despite your best efforts, bare spots and unsightly stretches of ground can persist. That’s when it’s time to call in the groundcover troops, the pros recommend.

“Groundcovers are low-growing and long-living plants that spread quickly over the ground and don’t require special care,” says Nastya Vasylchyshyna, a Florida-based botanist expert. “The main benefit of groundcovers is that they are beautiful yet hardy and easy to grow. They also crowd out weeds, prevent the top fertile layer of soil from washing away, quickly spread over the ground, help to hide imperfections in the yard, and may grow well in poor soils.”

Jeremy Yamaguchi is a big fan of groundcover foliage, which typically only grow a few inches tall but provide dense coverage across the areas where they are planted.

“These herbaceous plants are super low-maintenance and an excellent way to expand greenery quickly. They help prevent soil erosion and can retain rainwater within the soil underneath,” he notes.

Vinca minor (common names lesser periwinkle, dwarf periwinkle, small periwinkle, common periwinkle)

Groundcovers are also good choices for those who live on a slope, as they can help prevent rapid soil erosion.

“They insulate the ground during the winter months and cool the surface during summer, helping other plants stay healthy and assisting with drainage, too,” Emily Barbosa Fernandes, a professional gardener and consultant.

Groundcover plants also build nutrients in the soil, acting as a living mulch, points out Debbie Neese, a horticulturist with Lively Root.

“Planting them under trees can help protect the tree from mower or weed wacker damage,” Neese explains.

Among their drawbacks, groundcover plants can overtake or kill other flora in their path, competing for water and fertilizer with other plants. And while they can prevent weeds when they mature, you’ll have to keep them free from weeds until they establish themselves.

Additionally, if they grow too quickly, you may have to work at cutting them back consistently. Groundcover plants can attract pests, including slugs, snails, and snakes, as well.

Popular groundcover species include ornamental clover, French thyme, oregano, dianthus, sweet box (Sarcococca hookeriana humilis), creeping phlox, stonecrops (Sedum), Juniper, basket of gold (Aurinia saxatilis), alyssum, vinca minor, blue lily turf (Liriope muscari), Japanese spurge (pachysandra terminalis), and English ivy.

Close up of light pink dianthus flowers.

“I highly recommend alyssum, a perennial plant that comes in various bright colors, quickly takes over the area, and fills the yard or garden with a delicious honey-like scent. This plant tolerates slight drought and doesn’t require special care, but it prefers sunny places and winters that aren’t too cold,” Vasylchyshyna says. “Basket of gold is another great choice. It is compact, low-growing, and drought-tolerant, isn’t fastidious in terms of soil composition, features lush and abundant blooming, doesn’t suppress other plants, and can withstand low temperatures. Just be sure not to overwater, which can lead to diseases.”

Groundcovers are sold at many home improvement stores, nurseries, greenhouses, and floral shops.

Look for healthy and vigorous plants, with fresh green leaves. Avoid groundcovers that are wilted or have yellowing leaves, as they may be sickly or distressed.

It’s best to plant groundcovers between spring and summer or during early fall. Be sure to prepare the ground carefully before planting.

“Remove all plant material and weeds from your chosen area, apply manure or compost to the soil, evenly spread fertilizer across the ground, and dig the top layer of soil up slightly,” continues Vasylchyshyna. “Then, plant your groundcovers and water the soil abundantly. Make sure to moisturize the lawn thoroughly, weeding it from time to time, and keep the plants warm in winter – covering them with pine branches during the first year after planting. That way, your groundcovers will root and be able to handle weeds, frosts, and drought.”

Lastly, you may want to plant groundcovers closer together to fill in more areas.