How to Pick the Best Ground Cover Plants

How to Pick the Best Ground Cover Plants

From low light to lean soil, experts say there's an option that will work for everyone.

Last weekend, we finished planting ground cover plants in our front yard. The middle of the plot is filled with begonias and impatiens, with many colors of coleus around the edges. Last year, the impatiens expanded to fill the space provided, and we’re hoping this year’s combination of ground cover plants will do the same.

That said, I’m not sure we picked the best ground cover plants for our yard. Begonias and impatiens are annuals, after all, which means we’ll need to replant them next year. Coleus are technically perennials, but often have trouble surviving a harsh winter—which means we may have to replant them as well.

Or, you know, we could plant something different?

To best answer this question, I reached out to a pair of gardening experts to learn more about how to choose the best ground cover plants for our yard—and if you’re hoping to answer the same question, here’s what you need to know. 

What are ground cover plants?

Ground cover plants are exactly what they sound like. When planted, these popular ferns and flowers put down roots and put up new growth, quickly covering as much space as possible.

"Ground covers are low growing plants that form a dense carpet," says Janet Loughrey, a former Oregon State University master gardener who currently contributes to Garden Design. "They are effective for suppressing weeds, retaining moisture and for difficult areas where other plants struggle to thrive."

Ashleigh Smith, a degreed horticulturist with True Leaf Market, agrees. "Ground covers are grown for many reasons including erosion control, weed suppression and aesthetic appeal. Soil that is covered with plant matter is healthier, more active, and appealing."

Since ground cover plants are easy to maintain and pleasing to look at, many gardeners use them as a key element of their landscape design. "Ground covers can be used as a low maintenance alternative to turf lawns, as edging along pathways and borders, on a slope to control erosion, underneath trees and shrubs, and for filling in gaps in garden beds," Loughrey explains.

How can you choose the best ground cover plants for your yard? 

The best ground cover plants for your yard are the plants that are most adapted for your climate—although you’ll also need to consider sun, soil and water before you select your seedlings.

"Evaluate your landscape for basic growing conditions of light and soil, and what purpose you want ground covers to serve," Loughrey advises. "Choose plants based on your growing zone, whether ground covers need sun or shade, rich or lean soil, and how much water and fertilizer they require."

You’ll also need to decide between perennials and annuals. Perennials, as you might remember, are plants that remain dormant in winter and return year after year; annuals, on the other hand, die off at the end of their growing season. While most gardeners prefer to use perennials as ground cover, adding a few annuals gives you the opportunity to freshen up your look every spring.

"To protect your soil, use perennial plants with expansive root systems," Smith explains. "For ornamental ground covers, consider blooming perennials or annuals if you want to change things up every once in a while."

How do you care for ground cover plants?

"Caring for ground cover plants is just like caring for any other plant in your garden," Smith tells us. "Some prefer more water or sunlight than others. Select plants that match the soil quality and light accessibility in your growing location."

Loughrey agrees, but notes that many ground cover plants are hardy enough to thrive even when a less-than-perfect gardener is in charge. "Most ground covers are lower maintenance, requiring less care than many other plants."

As is often the case, overwatering is worse than underwatering. "I recommend utilizing a drip irrigation system to avoid excessive moisture on the foliage," Smith advises. While drip irrigation systems can be a little complicated to set up, they’re a great way to save money and water. That said, you can also use a hose, sprinkler or watering can to water your ground cover beds according to the amount of moisture each plant requires. Check the plants’ care tags upon purchase to understand specific watering needs per variety. After the first year, once your perennials take root, you can let nature take its course, adjusting your watering schedule based upon weather, soil and seasonal conditions.  

What are the best low-maintenance ground cover plants? 

If you’re looking for a low-maintenance ground cover plant, our experts have put together a list for you to consider. "Each of these are known to perform well in challenging conditions such as poor soil, drought or varying sunlight access," Smith explains.

  • Barrenwort (Epimedium) 
  • Bellflower (Campanula) 
  • Bugleweed (Ajuga) 
  • Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) 
  • Creeping thyme (Thymus) 
  • Dead nettle (Lamium) 
  • Lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina) 
  • Periwinkle (Vinca) 
  • Sedum (Sedum) 
  • Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) 

What are the fastest-growing ground cover plants?

Some of the fastest-growing ground cover plants are also the lowest-maintenance plants, which is a win-win for busy gardeners. Others may require a little more maintenance, but the speed of growth might be worth it. "Fast-growing ground covers can be used to quickly cover large areas in beds or along slopes," Loughrey tells us. With that in mind, here’s the list our experts provided:

  • Blue plumbago (Ceratostigma) 
  • Bugleweed (Ajuga) 
  • Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) 
  • Catmint (Nepeta racemosa) 
  • Dead nettle (Lamium) 
  • Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra) 
  • Lilyturf (Liriope) 
  • Periwinkle (Vinca) 
  • Rock cress (Aubrieta) 
  • Speedwell (Veronica) 

Smith also reminds us that if you really want to cover an area of ground in a short amount of time, you might want to consider planting a few attractive weeds. "English ivy is known for its extremely fast growth," she says, "however, its quickness often makes it known as a weed in many regions." Clover is another weedy ground cover plant that can easily take over a yard, if you let it. "White dutch or miniature clover will grow quickly and come back year after year amid poor soil and drought conditions."

Top image: Nora Carol Photography/Getty Images

Related Reading:


Get the Dwell Newsletter

Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.