Ground Covers: The Beautiful Carpet of Garden Design

By Mary Frost, The Gardening Tutor

Rubus folfei on left, Sedum ‘Angelina’ on right, Berberis in back

You created your garden space but something is missing. You chose lots of plants with different forms and colors that complement each other but something just doesn’t feel right. Maybe looking at your garden makes you think of polka dots. Perhaps all that’s missing are swaths of low growing plants to bring it all together, the way that a carpet can unify the interior design of your home.

Generally, the term “ground cover” can be used to describe plants that are under a foot in height and closely planted together to cover the soil. This category includes ground hugging plants that grow less than six inches high and spread. Many of these low growers slowly spread and are easily controllable. Others can be highly invasive and become a headache later when you try to remove them. While still other low growing ground cover plants reach a mature size instead of continuing to grow on indefinitely.

Reading plant labels can help you avoid accidentally planting a spreading ground cover that takes over your entire garden. When a plant description says, “spreads easily”; “spreads by rhizomes”; “fast spreader” or “aggressive”, be wary. Some ground covers spread by growing along the surface of the soil and then setting down shallow rootlets. These are generally easier to control than plants that spread by underground rhizomes (think Bermuda grass).

The following list of low growing spreaders have the potential to add some interest to your design, either in texture, color or both. Although the list is not all inclusive, you may find some descriptions that help you choose the best ground cover for your garden. Included at the end is a short list of ground covers to avoid completely or use only in a container setting.

Prefer Full Sun:

Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ – The darling of the winter garden. The chartreuse color and rough texture of this plant really looks amazing during our rainy season. Because it spreads by shallow rootlets, you’ll need to give it a shower from the hose a couple times a week in summer to keep it looking good in the heat.

Veronica umbrosa ‘Georgia Blue’

Rubus folfei – Give Rubus just enough water to do well and not regular water, unless you want to encourage it to thickly cover an area. The evergreen foliage turns reddish in fall.

Veronica umbrosa ‘Georgia Blue’ – If you like lobelia in summer, you’ll like thisblue flowering plant with foliage similar to lobelia. Blooms in late winter to early spring.

Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’ – has ghostly, blue-green color. Stachys b. ‘Countess Helen von Stein’ has larger leaves with a more green tint and is said to flower less than ‘Silver Carpet’. Both can be hit hard by winter temperatures and their foliage can become moldy. Clear away the unsightly foliage as we near spring and your plant will become beautiful again.

Silene uniflora – Blue-green foliage with some trippy, white, balloon shaped flowers make this plant a showstopper.


Prefer Light Shade:

Lamium maculatum ‘Beacon Silver’

Lamium maculatum – Although Lamium m. can die completely back in winter, the delicate leaves with silvery colored variegation are stunning the rest of the year. The pink flowers are a bonus.

Vinca minor ‘Atropurpurea’ – This Vinca (unlike Vinca Major) spreads slowly and has purple flowers in spring.

Silene dioica ‘Clifford Moor’ – variegated yellow and green leaves with pink flowers in spring. Low care, slowly spreads and can add that pop of brightness you’re looking for in the shade garden.


The following ground covers are each beautiful in their own way but beware of planting them in ground. Sometimes aggressive ground covers can look amazing in a container but be careful that it doesn’t spread by seed blown into your garden or by escaping out through the drainage hole.

Dymondia margaretae – Dymondia is an awesome ground hugging plant that can add enticing texture and variegation to your design. The downside is, keeping it weed free can be time consuming to accomplish.

Lamium galeobdolon (Yellow archangel) – Once established, it will take over your garden whether you water it or not.

Vinca major – Can take over your garden. Better to plant Vinca minor varieties.

Persicaria capitata – This is one of the “no irrigation needed” ground covers. Beautiful but Scary!

Houttuynia cordata – This aggressive spreader has variegation that is tinged with pink and red. Plant this in a container to safely enjoy the splashes of color and crisp scent. Houttuynia dies back completely in winter, only to spread underground and come back, seemingly everywhere, in spring.


Mary Frost is the sole proprietor of The Gardening Tutor, a hands-on, individualized gardening instruction and consulting service in Sonoma County. You can sign up for FREE monthly gardening tips at and see more tips on The Gardening Tutor YouTube Channel and Facebook page. For more information contact Mary at or 707.545.6863

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