A fast-growing ground cover is the ideal solution for those spots in your landscape in which it is difficult to grow anything, like under trees. As an added bonus, a quick-spreading ground cover can be a relatively low-maintenance option that helps to crowd out weeds. For best results, select a ground cover appropriate for your region.
Ground Covers for Walkways and Paths
Also known as creeping thyme and mother-of-thyme, wild thyme (Thymus serpyllum) is a popular ground cover used for edging and to fill areas between stone pavers, bluestone and other materials used to create walkways and garden paths. Native to Europe and grown as a perennial in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 8, wild thyme provides color interest with small pink flowers and releases a warm, peppery fragrance when brushed against or stepped on. The plant is also drought tolerant and stands up to heavy foot traffic, despite being only 3 inches tall.
Trim wild thyme as needed to keep from becoming scraggly and too woody.
Wild thyme should not be confused with the common thyme (Thymus vulgaris, USDA zones 5 to 9) used in cooking. Wild thyme is not toxic; it just isn’t tasty.
Moss phlox (Phlox subulata), also called moss pink and creeping phlox, is a North American species distributed throughout the eastern and central U.S. and grown as an ornamental ground cover in USDA zones 3 through 9. This plant only grows to 6 inches in height but easily resists soil erosion, drought, air pollution and deer. Depending on cultivar, moss phlox displays a range of flower colors that includes white, pink, red, blue and purple.
Ground Covers for Shade
Variegated Snow on the Mountain
Also called bishop's weed and gout weed, variegated snow on the mountain (Aegopodium podagraria 'Variegatum') features soft green and creamy white foliage and umbrella-like clusters of white flowers. With an average height of 10 inches and a spread of 18 to 24 inches, this shade-loving plant quickly fills in barren areas under trees and in woodland settings in USDA zones 3 through 8.
Snow on the mountain spreads via underground runners and may become invasive if not kept in check with regular trimming and the use of borders.
Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is a perennial ground cover native to Eurasia that readily naturalizes in USDA zones 4 to 8. This plant thrives in moist, shady areas and quickly forms dense coverage in woodlands, rock gardens and borders. When bruised or cut, its leaves yield a fragrance reminiscent of freshly mown hay. In spring, the plant rewards the observant with clusters of delicate white flowers.
The fragrant leaves of sweet woodruff can be dried and used in tea blends. They are also added to potpourri mixtures and used as filling for herbal pillows and sachets.
Because sweet woodruff spreads by runners, it may become invasive without containment and regular cutting back.
Ground Covers for Sun
If low maintenance paired with outstanding color all season appeals to you, firecracker sedum (Sedum 'Firecracker') is the ground cover for you. This cultivar, suitable for USDA zones 4 through 9, produces deep burgundy, rabbit-resistant foliage and forms mounds of dense cover that deter the invasion of weeds. The small pink flowers that appear in late summer or early fall attract butterflies. With six hours or more of direct sun per day, this plant reaches a height of 6 inches with a spread of up to 18 inches.
Aubrieta (Aubrieta deltoidea), also known as false rockcress, is an easy-care, evergreen perennial that is native to the Mediterranean region and cultivated in USDA zones 4 through 8. Although it is a member of the Brassicaceae family and related to several annual garden vegetables, the plant is grown as an ornamental ground cover and not for food. Given four to six hours of sun each day, aubrieta reaches 6 inches in height and spreads up to 2 feet. Vibrant purple flowers are highlighted against gray-green foliage from early spring through early summer.
Karyn Maier is a seasoned columnist and feature writer. Since 1992, her work has appeared in Mother Earth News, The Herb Quarterly, Better Nutrition and in many other print and digital publications. She is also the author of five books, and is published in six languages.