Groundcovers, by definition, are plants that spread. They are often low-growing perennials or shrubs that unify or define landscape beds and borders. Choosing the right groundcover for a landscape is important as they often consume large areas. Groundcovers are also excellent choices where turfgrass is not desirable or practical.
There are also several species of groundcovers for shady sites (Groundcovers for Shade). Some of the shade-loving species such as bugleweed and vinca perform equally as well in both shady and sunny sites.
A partial list of groundcovers well-suited for partial to full sun is provided below. Plants are listed in order from shortest to tallest. More information about groundcovers for Iowa can be found in this publication: Groundcovers
Several species of Thyme (Thymus spp.) make wonderful, fragrant groundcovers for full to part sun. Grow in well-drained to dry soils as plants will not tolerate wet conditions, especially over the winter months. Most species grow 3 to 6 inches high and spread to 2 feet. Small pink flowers bloom in spring to early summer. The small narrow leaves form a mat that tolerates light foot traffic and releases a wonderful scent with every step.
Stonecrops (Sedum spp.) are succulents with fleshy leaves and small, star-shaped flowers. Low-growing types between 2 and 8 inches tall are excellent groundcovers. (The upright types are suitable as specimen plants.) Flower colors include white, pink, red, and yellow. The colorful foliage may be green, blue-green, bronze-red, or red. Stonecrops are easy-to-grow, long-lived perennials. However, they do require well-drained soils. Best growth occurs in full sun.
Moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia) is a good groundcover for wet sites. Moneywort is a low, creeping plant often around 4 inches tall. The creeping stems root at their nodes, allowing it to spread quickly. Plants have small, circular leaves and produce 1-inch-diameter, bright yellow flowers in late spring/early summer. 'Aurea' has lime green to yellow foliage. Moneywort is suitable for wet, poorly drained sites and areas near streams and ponds. However, it does spread rapidly and can become invasive. It is sometimes referred to as creeping jenny.
Barren strawberries (Waldsteinia fragarioides) are low-growing, mat-forming plants. The 4 to 6-inch tall plants have strawberry-like foliage. In spring, barren strawberry produces small, yellow flowers. After flowering, small inedible fruits form. Barren strawberry can be grown in partial shade to full sun. Well-drained soils are best.
Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) is a creeping groundcover growing 4 to 6 inches tall. Daisy flowers have yellow centers with white petals. Grows best in well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Can be an aggressive spreader when in its ideal conditions.
Cinquefoil (Potentilla neimanniana) is a low-growing semi-evergreen mat-forming groundcover growing 4 to 8 inches tall. Bright yellow flowers appear in late spring and early summer. Grow in full sun and well-drained soils.
The brightly colored flowers of moss phlox (Phlox subulata) are a familiar spring sight in Iowa. Moss phlox (commonly called "creeping phlox") forms dense, carpet-like mats. Plants are 4 to 6 inches tall. Its foliage is narrow, stiff, and needle-like in appearance. Flower colors include white, pink, red, blue, or purple. Moss phlox is easy to grow. It performs best in sunny areas and well-drained soils.
While not all species of speedwell (Veronica) are low growing, the prostrate growth habit of harebell speedwell (Veronica prostrata) makes it a suitable groundcover for areas in partial shade to full sun. The 6 to 8-inch tall plants produce small, pale to deep blue flowers from late spring to early summer. Harebell speedwell performs best in well-drained soils. Creeping speedwell (Veronica repens) likes similar conditions and grows 4 inches tall with mounds of moss-like foliage and white, rose, or bluish flowers in spring.
The flattened bell-shaped flowers of Carpathian bellflower (Campanula carpatica) bloom on 6 to 8-inch tall plants in full to part sun. This compact groundcover has abundant white, pink, or blue flowers in summer. Other bellflowers can also serve as groundcovers including Serbian bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana) and clustered bellflower (Campanula glomerata). Some of them are aggressive spreaders.
The low, mat-forming pinks (Dianthus deltoides and D. gratianopolitanus) make excellent groundcovers. Flowers may be white, pink, or red. Most have fringed or toothed petals. Plants may bloom for 8 to 10 weeks from late spring to summer. The grass-like foliage may be green, bluish green, blue, or gray and grows 6 to 12 inches tall. Pinks perform best in moist, well-drained soils in full sun. Good drainage is essential. Crown rot is often a problem in wet soils. Plants should be watered regularly during periods of hot, dry weather. Remove spent flowers to prolong their bloom period and improve plant appearance. Pinks have few insect or disease problems.
Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum) produces a blanket of white flowers in early summer. Grow in full to part sun. Plants benefit from late-day shade, especially in the hot summer months. Creeping stems have silver grey leaves spreading 1 to 2 feet and 6 to 12 inches tall. Well-drained to dry soils are essential as this groundcover will not tolerate wet conditions. Great for rock gardens.
A semi-evergreen and semi-woody groundcover, candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) grows 6 to 12 inches tall in full sun and moist, well-drained soils. White flowers appear in spring and when grown in part sun may have fewer blooms.
Basket-of-Gold (Aurinia saxatilis) produces bright yellow flowers in spring. The spreading 6 to 12-inch tall plants prefer well-drained soils and do well in rock gardens, atop walls, or along garden borders. Plants do not tolerate wet conditions. Grows best in full sun but tolerates part sun, especially if there is protection from the warm late-day sun. Trim back plants by one-half after flowering.
Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) grows best in part sun and tolerates full sun or part shade. Yellow, buttercup-shaped flowers open in spring and sporadically all summer. Plants prefer moist, well-drained soils and the creeping stolons can aggressively spread when growing in moist organically rich soils in part shade. It can become a troublesome lawn weed as it tolerates mowing.
Leadwort (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) is an 8 to 12 inch tall groundcover that can be grown in partial shade to full sun. It produces gentian blue flowers in late summer. In fall, its foliage turns a reddish bronze. Leadwort requires a well-drained soil. Plants are hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8.
A highly adaptable evergreen, creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) grows 6 to 15 inches tall. Grows best in full sun and dozens of cultivars are avialble with foliage colors from dark green to bluish green. Other species of juniper are also nice low-growing groundcovers including Japanese garden juniper (Juniperus procumbens) and single seed juniper (Juniperus squamata).
Soft, fuzzy, silver-gray leaves are what give Lamb's ear (Stachys byzantina) its name. Grow in full sun to part sun in well-drained to dry soils. Plants grow 8 to 15 inches tall and spread by creeping stems. Avoid overwatering and wet soils as the leaves easily trap moisture that can lead to rot. Small pink flower form on thick tall flower stalks which are not very ornamental. Remove the flower stalks as they form if you don't like their appearance.
Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) spreads by rhizomes and has white flowers starting in early summer. Grow in full to part sun and well-drained to dry soils. The ferny leaves form a mat of foliage 1 to 2 feet tall and when growing in ideal conditions can spread aggressively. Wooly yarrow (Achillea tomemtosa) is a closely related low-growing semi-evergreen groundcover that grows 6 to 8 inches tall with silver-green hairy leaves and yellow flowers in early summer.
Hardy geraniums (Geranium spp.) are attractive, easy-to-grow perennials. Numerous species and varieties are available. Plants typically bloom in late spring/early summer. The 1 to 2 inch diameter flowers may be white, pink, magenta, purple, or blue. Several double flowering varieties are also available. Hardy geraniums commonly grow 6 to 24 inches tall depending on species and cultivar. In fall, the foliage of many varieties turns to shades of yellow, orange, or red. Hardy geraniums prefer moist, well-drained soils and partial to full sun. They have few insect or disease problems.
Catmint (Nepeta x faassenii) has blueish purple flower in late spring/early summer atop mounds of fragrant leaves. The clump-forming plants grow 1 to 3 feet tall and their sprawling nature makes them great small-scale groundcovers. Cut flowers back after bloom is finished to encourage additional blooming later in the season.
Daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.) are one of the most widely grown perennials in the midwest. They are low maintenance, long-lived, and have few insect or disease problems. Trumpet-shaped to star-shaped flowers are produced above clumps of grass-like foliage. Flower colors include yellow, gold, orange, dark red, purple, pink, and white. Cultivars vary in height from 1 to 4 feet. Daylilies can be grown in partial shade to full sun.
Know for its lovely silvery grey leaves, white sage (Artemisia ludoviciana) is a great groundcover that can quickly spread by rhizomes. This North American native grows 2 to 3 feet tall and grows best in well-drained to dry soils in full to part sun. Flowers appear in late summer but are not particularly ornamental. Several cultivars are available including 'Silver King', 'Silver Queen', and 'Valerie Finnis'. The closely related silver mound (Artemisia schmidtiana) produces perfect 12-inch mounds of finely dissected silver foliage. While not a spreading plant, its sprawling habit allows it to function as a groundcover.
The short fragrant sumac cultivar, 'Gro-Low' (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low') makes an excellent groundcover growing only 1 to 2 feet tall (rather than the straight species which can reach 6+ feet tall). This spreading woody shrub is noted for its exceptional fall color turning reddish purple with undertones of orange in autumn. Flowers are insignificant and appear in spring but they give way to ornamental red berries in late summer that persist into winter (until they are eaten by wildlife!). Grows in full to part sun in a wide variety of soil conditions, but prefers dry conditions.
Rockspray cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis) is a rambling woody shrub that grows 2 to 3 feet tall and spreads 8 to 12 feet. The small dark green leaves align the layered stems giving the plant a fine-textured tiered appearance. Grow in full to part sun in well-drained soils. Flowers in late spring with small white flowers and then forms bright red ornamental fruit in late summer that stick around through winter.
Groundcovers to Consider with Caution
Some groundcovers can be considered too aggressive in the home landscape. Avoid plants like ribbon grass (Phalaris), Japanese bloodgrass (Imperata cylindrica), gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides), and chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata 'Chameleon') as they may become difficult to manage or control in the home landscape.
Updated from articles that originally appeared in the June 4, 2021 and August 23, 2002 issues of Horticulture and Home Pest News.