9 Best Drought-Tolerant Ground Covers

Drought-tolerant Ground Cover

Ground covers are meant to blanket your yard in gorgeous greenery, not wilted brown-ery. Whether you’re ready to replace thirsty turfgrass with a low-water alternative or you just want to give your garden or footpath a unique pop of color, these drought-tolerant ground covers have you covered. 

Once established, these ground covers stand up to dry weather without supplemental watering so you can relax and enjoy the summer sun without your plants withering and dying. 

Here are the nine best drought-tolerant ground covers for your landscape:

  1. Angelina sedum (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’)
  2. Bearberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster dammeri)
  3. California fuchsia (Epilobium canum)
  4. Creeping thyme (Thymus praecox)
  5. Dwarf periwinkle (Vinca minor)
  6. Hardy ice plant (Delosperma cooperi)
  7. Moss phlox (Phlox subulata)
  8. Rock rose (Pavonia lasiopetala)
  9. Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum)
Angelina sedum ground cover
Angelina sedum | Leonora (Ellie) Enking | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

1. Angelina sedum (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’)

If your lawn needs a winter pick-me-up, Angelina sedum’s striking bronze and red foliage will give your garden that “wow” factor. This low-growing succulent boasts unique color year-round, making it an ideal statement piece in fairy gardens or rock gardens, overhanging a rock wall, or showcased in a container garden

In spring and summer, Angelina sedum’s fleshy leaf spikes are neon Chartreuse with light brown tips, resembling tiny shiny bananas. Angelina sedum’s noteworthy leaf color contrasts well with plants with dark green, blue, burgundy, and black foliage. It’s a natural companion plant with blanket flower, purple coneflower, ice plant, and blue fescue. 

Clusters of delicate, star-shaped yellow flowers bloom in late spring to midsummer. As the weather cools, leaves darken for winter appeal. 

Hardiness zones: 5-9
Sun exposure: Prefers full sun, can tolerate partial shade
Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay, rocky; neutral to alkaline; well-draining
Foot traffic: Moderate
Mature size: 4-6 inches tall; 1-2 feet wide
Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant, rabbit-resistant, pollution-tolerant

Bearberry cotoneaster's bright red berries
Bearberry cotoneaster | Hectonichus | CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

2. Bearberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster dammeri)

All kinds of wildlife — from chipmunks to birds to bears — love munching on shiny red bearberries. Whether you’re looking to create an eco-friendly wildlife refuge in your backyard or just want to give your lawn year-round visual appeal, bearberry cotoneaster is every evergreen lover’s dream.

Small, singular white flowers bloom in late spring followed by vibrant, 1- to 4-inch crimson berries which persist into winter to give your lawn a boost of holiday spirit.

Bearberry cotoneaster has oblong, deep green, glossy leaves and trailing roots that spread quickly and may form dense thickets. You can let bearberries grow naturally or prune them for a tidier look. Bearberries can be planted on hills and banks to prevent erosion or in rock gardens and pollinator gardens for winter interest. 

In warmer climates, bearberry leaves remain green year-round. In cooler climates, they turn bronze-red and purple in the fall.

Hardiness zones: 5-8
Sun exposure: Full sun, partial shade
Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay; tolerates alkaline soil; well-draining
Foot traffic: None
Mature size: 1-2 feet tall; 4-6 feet wide
Special features: Pollinator-friendly, salt-tolerant

John Rusk | Flickr

3. California fuchsia (Epilobium canum)

Love seeing hummingbirds flutter around your yard? Plant California fuchsia. Known as the hummingbird trumpet, this California native’s nectar-filled flowers make it one of the best plants for pollinators on the West Coast. It’s a heat-hardy, fast grower that will attract beautiful butterflies, moths, and bees — and compliments from your neighbors. 

With gray-green foliage and tubular scarlet flowers that bloom at the peak of summer heat, the California fuchsia will give your garden a burst of color when other plants have gone dormant. It’s a fantastic companion plant with penstemon, Russian sage, and blue-eyed grass. 

If you have a dry, sunny slope where other plants fail to grow, plant California fuchsia: It will control erosion and look gorgeous doing it. California fuchsias are quick to self-seed, and they go dormant in winter. Cut or mow them to the ground in fall or early winter to prevent them from getting scraggly and to stimulate healthy spring growth.

Hardiness zones: 8-11
Sun exposure: Full sun
Soil needs: Sandy, clay, rocky; neutral to alkaline; well-draining
Foot traffic: High
Mature size: 4-18 inches tall; 2-3 feet wide
Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant, fire-resistant, long blooming season

Creeping Thyme Ground Cover
Creeping thyme | Andrea_44 | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

4. Creeping thyme (Thymus praecox)

Creeping thyme greens up early in spring and blooms in late spring to early summer, producing a profusion of dainty pink, white, and purple flower clusters. (Fun fact: “Praecox” is Latin for “very early.”) Its nectar-filled flowers attract bees and butterflies. 

This sun-loving herb forms a dense mat of fuzzy, fragrant, blue-green leaves that stand up to foot traffic, making it an excellent addition between pavers and stepping stones and bordering patios and driveways, as well as in cottage gardens and butterfly gardens. 

While creeping thyme isn’t the same as culinary thyme, its leaves give off a pleasant, savory oregano-like scent that makes it a popular plant for sensory gardens

Creeping thyme is an evergreen in the South. In cooler northern states, it goes dormant in fall and greens up in spring. 

Hardiness zones: 5-8
Sun exposure: Full sun 
Soil needs: Sandy, rocky; neutral to alkaline; well-draining
Foot traffic: Moderate
Mature size: 3-6 inches tall; 3-12 inches wide
Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant, rabbit-resistant, fragrant leaves

Dwarf Periwinkle Ground Cover
Dwarf periwinkle | WikimediaImages | Pixabay

5. Dwarf periwinkle (Vinca minor)

If your yard is heavily shaded and dry as a bone, dwarf periwinkle is perfect for you. With charming lilac-blue and white flowers and deep green, leathery leaves, dwarf periwinkle is a rapid grower that stands up to high heat and brings bumblebees buzzing into your yard.

Dwarf periwinkles (also known as Bowles periwinkles) form a dense mat underfoot and bloom in spring and early summer. They make excellent companion plants for bulbs like daffodils, as they suppress weeds and provide color contrast. 

Due to their high shade tolerance, periwinkles grow beautifully under trees and shrubs. Their graceful trailing stems also make them a favorite in window boxes and hanging pots. 

Caution: This evergreen ground cover can spread too aggressively and is considered invasive in southern and eastern coastal states like Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware.  

Hardiness zones: 4-9
Sun exposure: Full sun, partial shade, dense shade
Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay, rocky; well-draining
Foot traffic: Light
Mature size: 3-6 inches; 6-18 inches
Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant, salt-tolerant

Ice plant flowers | suju-foto | Pixabay

6. Hardy ice plant (Delosperma cooperi)

With glistening cylindrical leaves that resemble tiny icicles, the hardy ice plant is a low-growing showstopper that explodes with glossy, daisy-like neon pink and purple flowers that bloom all summer long. Ice plants thrive in extremely dry, sandy soil and desert-like conditions, which makes them ideal for homeowners in the Southwest. 

Native to southern Africa, this salt- and heat-tolerant succulent is an evergreen in warmer regions and deciduous in cooler regions. In areas where cold, wet winters are common, plant ice plants in a container and bring them indoors before the first frost to ensure survival.

Ice plants are gorgeous additions to low-water xeriscapes and rock gardens, around stone walkways, and in hanging baskets. They grow rapidly to spill over the sides of container gardens and gracefully drape over rock walls. 

Caution: Ice plants can be highly invasive, especially on the California coast. Check with your local cooperative extension before filling your yard with ice plants. 

Hardiness zones: 6-10
Sun exposure: Full sun
Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, rocky; well-draining
Foot traffic: Moderate
Mature size: 3-6 inches tall; 1-2 feet wide
Special features: Pollinator-friendly, salt-tolerant, long blooming season

Moss Phlox
Moss phlox | manseok_Kim | Pixabay

7. Moss phlox (Phlox subulata)

Also known as creeping phlox, moss phlox will carpet your yard with a profusion of cheerful pink, lavender, red, and white flowers that blossom over springy, moss-like foliage. Standing strong in poor soil and attracting a host of hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees, it’s a favorite among homeowners on the East Coast. 

Moss phlox is a fast-growing semi-evergreen that forms a dense mat underfoot and blooms in early to mid-spring (a drought-tolerant adaptation to avoid the hottest, driest parts of summer). A native plant, moss phlox resists disease and pests and has dense roots that make it an erosion-proof favorite for slopes, hills, and bluffs. 

For vertical interest, plant moss phlox above your rock wall for a curtain of blossoms. It’s also a beautiful choice for butterfly gardens and container gardens, and around the foundation of your house. 

Hardiness zones: 3-9
Sun exposure: Full sun
Soil needs: Sandy, rocky, can tolerate clay; neutral to alkaline; well-draining
Foot traffic: Moderate
Mature size: 4-6 inches tall; 1-2 feet wide
Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant, fire-resistant, pollution-tolerant, salt-tolerant

Rock Rose
Purple rock rose | Ralphs_Fotos | Pixabay

8. Rock rose (Pavonia lasiopetala)

If you live in Texas or the Southwest, get ready to meet a celebrity in your own backyard. With showstopping hibiscus-like blooms and extreme drought and heat resilience, rock rose has been dubbed a Texas Superstar

Native to the Lone Star State, this shrub-like ground cover can be planted as xeriscape hedging or as a low-growing statement plant in rock gardens or along sidewalk strips. Its velvety deep green leaves form a dense canopy that contrasts beautifully with bright pink flowers that bloom from spring to the first frost. These flowers will bring hummingbirds, moths, and butterflies fluttering into your yard. 

To encourage healthy new growth, cut back your rock roses to 6 to 8 inches tall before the spring growing season begins. If you are growing rock roses in a shady area, take care to prevent and treat powdery mildew

Hardiness zones: 7-13 (Grows as a shrub in zones 9-13, grows shorter in zones 7-8)
Sun exposure: Prefers full sun, can tolerate partial shade but will produce fewer blooms
Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, rocky; well-draining
Foot traffic: None
Mature size: 2-4 feet tall; 2-4 feet wide
Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant, fire-resistant, long blooming season

Snow-in-summer | Elstef | Pixabay

9. Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum)

If you’ve ever wished for winter weather on a particularly scorching day, snow-in-summer is your dream plant. While it can’t stop the summer sun from beating down, its cheerful snowflake-shaped white flowers will blanket your lawn in a blossomy blizzard.

Snow-in-summer’s wooly silver leaves form a mat that is soft to the touch and provides visual appeal even when flowers aren’t blooming. Its signature flowers bloom in late spring to early summer. 

A favorite among homeowners in the Northeast and Northwest, this winter-hardy ground cover makes a perfect edging plant around pools, patios, and walkways. Plant it in your rock garden or cottage garden, in the pockets of a rock wall, or cascading out of a hanging basket. Avoid planting snow-in-summer in wet, poorly draining soil, as it is highly susceptible to root rot. 

In warmer southern climates, snow-in-summer acts as an evergreen, and in cooler northern climates, it goes dormant in fall and revives in spring. 

Caution: Snow-in-summer (also known as mouse-eared chickweed) can grow aggressively in cooler regions and outcompete other desired plants. Consider planting the more compact, slower-growing ‘Yo yo’ variety.

Hardiness zones: 3-10
Sun exposure: Full sun, partial shade
Soil needs: Sandy, loamy; well-draining
Foot traffic: None
Mature size: 6-12 inches; 9-12 inches
Special features: Deer-resistant, salt-tolerant

FAQ about drought-tolerant ground covers

1. Are there other drought-tolerant ground covers I can plant? 

Absolutely! This list includes some of the most drought-hardy ground covers, but there’s a treasure trove of other ground covers that can withstand low water levels. 

Consider other drought-tolerant ground covers like: 

  • Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans)*
  • Creeping barberry (Mahonia repens)
  • Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis)*
  • Moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora)
  • Pinks (Dianthus spp.)*
  • Prostrate rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)
  • Winecup (Callirhoe involucrata)

* Considered invasive in some regions. Check your state’s invasive plants list before planting it in your yard. 

2. What does “drought-tolerant” mean? 

There are two types of drought-hardy plants: Drought-tolerant and drought-resistant.

Drought-tolerant plants can survive a few weeks to a month with no supplemental water. If a drought lasts longer than a month, they require supplemental watering. 

— Drought-resistant plants are the real drought superheroes: They can survive years of drought without supplemental water. Most ground covers fall under the “drought-tolerant” banner, as their root systems are not deep enough to extract water from far beneath the soil surface (as drought-resistant trees like mulgas and ponderosa pines can).

3. How long does it take drought-tolerant ground covers to get established? 

Drought-tolerant ground covers are extremely hardy once established, but it typically takes one to two years for them to establish the robust root system they need to survive in drought conditions. During this first year, you’ll need to water them consistently (1 inch of water per week) to prepare them for long-term success. 

Time since plantingWatering frequency
First weekDaily, keeping the soil moist
First year2 times per week (depending on rainfall)
Second year and beyondAs needed

Most drought-tolerant ground covers are perennials, which means they take longer to establish than annuals and may not flower until the second or third year. Why? They’re preparing to live in your soil for many years, so they need to focus on their roots before they shift to upward growth and beautiful blossoms. 

4. How else can I save water?

Drought-tolerant ground covers aren’t the only plants you can choose for a drought-friendly landscape. Consider replacing some of your thirsty turfgrass with drought-tolerant trees, shrubs, and ornamental grass to cut your water bill, save energy, and protect your local watershed. You can also grow drought-tolerant fruits and vegetables for tasty homegrown treats. 

When your plants need hydration, water them using a drip irrigation system or soaker hose rather than sprinklers. When sprinklers spray water into the air, up to 35% of it can be lost to evaporation and wind. Drip systems save water by delivering water straight to the roots of the plant.

If you’re fully aboard the drought-tolerant train, design a water-wise xeriscape that thrives on local levels of rainfall. Filled with native plants and succulents, mulch, rocks, and hardscape features, a xeriscape is a beautiful, eco-friendly way to save time and money. 

Pro Tip: If you’re planting drought-tolerant trees and shrubs, hold off on the ground cover for at least 6 months. Fast-growing ground covers can suck up valuable moisture and nutrients from the soil that trees need to grow.

Ground covers galore

Spring is the perfect time to plant most ground covers. The soil is moist and starting to warm up, but the hot summer sun isn’t beating down just yet. Planting in early spring gives tender young ground covers time to acclimate to their surroundings and establish roots before harsh, hot weather hits. 

Once established, drought-tolerant ground covers are low-maintenance, no-mow lawn heroes – but they can’t rescue you from every summer lawn care task. If you’d rather fire up the grill than sweat buckets cleaning up your yard, call a local lawn care pro to keep your lawn healthy and verdant throughout the drought season.

Main Photo Credit: Succulent ground cover in colors, Huntington Library Desert Garden | Pamla J. Eisenberg | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Maille Smith

Maille-Rose Smith is a freelance writer and actor based in New York. She graduated from the University of Virginia. She enjoys watching theatre, reading mysteries, and listening to psychology podcasts. She is an orchid enthusiast and always has a basil plant growing in her kitchen.