Best Ground Covers as Grass Alternatives

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creeping thyme ground cover over bricks

Ground covers are becoming increasingly popular as a no-mow, eco-friendly alternative to the traditional green-grass lawn, and with good reason. They’re low-maintenance, inexpensive, and require few chemicals. If you want to spend less time on lawn care while still enjoying a lush landscape, ground cover has got you, well, covered. 

What are ground covers?

Ground covers are low-growing plants that will quickly spread out to fill grassless spaces and prevent weeds from growing. 

Ground cover is an excellent lawn alternative for areas inhospitable to turfgrass: If you live on a slope, have a shady yard, or struggle with clay or sandy soil, ground covers are a quick fix to get your lawn green and healthy. 

There’s a ground cover for every region, soil type, and level of sunlight, from evergreens like creeping juniper to flowering perennials like Amethyst in Snow. We’ll walk you through some of the most popular ground covers so you can choose the perfect one for your lawn.

Depending on where you live, some ground cover plants (such as creeping Jenny) are classified as invasive. Check your state’s invasive species list before you plant. 

1. Sun-loving perennials

If your yard is sunny, then you’re in luck. There is a sprawling variety of drought- and heat-tolerant ground covers that will make themselves right at home in your yard. Once they’re established, you can sit back and enjoy their gorgeous blooms. You’ll just have to give them an occasional trim and watering. 

  • Carpet sedum (Sedum lineare): Sedum (also known as stonecrop) is an evergreen succulent perfect for rocky areas where other plants cannot survive. It prevents erosion and can tolerate shallow, sandy, nutrient-poor soils. Plus, its delicate yellow flowers attract pollinators. It’s perfect for rock gardens.
    • USDA hardiness zones: 6-9
    • Sun exposure: Full sun to partial shade
    • Soil needs: Can grow in gravel and sand
    • Foot traffic: Moderate
  • Amethyst in Snow (Centaurea montana): With fringed purple-and-white flowers and deep green leaves, Amethyst in Snow is a drought-tolerant, pollinator-friendly stunner. It’s also a beautiful choice for cut flower arrangements. 
    • USDA hardiness zones: 3-9
    • Sun exposure: Full sun to partial shade
    • Soil needs: Well-drained, low-fertility, normal to alkaline soil
    • Foot traffic: None
  • Creeping phlox, also known as moss phlox (Phlox subulata): A semi-evergreen ground cover with pollinator-friendly spring blooms, creeping phlox prevents erosion by forming a cushiony mat underfoot. You can choose from a variety of flower colors, from vibrant reds to blues. Creeping phlox is disease- and pest-resistant and has moderate drought tolerance. It does well in dry, rocky, and sandy areas.
    • USDA hardiness zones: 3-9
    • Sun exposure: Full sun
    • Soil needs: Rich, well-drained, slightly alkaline soil; can tolerate clay
    • Foot traffic: Moderate
  • Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum): With dainty white flowers that protrude from a dense mat of narrow leaves, snow-in-summer is nothing if not eye-catching. It’s a showy, low-growing evergreen that matures at about 6 inches tall. It’s drought-tolerant and deer-resistant. Just make sure you know its status in your region: It’s considered invasive in certain states. 
    • USDA hardiness zones: 3-10
    • Sun exposure: Full sun to partial shade
    • Soil needs: Well-drained, loamy soil; can tolerate sandy, occasionally dry soil
    • Foot traffic: None
  • Blue catmint (Nepeta x faassenii): Also known as Faasen’s catmint, blue catmint is a   tall perennial that can spread up to 3 feet wide. Its silver-green leaves and lovely lavender flowers make it a show-stopper. Plus, its fragrance attracts bees and butterflies. Blue catmint grows rapidly and can tolerate drought.
    • USDA hardiness zones: 5-9
    • Sun exposure: Full sun to partial shade
    • Soil needs: Prefers well-drained, loamy soil, but can tolerate sandy, rocky, and clay soils
    • Foot traffic: None

2. Shade-loving perennials

Unlike many turfgrasses that require partial to full sun, there are a host of perennial ground covers that will thrive under trees and in the shadow of your house. 

  • Ajuga, also known as bugleweed (Ajuga reptans): A creeping evergreen with pollinator-friendly, tubular purple flowers, ajuga is a mainstay ground cover across most of the U.S. The popular ‘Atropurpurea’ variety has broad, purple-green leaves, but other varieties offer an assortment of different leaf colors and shapes. Ajuga is perfect to grow around walkways and under trees. It will form a dense mat over time.
    • USDA hardiness zones: 3-9 (plant selectively in the South: Ajuga is susceptible to crown rot, which will kill the plant) 
    • Sun exposure: Full sun to full shade (Prefers partial shade. ‘Chocolate chip’ ajuga is excellent for deeply shaded areas)
    • Soil needs: Moist, well-drained, humus-rich soil
    • Foot traffic: Low
  • Hosta: Popular for their broad, distinctive leaves and shade tolerance, Hostas thrive in rich, moist soil. They are drought-tolerant but do require additional watering in dry areas. They thrive in dappled sun, but they also can tolerate full shade. Hostas resist disease but can fall prey to slugs and deer. To ward off slugs, scatter sand around the base of the plants. To prevent deer nibbles, consider surrounding your hostas with daffodils
    • USDA hardiness zones: 3-9
    • Sun exposure: Partial to full shade
    • Soil needs: Well-drained, nutrient-rich, slightly acidic soil
    • Foot traffic: None
  • Bunchberry, also known as creeping dogwood (Cornus canadensis): Native to the northern U.S., bunchberry boasts bright green leaves and a single white dogwood blossom. In late summer, eye-catching red berries replace the flower. Bunchberry is pollinator-friendly and pest-resistant. Depending on your soil type, you may want to mulch with peat moss or pine needles to give bunchberry the acidic soil it needs. 
    • USDA hardiness zones: 2-6
    • Sun exposure: Partial sun to full shade
    • Soil needs: Damp, cool, acidic soil
    • Foot traffic: None
  • Hardy ferns: In moist, shady areas where grass won’t grow, hardy ferns will save the day. They’re popular perennials with beautiful leaves that come in a range of colors and textures. Some hardy ferns are evergreen, while others are deciduous. Pair them with hostas to give your shady area some graceful style. It’s a good idea to mulch ferns with 2-3 inches of leaves or pine straw to give them a healthy boost. 
    • USDA hardiness zones: Depends on the variety 
    • Sun exposure: Partial shade, in general (some hardy ferns can tolerate full sun or dense shade)
    • Soil needs: Moist, nutrient-rich, slightly acidic soil
    • Foot traffic: None
  • Spotted deadnettle (Lamium maculatum): A member of the mint family, the low-growing spotted deadnettle spreads rapidly in shade and produces lovely, pollinator-friendly lavender flowers. Spotted deadnettle tolerates drought well and has few pest problems. In warm climates, it can grow as an evergreen.
    • USDA hardiness zones: 3-8
    • Sun exposure: Prefers partial shade but can tolerate full sun
    • Soil needs: Moist, rich, well-drained soil; cannot tolerate compacted, wet soil
    • Foot traffic: Low to none

For both sun- and shade-loving perennials, check your plant hardiness zone to determine what ground covers will thrive in your region.

Pros of sun/shade-loving perennialsCons of sun/shade-loving perennials
✓ No mowing required
✓ Inexpensive, depending on the plant
✓ Versatile: There’s a perennial for every lawn
✓ Many evergreen options
✓ Herbicide and pesticide often not needed
✗ Can be invasive 
✗ Plant establishment takes time and labor
✗ May require fertilizer, watering, and trimming
✗ Most cannot tolerate heavy foot traffic

If you’d rather enjoy your ground cover without getting stuck in the weeds, you can call a local lawn care expert to handle the area preparation and plant establishment.

3. Fragrant ground covers

For an aromatic lawn that soothes your senses, you have your pick of pretty, pollinator-friendly options that won’t break the bank. Just make sure you’re planting in areas with low foot traffic. Chamomile, creeping thyme, and Corsican mint can tolerate the occasional footprint, but they’re nowhere near as durable as grasses like tall fescue or Kentucky bluegrass. 

Chamomile lawn

Chamomile lawns are a homeowner’s (and a tea-drinker’s) low-maintenance favorite. Chamomile grows in most of the U.S., requiring no mowing and minimal fertilization and water. It attracts honey bees and deters mosquitoes. Plus, chamomile helps heal other plants and accumulates important nutrients like calcium, potassium, and phosphorus.

With dainty daisy-like flowers and feathery, fern-like leaves, Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) is a visual delight. It grows 3-6 inches tall, so it’s about the height of normal turfgrass. You won’t have to mow it, but you’ll need to trim to manage long shoots and avoid sideways spread. 

If you’d prefer a nonflowering, low evergreen mat (that still smells great), choose the “Treneague” cultivar. 

Thoroughly remove weeds before planting chamomile because it does not compete well with weeds. Then, individually spray weeds when they emerge; do not use a selective lawn herbicide. 

  • USDA hardiness zones: 4-9
  • Sun exposure: Full sun to partial shade
  • Soil needs: Well-drained loamy or sandy soil
  • Foot traffic: Low
Pros of chamomileCons of chamomile
✓ No mowing
✓ Little fertilizing and watering required
✓ Enrichens soil with nitrogen
✓ Soothing apple scent
✓ Edible: Can be used for tea or baked in cakes (though German chamomile is more popular for eating)
✓ Attracts pollinators
✗ Sensitive to weeds and herbicide
✗ Cannot tolerate heavy foot traffic
✗ Cannot tolerate clay soils or high shade
✗ Requires hand-weeding and trimming
✗ Toxic to dogs, cats, and horses (if ingested)

Creeping thyme

For a sun-loving, pollinator-friendly herb, creeping thyme (Thymus praecox) will fill your lawn with a fine-leaved mat of dainty pink, white, or purple flowers. Growing 3-6 inches tall, it can be used as a full ground cover, or you can plant it around stepping stones and pathways. 

  • USDA hardiness zones: 4-9 (depending on the variety)
  • Sun exposure: Full sun to partial sun
  • Soil needs: Well-drained, sandy or rocky, slightly alkaline soil. Thrives in low-nutrient soil as long as it drains well.
  • Foot traffic: Low to moderate
Pros of creeping thymeCons of creeping thyme
✓ No mowing
✓ Controls weeds
✓ Drought-tolerant
✓ Little fertilizing and watering required
✓ Delightful herbal aroma when stepped on
✓ Edible: Can be dried and used for cooking
✓ Attracts pollinators
✗ Cannot tolerate heavy foot traffic
✗ Cannot tolerate clay soils or high shade
✗ Requires trimming

Corsican mint

For a fragrant lawn in the shade, Corsican mint (Mentha requienii) is an elegant low-grower with tiny, glossy leaves and pastel purple flowers in summer. Growing 2-4 inches tall, it’s great for planting in between stepping stones and around footpaths.

  • USDA hardiness zones: 6-9
  • Sun exposure: Can tolerate full sun, but prefers partial shade
  • Soil needs: Well-drained, moist, acidic-to-neutral soil
  • Foot traffic: Low to moderate
Pros of Corsican mintCons of Corsican mint
✓ No mowing
✓ Repels pests (such as rodents)
✓ Refreshing peppermint aroma when stepped on
✓ Strong mint flavor (used to make creme de menthe)
✓ Medicinal uses (a great antiseptic)
✓ Does not grow as aggressively as other mint varieties
✗ Cannot tolerate heavy foot traffic
✗ Requires regular watering; not drought-tolerant
✗ Cannot handle cold winters
✗ Toxic to dogs in large amounts
✗  Invasive in the Southeast (check with your local extension office before planting)

4. Ornamental grass

Ornamental grass is an eye-catching, low-maintenance ground cover that can give your lawn texture and depth. It’s especially perfect for homeowners in hot, drought-prone regions. 

Though most ornamental grasses thrive in heat and full sun, there are also varieties (such as tufted hair grass) that grow well in cooler, wetter regions with partial shade. Many ornamental grasses stand over 3 feet tall, so they give your lawn some dimension and can nicely frame your door and windows.

  • Feather reed grass touts the Perennial Plant Association’s title of “Plant of the Year 2001” as “one of the most versatile, attractive, and low-maintenance ornamental grasses.” 
    • Its glossy, deep green foliage stands 2-3 feet high, with flower stems that grow 5-6 feet tall.
    • USDA hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Fountain grass is another favorite among homeowners. It is characterized by graceful arched leaves which sway in the breeze. Fountain grass thrives in warm weather and full sun, and it can tolerate drought.
    • Fountain grass grows 1 to 4 feet tall, depending on the cultivar.
    • USDA hardiness zones: 4-10
  • Little bluestem is a fringey, broom-like grass that’s guaranteed to give your lawn a distinctive style. If you have a steep slope or hilltop where other plants cannot grow, little bluestem will save the day. It’s a great choice if you live in a dry, prairie environment with plenty of sun.
    • Little bluestem grows 1 to 3 feet tall.
    • USDA hardiness zones: 3-10
Pros of ornamental grassCons of ornamental grass
✓ Gives your lawn visual appeal 
✓ Resists insects and diseases
✓ Controls erosion
✓ Many ornamental grasses are drought-tolerant or drought-resistant
✓ Height offers visual appeal
✗  Needs watering and seasonal trimming
✗ Cannot handle heavy foot traffic
✗ Some ornamental grasses require fertilizer
✗  Some ornamental grasses are invasive (check with your local extension office before planting)

5. Clover

Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens) is a superpowered legume that will control weeds, prevent erosion, and decrease the need for herbicide and fertilizer. With clover, you can turn off the mower and enjoy a butterfly-filled lawn — and keep a whole lot of green in your pocket. 

  • USDA hardiness zones: 4-9
  • Sun exposure: Full sun to partial shade
  • Soil needs: Cool, moist, loamy soil; can also tolerate clay and silt soils
  • Foot traffic: Moderate

Combine clover with other grasses or ground covers. Clover fixes atmospheric nitrogen into soil fertilizer to give grasses more nutrients and help them resist diseases. 

White clover spreads horizontally and grows 4-8 inches tall. Red clover produces lovely purple flowers and grows slightly taller, but it’s not the best spreader. Microclover blends well with other grasses, but it produces fewer flowers and is more expensive than regular clover varieties.

Pros of white cloverCons of white clover
✓ Little mowing and watering required 
✓ Will spread across large areas
✓ Decreases need for fertilizer and herbicide
✓ Fixes soil to fertilize other plants
✓ Inexpensive
✓ Reduces soil compaction
✓ Fairly drought-tolerant
✓ Pollinator-friendly
✓ Stays green all summer except in extreme heat
✗ Needs frequent watering when establishing
✗ Needs reseeding every 2 or 3 years
✗ Cannot handle consistently heavy foot traffic
✗ Should be grown with other plants for best results
✗ Does not thrive in arid environments
✗ Can look messier than a turfgrass lawn

6. Moss

In cool, shady areas where other grasses fail to grow, moss will save the day. Sheet moss (Hypnum imponens) is an increasingly popular no-mow grass alternative. It forms a dense mat in areas with moist, acidic soil and low to moderate foot traffic. When you need an evergreen spreader that will stay low to the ground, sheet moss is a springy, soft solution.

For higher-growing moss that looks more like grass and can tolerate high foot traffic, go for big star moss (Atrichum undulatum) or slender starburst moss (Atrichum angustatum). They’ll flourish in shady, moist areas under trees, near rocks, and by pathways. 

  • USDA hardiness zones: 3-10
  • Sun exposure: Partial sun to full shade
  • Soil needs: Cool, moist, acidic soil; can grow well in wet clay soil
  • Foot traffic: Moderate to high (depending on the moss variety)
Pros of mossCons of moss
✓ No mowing or fertilizer required
✓ Thrives in the shade
✓ Grows well in compacted clay soil
✓ Reduces erosion
✓ Some mosses can handle heavy foot traffic
✗ Requires watering
✗ Does not grow well in drought conditions
✗ Most mosses cannot handle prolonged direct sun
✗ Slow to spread

FAQ about ground covers

1. I want a no-mow lawn. Should I plant ground cover or a no-mow grass-like fine fescue?

Ground cover and fine fescue are both excellent no-mow options. Your decision depends on your lawn’s aesthetic, foot traffic, sunlight, and soil profile. 

Aesthetic: If you want a more traditional lawn, hard fescue or a fine fescue seed mix is the way to go. Hard fescue and certain no-mow blends (like No-Mow-Lawn, Eco-Lawn, and Let It Grow) will give you a green carpet look without the mowing. If you’d like more variety and some pops of color, choose ground cover. 

Foot traffic: Fine fescues tend to be more tolerant of foot traffic than ground covers, but sedum, moss, creeping phlox, and creeping thyme are good ground cover options for moderate foot traffic. Note that neither fine fescues nor ground covers are as durable as tough turfgrasses like Kentucky bluegrass or perennial ryegrass. 

Sun exposure: For highly shaded areas, you can opt for the shade-tolerant creeping red fescue, but you may want to choose a ground cover instead that matches your specific area’s needs.

Soil: Fescues thrive in most yards, but they usually don’t do well in clay soils. You can amend your soil and stick with fescue, or you can plant ground cover specifically suited for clay, like moss or clover. 

2. When should I plant my perennial ground cover? 

In general, homeowners in cooler regions with frigid winters should plant ground cover in spring. Homeowners in warmer regions with rainy winters should plant in fall. It’s best to follow your perennial’s planting instructions. You also can call your local cooperative extension office with questions for your specific region. 

3. How long does it take moss to grow? 

It takes moss approximately five to six weeks to begin thriving on its own. Depending on the moss variety, it can take as long as two years for moss to fully mature. 

If you need ground cover, we have you covered

There are so many ground cover options to choose from, it can be confusing. If you need help deciding, call a local lawn care pro to get your ground cover into the ground, growing and glowing.

Main Photo Credit: uacescomm | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

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