Creeping phlox contours itself to the surface it grows on.

Types of Low-Lying Perennials for Ground Cover

by Cathryn Chaney

Perennials that hug the ground are useful for edgings, borders, and low-relief ground covers between larger plants that will keep down weeds, give interest and require little maintenance. They can grow between stepping stones and spill over pockets in rock gardens. Depending on your choice, they can provide bold color and fragrance, illuminate shady areas, or give flow and texture to unify a diverse planting. Try combining different flower colors of one species to create a rich living tapestry.

1. Colorful Foliage

Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) grows 6 inches tall and has blue flowers in spring and bronzy green foliage. It tolerates shade but has best leaf color in partial to full sun. "Black Scallop" has rounded, scallop-edged purplish-black leaves. "Burgundy Glow" combines white, burgundy-rose and dark green colors in its leaves. Bugleweed grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 10a. Creeping sedum (Sedum species) combines colorful succulent leaves with seasonal flowers. Drought-tolerant plants take full sun and most any well-draining soil type. Hardiness is generally USDA zones 4 through 9, but varies with the species. "Murale" (Sedum album "Murale") has bronze foliage turning red in winter, and "Fuldaglut" (Sedum spurium "Fuldaglut") has reddish-bronze leaves going to red. Many species and cultivars are available.

2. Showy Flowers

Ice plants (Delosperma spp.) are real show-stoppers in spring, when succulent leaves are literally hidden by brilliant large flowers. Only 2 to 4 inches tall, "Firespinner" (Delosperma "Firespinner") has flamboyant red, orange and lavender flowers and is hardy in USDA zones 5 through 10. Combine it with other delosperma varieties that have magenta, pink, lavender and yellow flowers for a stunning display. Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) has low mounding growth 4 to 6 inches high. Dense mats of star-shaped flowers cover the plants in spring in blue, lavender, red, white or pink, depending on the cultivar. Plants grow in USDA zones 3b through 10.

3. Fragrant Plants

Creeping thyme (Thymus spp.) combines fragrant foliage that is aromatic when handled, and has fragrant showy flowers in white, pink, lavender or red. Foliage is bright to dark green, gray-green or silver, and is around 3 to 6 inches high. Hardiness varies with the species, but is generally from USDA zone 4 through 9. Cheddar pinks have tough, silvery-green mounding foliage 6 inches tall, extended to 12 inches when in bloom. Magenta flowers of "Firewitch" have a spicy, long-carrying clove scent and attract butterflies. Heat-resistant plants grow in USDA zones 3 through 9.

4. Evergreen Foliage

Heart-shaped, shiny green leaves of evergreen wild ginger (Asarum shuttleworthii) makes it suited for smaller areas where its texture can be appreciated. Often the leaves are mottled with silver. Brown-purple flowers are generally hidden by the leaves. Slow growing, it prefers part or full shade in USDA zones 5 through 9. The succulent ground cover hens and chicks (Sempervivum species and hybrids) are grown for their evergreen foliage rather than the nodding flower stalks produced in summer. Mounded growth flows over container edges and pockets of rock gardens. "Greenii" (Sempervivum tectorum "Greenii") has red-tipped green leaves in USDA zones 4 through 9, and cobweb hens and chicks (Sempervivum arachnoideum) is covered with white webbing. It is hardy in USDA zones 7 through 10.

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