Six choices for holding the soil when grass won't cut it.

By Steve Bender
February 19, 2019
Credit: Laurey W. Glenn; Styling: Buffy Hargett Miller

The most widely planted ground cover in the world is – surprise – lawn. But there are very good reasons why you might want something other than lawn to carpet the ground. Maybe you hate mowing and fertilizing grass. Maybe you have a big shady area where grass won't grow. Maybe you have a steep slope that's difficult or dangerous to mow. Or maybe you find lawn boring and wish you could put something colorful in its place.

Here are six suitable candidates for you – three for sun and three for shade. In addition to being easy to grow and find, they also root as they spread to hold the soil, and don't need a lot of maintenance. You'll notice I've left out three popular ground covers – English ivy (Hedera helix) and periwinkle (Vinca sp.), because they become invasive weeds, and cotoneaster (Cotoneaster sp.), because most species don't do well that well in the South and often look cheap.

Ground Covers for Sun

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Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum)

This shrub is the prefect choice for covering a slope. Growing about 3 feet tall and 7-10 feet wide, it naturally spills down an incline. Though it loses its leaves in winter, it compensates with evergreen stems. It gets its name from very fragrant, bright yellow flowers that appear in winter. Prune it, if necessary, in spring after it blooms. It grows in USDA Zone 6 to 10.

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Asian star jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum)

Despite its name, which it gets from its creamy-yellow flowers in late spring and early summer, this is not a true jasmine. It is, though, a supremely tough, fast-spreading, evergreen ground that tolerates heat, humidity, and most well-drained soils. It grows about 6 inches high. It will climb if it encounters an obstacle, so keep an eye on that. You'll also have to edge the planting from time to time to keep it in bounds. Deer don't like it. Zones 7 to 10.

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Moss pink aka creeping phlox (Phlox subulata)

You want color in spring? Here you go. Spectacular blue, red, pink, or white blooms smother moss pink's needlelike foliage in spring. Plants form spreading, evergreen or semi-evergreen mats of about 6 inches high. They look great edging flower beds, spilling over low retaining walls, or filling rock gardens. Cut them back by half after flowering. Good drainage is a must. Zones 3 to 9.

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Ground Covers for Shade

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Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon japonicus)

For the look of lawn grass, but not the upkeep, mondo is your plant! It forms blankets of deep green, grass-like foliage from 6 to 8 inches tall that stay green year-round. It spreads by underground rhizomes. Sapphire-blue berries appear among the leaves in fall. It tolerates salt and deer don't eat it. You need to mow it only once a year, in late winter, to remove any winter-damaged foliage. Zones 6 to 9.

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Carpet bugleweed (Ajuga reptans)

Is it a weed? I don't think so, but it does form a fast-spreading carpet about 6 inches tall. Leaves can be green, purple, or variegated with pink and white. They're evergreen in most of the South. Spring sees lovely spikes of blue, pink, or white flowers sitting atop the foliage. It's easy to propagate by separating "baby" plants from "mother" plants. Carpet bugleweed does best in fertile, well-drained soil with good air circulation. Wet soil leads to rot. Zones 3 to 8.

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Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis)

Spreading by underground rhizomes, Japanese pachysandra forms colonies of handsome, glossy, deep-green foliage that stays green year-round. Leaves cluster at the ends of stems that stand 8 to 12 inches tall. Spikes of white flowers appear atop the foliage in summer. It's a great choice for planting under trees. Like carpet bugleweed, Japanese pachysandra prefers fertile, well-drained soil. Avoid wetting the foliage with sprinklers, as this promotes disease. Zones 5 to 8.