Forget mulch: Fill gaps in the garden with these great groundcovers

Team Osh Guest Blogger Paul Lee Cannon:

“Who doesn’t love a freshly mulched garden? Besides giving a landscape a beautiful finishing touch, a top layer of mulch (typically wood chips) conserves moisture, keeps weeds at bay, and even improves soil health. But I have to admit I’ve been slowly weaning off mulch the past couple of years because I’ve found a more gratifying alternative, one that doesn’t require lugging heavy bags. It’s called “overplanting.” Basically this means covering as much soil in the garden as you can within reason. The result is fuller, variety-filled planting beds and loads-less stress on your back. I curated this list of easy-to-grow plants that in my experience make fantastic groundcovers and that can, quite literally, fill in for mulch. Plus, the more plants, the merrier, right? Happy growing!

Stachys byzantina (Lamb’s Ear)
Stachys byzantina (Lamb’s Ear)

Stachys byzantina
(Lamb’s Ear),

USDA hardiness zones 4-9 – The fuzzy gray-green leaves are fun to touch (kids LOVE them) and it spreads out along the ground creating a 4-foot-wide or more wonderful, wooly carpet. Pinkish-purply flower spikes rise above the foliage in summer and attract bees like nobody’s business. Grow in a well-drained spot that receives full or part sun. It requires very little water once established. I started growing lamb’s ear from seed many years ago, and it continues to reliably thrive in my garden in numerous ways. You can use it to soften the borders of the front walk, add textural interest to container plantings, and brighten dark spots. I also plant it between shrubs with dark foliage to create a wavy, ethereal effect which is just gorgeous. This plant is so prolific as a groundcover that this past fall I divided several clumps for sharing and poked some into the parking strip in front of our home, where they are now quickly taking over in a good way.

Salvia leucantha (Mexican Bush Sage)
Salvia leucantha (Mexican Bush Sage)

Salvia leucantha
(Mexican Bush Sage),

USDA hardiness zones 8-11 – Meet my go-to for adding a pop of long-lasting color, filling in bare patches, and planting in tough spots like my multiply mentioned parking strip. I love, love, LOVE this easy-to-grow, drought-tolerant evergreen shrub and for many, many, MANY reasons. It puts out pretty purple and white blooms all year long, attracts hummingbirds, responds favorably to pruning, and covers a lot of ground fast (3-5 feet tall and wide). The narrow, gray-green leaves are handsome as are the upright stems which are covered with white wooly hairs. Plant in full sun for more robust flowering and foliage, then kick back and wait for the hummingbird show.

Cerastium tomentosum flower
Cerastium tomentosum flower

Cerastium tomentosum
(Snow-in-Summer),

USDA hardiness zones 3-7 – If you’ve got a really sunny spot in your garden that needs filling in, pick up a flat of this sweet lil’ evergreen groundcover and dig in. It quickly forms a silvery gray mat of foliage, followed by clustered masses of tiny white flowers come late spring into early summer. It grows 6-8 inches high and wide and spreads faster with regular watering, but is drought tolerant once established. Plant each plug (and lots of them for best, snowiest effect) about a foot apart in well-draining soil. Grow in partial shade if your climate is a particularly hot one. It’s a real rock star in a rock garden, on a dry hillside, and in the company of other plants with similarly hued foliage for a dreamy, monochromatic effect. Now on with the snow!

Eriogonum grande var. rubescens (Red Buckwheat)
Eriogonum grande var. rubescens (Red Buckwheat)

Eriogonum grande var. rubescens
(Red Buckwheat),

USDA hardiness zones 8-10 – This California native perennial plant astounds me. I grow it in dry, heavy clay soil in my front yard, NEVER water it, and it rewards me for my neglect with a dense mound (1 foot long by 3 feet wide) of ruffled, rich-green, oval leaves (white and wooly underneath) and swarms of hot-pink, pom-pom-like flowers from summer to fall. The butterflies love the blooms just as much, if not more, than I do. I harvested last year’s blooms and discovered they make a beautiful, rust-colored dry flower arrangement. Plant this buckwheat in full to part sun, preferably in fall before the rain, then leave it alone. It’s really that easy.

Eriogonum arborescens (Santa Cruz Island Buckwheat)
Eriogonum arborescens (Santa Cruz Island Buckwheat)

Eriogonum arborescens
(Santa Cruz Island Buckwheat),

USDA hardiness zones 7-10 – Here’s another tried-and-true California buckwheat I adore. It’s a fast-growing evergreen shrub with a compact, mounding habit reaching 3 feet tall by 5 feet wide. I grow it in clay soil, full sun, and very rarely water it, but it still responds generously with lots of pale-green foliage and heads of rusty-pink flowers that bloom summer through California winter. You can even give it a go in less light, which will result in darker foliage. I’ve seen it grown in the shade as an underplanting for a tree and it’s still attractive. The casual, meadowy look really appeals to me, plus I appreciate that it responds kindly to the snip-snip of my pruning shears. Care for it as you would red buckwheat. This plant thrives on neglect, too!

Abelia grandiflora (Glossy Abelia)
Abelia grandiflora (Glossy Abelia)

Abelia grandiflora
(Glossy Abelia),

USDA hardiness zones 6-9 – For most of the 13 years I’ve lived in my home, an abelia has beautifully flanked the front steps. This unfussy evergreen has a lovely cascading habit, shiny leaves, and tiny bell-like white flowers. It thrives in full to part sun and there’s no need to water it that much (if at all) once it’s taken root in your garden (an exception to this is if you reside in a hot climate). Abelia grows at a moderate pace, ultimately reaching 4-6 feet tall by 5 feet wide, but is easy to keep clipped back to a manageable size. I love just letting it ramble and cover the ground. Because it does a pretty fabulous job of it.”