Living ground cover is a catch-all phrase for a lot of low growing plants grown together to literally cover the ground. In most landscapes there are areas that need general soil coverage. You might want to replace a water-hungry lawn with another green alternative, maybe even one that can take a little foot-traffic. There are also areas that look best with low-growing plantings. And sometimes there is only room for low plants to grow. Whether you are looking to cover a large expanse of ground or just to fill in an odd spot, there is bound to be a ground cover plant that will work just right for your Los Angeles landscape needs.
Lawn is actually a ground cover since it (surprise!) covers ground. Even gravel, bark and pavers are technically ground covers and these non-living varieties are wise choices to fill in areas for beauty, usefulness and cleanliness on larger properties. But here is some information about the living ground covers that grow happily to fill in between regular garden denizens, the non-living, and open areas.
Ground covers need to be chosen for the right location. Moisture lovers will have a hard time living on hillsides as water tends to slip down the hill rather than penetrating. Good ground covers for hills should have tenacious roots and handle some drought. Although the beleaguered ice plant has lost its magic due to being overused, it is still a good choice for hillsides. By the way, if you’ve ever tried to walk on it – especially on a hill, you will know why it’s called ice plant! There are many varieties in many colors, though the usual purple-pink variety (Delosperma) is probably the toughest for more demanding locations. One way to create more excitement with ice plant is by planting it in patches along with another ground cover so it creates either a design, or natural looking flows rather than the big flat blanket style used so often. Another good plant for hillsides in Los Angeles city and county is the Myoporum parvifolium. It will give you a rich green low-growing cover tickled with small white flowers in the spring. This one handles areas that get light frosts and hot summer sun. Vinca minor also offers a very low profile and blooms with more showy purple flowers. Although it prefers a little shade, it is occasionally seen doing perfectly well right out there in our hot sun. In the hottest locations it prefers a tad more water.
On the coast , or inland — If you do have some dappled shade –, there are some very colorful choices available for hillside or flat. Cerastium (Snow in Summer) has bluish green soft little leaves and riotously happy white flowers that create a light, cool gentle-looking carpet. Ceratostigma (Dwarf Plumbago) grows to about 10” in height with deep green leaves and shockingly blue flowers that echo the shape of real plumbago blooms (pictured above). This plant can be grown by itself in the garden or used as a larger ground cover. It spreads by runners and puts on a wonderful show from early spring ‘til autumn when the leaves turn a glowing autumnal red. Then it virtually vanishes for the winter, returning to do its cycle all over again in the springtime.
The old standby, creeping rosemary (rosmarinus o. prostrates) is a sure thing to fill in almost anyplace in full sun. R. ‘Collingswood’ is a variety that will give you brighter colored flowers. For one of the most intensely colorful prostrate varieties R. ‘Irene’ can’t be beat. Rosemaries are easy, low-maintenance ground covers for most any area, doing well even on difficult soils, however, they do draw bees, so you might want to think twice before using too much rosemary close to bathing areas. Another benefit of planting rosemary is that even the most decorative variety will serve well for cooking. And if you have wandering pets on your land, they just might return to you smelling wonderfully herbal after meandering around your property!
Verbena comes in not only a choice of colors, but a selection of varieties. There is the annual verbena that allows you to choose almost any color you want, but only for the short life span of any annual. Or there are perennial versions of reasonably drought-tolerant verbena usually seen in lavender colors. Verbena tenuisecta is a tougher variety, also in the lavender purple color range. Verbena rigida, with its slightly taller and more course appearance is tougher still. This latter variety is very drought-tolerant and will do well in full sun, sometimes becoming mildly invasive with a little extra water. It runs with underground roots and pushes its rough-leaved shoots between other plants to show off its bright purple flowers over a long season. Verbenas are ideal for water conscious landscapes in the Los Angeles area.
You can always find the ubiquitous gazania daisy in affordable flats as a ground cover for large areas. The interior kalidescopic designs are fascinating and they do come in a wide assortment of colors. Other ground covers may be less colorful, like using creeping red fescue to give a long shiny green-grass effect, particularly effective on hills. Flat areas can be seeded with mixed low-growing wildflowers to create meadows. Low growing succulents like some small sedums as well as the low mounding blue grass of the Festuca ovata glauca are drought tolerant and work wonderfully in Southwestern, Cactus or natural styled gardens. Some of the prostrate junipers will give you evergreen coverage that will require hardly any upkeep.
Ground covers can also be planted in pots and boxes. Using these creepers and trailers creates green and color to spill over the sides. This same concept can also be used to soften the top edge of a retaining wall. The Calibrachoa (Million Bells) is a miniature perennial petunia that offers bright reds, purples and deep yellows. Bacopa dangles soft leafy green stems studded with little white or purple flowers. Ivy geraniums fill in bigger areas with reds, pinks and whites. They can ramble over hills and rough areas as well as dangling down from window boxes or overflowing pots. The Santa Barbara daisy (Erigeron) is a delicate little daisy that will also work well for pots or protected areas.
Consider some of the low-growing thymes or the yellow-flowering dymondia to fill in between stepping stones or flagstones. You can plant drifts of different plants to cover large areas. And feel free to mix different sized plants to get a rolling feel to a design. You might want to use several different plants with various colored foliage, or different height plants that all bloom with similar colors. Some, like many achilleas (yarrows) and salvias tend to grow a little taller, and some, like ice plants and thymes are ground-huggers.
There are many more living ground cover plants available that can enhance a Los Angeles landscape. The style of your garden, your personal taste, your micro-climate, budget and the availability of material will all influence your choice.