Ground cover plants are useful in Southern California since there are many properties with expanses of open land or large or small hillsides that need to be protected to avoid erosion. Low water use is becoming more critical, and using lawn as a filler has become expensive, labor intensive and a poor ecological choice. Drought-tolerant low-growing plants can make excellent lawn replacements. So here are some plants that are easy to grow and maintain, available, and good choices to help create beautiful garden styles in our climate.

Select the right plants for the right location. Moisture lovers will have a hard time living on hillsides as water tends to wash down the hill rather than penetrating. Good ground covers for hills should have tenacious roots and handle our summer drought conditions. Here are some suggestions for easy ground cover plants for Southern California landscapes.

pink iceplant

This larger form of ice plant is ideal for hillsides, but where steep, can become a heavy carpet that pulls away from the soil. In some areas it can also be invasive.

Although the beleaguered ice plant has lost its magic due to being overused, it can still be a good choice for some hillsides.Many types of iceplant will not tolerate the winter frosts of inland or higher elevation properties, but the usual purple-pink variety (Delosperma) is probably the most cold resistant. If you live closer to the coast you’ll have a much wider choice of colors and varieties. 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. (Large blankets also can get top-heavy and slide down the hill.)

Another good plant for hillsides is the Myoporum parvifolium. It will give you a rich green low-growing cover, snowy with small white flowers in the spring. This one handles areas that get light frosts and hot summer sun.

mass of vinca minor

Vinca can form a close mat with lively purple flowers or it can cascade down a wall in long strings.

Vinca minor also offers a very low profile and blooms with more showy purple flowers. Although it prefers a little shade in the hottest sun areas, it usually thrives in full sun in most of Southern California. In the hottest locations it prefers a tad more water, too. It is slower growing but better behaved than its cousin, Vinca major.

For coastal areas or inland shade try the Cerastium or Snow in Summer plant. It spreads its soft blue-hued leaves over the ground to and clothes itself in white flowers in spring. The effect is a gentle, cooling carpet that is welcome in our dry, hot climate.

Lantana is another popular plant to use for ground cover. There are various colors of these spreading plants that offer single or multiple colors in the flower clusters. They are good for hills and flat areas and are attractive planted singly with other border flowers. Lantanas do not like frost, but are happy in sun or partial shade.

lantana flowers

Multi-colored flower clusters of a lantana plant

Two very tough ground cover plants for poor soil areas and hot sun are the Salvia ‘Bee’s Bliss’ and the Salvia ‘Terra Secca. Both are bred from native chaparral sages so they will require very little watering or care once established. S. ‘Bee’s Bliss’ has soft grey foliage and spires of blue flowers whereas the S. ‘Terra Secca’ has less showy white spikes of bloom but pebbly, rich green leaves that don’t fade even in the heat of summer. Both are quite frost tolerant.

For more suggestions for good ground cover plants for Southern California gardens, check part 2 of this same article. Or feel free to offer some suggestions of your own as a comment in this blog.