The best ground cover for all soil types

Updated April 17, 2017

Ground covers are great plantings for land not planted to grass. Most are very low-maintenance once they are established, and all are beautiful. While almost any ground cover will do best in evenly moist garden soil with a neutral pH, it can be challenging to find ground covers that thrive in acidic and alkaline soils, very wet or dry locations, and sandy or clay soils. However, some ground covers thrive in these specific conditions.

Acidic Soil

Gardeners who grow holly and pine will need ground covers that thrive in acidic soils. Liriope, called lily turf, is a tough evergreen plant that does well in this soil. There are several varieties, most growing less than 14 inches tall and in shade to full sun. This plant tolerates wet soil and humid conditions, sandy soil and salty seaside conditions, and will handle some foot traffic. Asarum europaeum, also called European ginger, is an evergreen plant with glossy leaves that prefers acidic soil. It also prefers shade and highly organic soils, and is hardy to Zone 4. Asperula odorata, or sweet woodruff, is a low-growing ground cover that prefers acidic soil. It will tolerate dry shade and seaside conditions. Generally, deer do not eat sweet woodruff.

Alkaline Soil

It can be difficult to find plants that thrive in alkaline soil. Gardeners often have to experiment to find the right plants for the location. Gypsophila repens, like its tall version, is often called baby's breath. Gypsophila prefers a slightly alkaline soil and sunny location. It tolerates a hot, dry site; grows well in sandy soil; and is hardy to Zone 3. However, it does not fare well in high humidity.

Sandy Soil

Light, sandy soils are often found in hot areas or near the sea. Many ground covers thrive in sandy, quick-draining soil. Sedums grow well in sandy soils, and there are many varieties available. Some hug the ground, while others grow to a foot in height. Many are evergreen, cold hardy and tolerant of seaside conditions. Most prefer hot, dry sites. Artemisia is a grey- or silver-leaved perennial that thrives in sandy soil, and many varieties are available. Silver Brocade grows only six inches tall, and Silver Mound grows to about one foot. Artemisia prefers full sun and thrives well in hot, dry sites.

Clay Soil

Clay soil is very heavy and dense, and sometimes does not drain easily. Although it is rich in nutrients, it can be a difficult soil for many plants. These ground covers can thrive in clay soil: Viola, or violets, are beautiful as ground covers, and their purple flowers are a spring bonus. These easy-going plants can be grown in shade or sun, and will accept some foot traffic. They have no difficulty with wet soil or humid conditions, and are hardy to Zone 3. Astilbe has fern-like foliage and plume-like flowers. It does well in clay soil. This ground cover requires a lot of moisture, and will be happy in wet conditions. It grows grows best in partial shade and attracts hummingbirds and butterflies.

Wet Soil

Most plants do well in evenly moist soil, but relatively few tolerate wet soil. Many plants are susceptible to root rot when planted in wet ground. A few ground covers, however, actually thrive in wet conditions. Asarum canadense, or Canadian wild ginger, is excellent in very moist to wet soil and a shady location. It grows four to six inches tall. It naturalises well and is hardy to Zone 3. Hakonechloa macra, or Hakone grass, grows well in light shade and very moist soil that has high organic content. This perennial has bamboo-like foliage, grows 12 to 18 inches tall and is hardy to Zone 5. The Auriola cultivar has golden foliage. Sagina subulata, or Scotch moss, prefers moist to wet soil and light shade. This mat-forming ground cover grows less than an inch tall and is hardy to Zone 5. It is often planted in the spaces between stepping stones.

Dry Soil

Most plants hate dry soil, especially when combined with heat, and are likely to wither quickly in those conditions. However, a few ground covers do well in dry locations. Euphorbia polychrome, or cushion spurge, grows up to 18 inches tall in dry soil and is drought tolerant. It prefers full sun and is hardy to Zone 4. Thymus serpyllum, or creeping thyme, cannot tolerate wet locations but does well in dry soil. This perennial prefers full sun and is hardy to Zone 4. Because this low-growing perennial hugs the ground, it is often planted in pathways. Juniperus, or juniper, has many species and cultivars, some of which grow only six inches tall. This needled evergreen does well in dry soil and prefers full sun. It is hardy to Zone 3.

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About the Author

Lou Paun has been a freelance writer focusing on garden and travel writing since 2000, when she retired from a career as a college teacher. Her interest in gardening and the history of gardens began during a sabbatical year in England and she is now a master gardener. She holds a Master of Arts from the University of Michigan in history.