Walkable Groundcovers

Instead of building a solid brick or concrete walkway, consider adding a living path to your landscape. It's easy. Just use stepping-stones and tuck low-growing plants between them for a more natural look. Many mat-forming plants are also tough enough to tolerate light foot traffic. And best of all, some varieties will also release a delightful fragrance every time you brush by. Here's a list of some of our top picks for pathway use.

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    Fragrant and resilient, thyme makes a superb groundcover for sunny spots in your landscape. Tuck it between stepping-stones and enjoy its fresh scent every time you walk by. Some of the best varieties are the nonculinary thymes, such as red creeping thyme, mother-of-thyme, and woolley thyme. All three form dense mats of pretty foliage that will slowly, but surely, cover exposed locations. Another bonus: Thyme is deer- and rabbit-resistant.

    Botanic name: Thymus sp.

    Size: 2-5 inches tall and wide

    Light: sun

    Zone: 5-9

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    Blue Star Creeper

    Brighten shady corners of your landscape with the charms of blue star creeper. This pretty little ground hugger develops masses of pale blue, star-shape flowers in spring and early summer. Use it as a lawn alternative in locations that are too shady to support turf grass. Once established, blue star creeper spreads quickly by underground runners and may become invasive in cool, moist locations. It’s tough enough to tolerate light foot traffic as long as it receives regular moisture.

    Botanic name: Isotoma fluviatilis

    Size: 2-4 inches tall, 12-18 inches wide

    Light: partial shade, sun

    Zones: 5-9

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    Heat- and drought-resistant, sedums make an ideal groundcover for sunny, exposed locations. These tough-as-nails plants require very little attention and are strong enough to handle foot traffic. Tuck individual plants between pavers or look for sedum “tiles” that you roll out like sod to cover larger areas. Sedums come in a wide range of shapes and sizes but short varieties make the best groundcovers. Look for varieties such as ‘Dragon’s Blood', ‘Tricolor', ‘Blue Spruce', ‘Kamtschaticum', or ‘Fuldaglut.' Most also produce pretty flowers in the late summer that will attract bees and butterflies.

    Botanic name: Sedum sp.

    Size: 4-6 inches tall, 12-24 inches wide

    Light: sun

    Zones: 3-9

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    Good things come in small packages! Ajuga, for example, grows just a few inches tall, yet it adds tons of color to your landscape. This easy-care beauty is prized for both its colorful foliage and flowers as well as for its ability to slowly and steadily carpet your yard. It's super hardy and thrives in partial to deep shade. In the spring, ajuga sends up spikes of blue or white flowers atop a base of bronze, chocolate, bright green, or bicolor foliage. Ajuga also thrives in containers.

    Botanic name: Ajuga reptans

    Size: 2-5 inches tall, 12-18 inches wide

    Light: partial shade, sun

    Zones: 4-10

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    Creeping Jenny

    A vigorous trailer, creeping Jenny, thrives in sun or partial shade. Its coinlike golden leaves are the reason this little charmer is commonly called moneywort. Creeping Jenny will grow practically anywhere as long as it isn’t allowed to dry out completely. Plant it in a pathway, rock garden, mixed planter, or window box where it can scramble at will. In the late spring, creeping Jenny also produces quantities of dainty butter-yellow flowers. Creeping Jenny can handle foot traffic and will retain its color through the winter in milder regions.

    Botanic name: Lysimachia nummularia

    Size: 2-4 inches tall, 12-18 inches wide

    Light: sun, light shade

    Zones: 3-8

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    Portulaca, occasionally called moss rose, is so cute that we often let it go wild in our Test Garden® pathways during the summer. It’s a cheerful, sun-loving annual that frequently self sows, popping up in unexpected places that always take us by surprise. The crepe paperlike blooms come in a wide variety of colors, including yellow, white, salmon, red, orange, and bicolors. Portulaca also has bright green needlelike foliage that pops back into place if you happen to step on it. The plants are also drought-resistant and do just fine in light, sandy soil. Portulaca acts like a perennial in frost-free regions.

    Botanic name: Portulaca grandiflora

    Size: 2-6 inches tall, 8-10 inches wide

    Light: sun

    Zones: 9-11

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    Scotch Moss

    At first glance you might not think that Scotch moss is tough enough to take foot traffic. Yet, this golden moss thrives in the sun and bounces right back if someone steps on it. Use Scotch moss in garden paths, rock gardens, or as lawn substitute in small backyards. Scotch moss is also frosted with a pretty layer of tiny white flowers in the spring. The key with Scotch moss is to keep it well hydrated, particularly during summer heat.

    Botanic name: Sagina subulata

    Size: 1 inch tall, 12 inches wide

    Light: partial sun, sun

    Zones: 4-8

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    Dwarf Mondograss

    Forming tight little mounds of bright green foliage, dwarf mondograss is simply spectacular when planted en masse along a path or patio. Plus, you don’t have to fuss over it to keep it looking good. Just plant it in a partially sunny spot and water whenever the soil starts to dry out. Dwarf mondograss grows slowly so there’s no worry about it growing out of control.

    Botanic name: Ophiopogon japonicas

    Size: 4-6 inches tall and wide

    Light: partial sun

    Zones: 6-11

  • 9 of 17

    Creeping Phlox

    After a long, dark winter, the early spring flowers of creeping phlox are a welcome treat. For several weeks these overachievers are almost smothered in blue, purple, rose, white, or bicolor flowers. The plants spread quickly and even when not in bloom, their dark green needlelike foliage keeps them looking good. Creeping phlox requires full sun and well-drained soil. In our Test Garden®, we've had good luck growing creeping phlox on small slopes that drain quickly after rains. The plants are tough enough to walk on.

    Botanic name: Phlox subulata

    Size: 3-5 inches tall, 8-12 inches wide

    Light: sun

    Zones: 4-8

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    Snow in Summer

    Here’s a perennial that truly lives up to its common name. Snow in Summer produces large drifts of tiny white blooms in late May and June atop a mound of spreading silver-gray foliage. Snow in Summer, also sold under its botanic name Cerastium, prefers full sun and well-drained soil, making it a good choice for rock gardens or slopes. Snow in Summer may self-sow but doesn’t generally become invasive. To keep plants looking good, shear them back after flowering. It prefers cooler climates and may suffer in hot, humid climates.

    Botanic name: Cerastium tomentosum

    Size: 6-10 inches tall, 8-12 inches wide

    Light: sun

    Zones: 3-7

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    Many of our favorite perennials started out in a more utilitarian manner. The leaves of soapwort, for example, were once used to make a cleansing lather. Today, however, soapwort is prized for its compact, rough-and-tumble nature and pretty pink, red, or white flowers. Use it along your garden path or tuck it into rock gardens or walls. Soapwort does best in well-drained, slightly alkaline soil. It’s drought- and deer-tolerant.

    Botanic name: Saponaria officinalis

    Size: 6-24 inches tall and wide

    Light: sun

    Zones: 3-9

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    Baby Tears

    Most people think of baby tears as a houseplant or terrarium plant, but in warm, humid regions, baby tears makes a lovely bright green groundcover that works well in vertical gardens, containers, or protected pathways. It’s a tender plant that does best in a shady spot with moist, fertile soil. When happy, baby tears spreads rapidly, forming a mosslike cushion. It can’t tolerate foot traffic.

    Botanic name: Soleirolia soleirolii

    Size: 4-6 inches tall and wide

    Light: shade

    Zones 10-11

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    Occasionally called cup flower, Mazus forms a dense mass of bright green foliage highlighted with lavender, orchidlike flowers in late spring. Mazus grows just 3 inches tall but pacts a big impact when it spreads across the ground surface. It’s perfect for walkways or at the edge of a flower border. Mazus prefers a sunny or partially sunny location with rich, moist soil. This compact beauty grows quickly and tolerates light foot traffic.

    Botanic name: Mazus reptans

    Size: 3-4 inches tall, 8-10 inches wide

    Light: sun, partial sun

    Zones: 5-8

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    No article about groundcovers would be complete without mentioning hens-and-chicks. Named for the baby "chicks" that surround each mother plant or "hen", this delightful plant comes in a wide variety of forms and colors that you can mix and match to create a living mosaic. Hens-and-chicks can be tucked between pavers, in rock or wall gardens, or in containers. They prefer life on the dry side and require a well-drained soil and sunny spot in the garden. If the plants grow too close together, simply transplant the chicks to other locations in your landscape. Even though hens-and-hicks can take a lot of abuse, they don't like too much foot traffic.

    Botanic name: Sempervivum sp.

    Size: 4-6 inches tall

    Light: sun

    Zones: 4-9

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    Corsican Mint

    One of the smallest members of the mint family, Corsican mint grows only ½-1 inch tall, forming thick mats of aromatic foliage. Corsican mint prefers a sunny spot with rich, moist, but well-drained soil, although in warm climates it appreciates some afternoon shade during the hottest part of the summer. Use Corsican mint between stepping-stones so you can enjoy its fragrance every time you lightly step on the foliage as you pass by. In late summer Corsican mint produces lilac flowers that are so tiny they are easy to overlook.  Be sure to keep Corsican mint hydrated when rainfall is scarce.

    Botanic name: Mentha requienii

    Size: ½-1 inch tall, 6-10 inches wide

    Light: sun, partial shade

    Zones: 6-9

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    5 Groundcovers for Shade

    Here are five groundcovers to accent shady spaces.

  • Next Slideshow The Best Perennial Plants for Shade

    The Best Perennial Plants for Shade

    Brighten up sheltered spots in your landscape with these easy-to-grow, colorful shade plants that come back year after year.
    Begin Slideshow »

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