• Deer-resistant low growers for the Sierra foothills

    by  • September 24, 2016 • Drought tolerant plants, Plant Profiles

    27 favorite ‘ground covers’

    Growing plants that ‘cover the ground’ means you have something to plant in the front of a flower bed, something for along the edge of paths and, importantly, something that prevents weeds from growing.  You can even ‘create’ a lawn-like area that doesn’t take the maintenance of usual lawn care.

    All these favorites grown in my Zone 7 garden near Oakhurst, where I get snow a few times a year in the winter. This entire list is deer and drought resistant, tried and true. Some bloom in Winter, and many of them are evergreen!


    Creeping thyme and Ajuga

    Creeping thyme and Ajuga


    Creeping thyme along the stone steps

    Creeping thyme and periwinkle blue Swan River daisy, along the stone steps


    Creeping phlox along the path

    Creeping phlox along the path in February


    Bergenia crassifolia in bloom

    Evergreen Bergenia crassifolia in blooms in February!

    Bergenia is one of my favorites because is spreads nicely, is evergreen and blooms in mid winter when you’d least expect it.  It’s easy to dig a small seedling and plant into pots or into a new area.

    Ground covers as lawn replacement

    Lawn replacement by East Bay Wilds Native Plant Nursery

    Lawn replacement by East Bay Wilds Native Plant Nursery, with a path, dry stream and bird bath

    This is an example of how a lawn can be replaced with an interestingly textural combination of low growers. Designed by East Bay Wilds, a nursery in the Bay Area, specializing in California native plants.

    Ground cover gallery

    Here are the best of the best,  hardy to Zone 6…with photos..  complete plant list with Latin names at the bottom

    Plants included in this article:

    And why I like them!

    Artemisia Powis Castle is an ever’grey’ spreading plant that adds a bit of white to the garden.

    Bee’s Bliss sage, Salvia somomensis (CA native) is perfect for covering a dry clay slope.  Looks best in the garden with regular drip irrigation

    Bergenia crassifolia is a favorite since it’s evergreen, and blooms in Winter.  The leaves are as squeaky fresh as lettuce leaves on this easy to grow ground cover. It’s nickname is ‘Pigsqueak!’

    Blue Fescue, Festuca glauca (CA native) is a good option as a lawn replacement.  This easy care clumping grass can be mowed at the highest mower setting

    Bugleweed, Ajuga reptans blooms a beautiful iridescent blue in early spring. This is one flower the deer won’t touch in your garden

    California fescue , Festuca californica (CA native) is an easy care deep green grass that is very drought resistant.  It need not be mowed like Blue Fescue, but if you like, mow it on the highest mower setting.

    Creeping phlox, Phlox stolonifera is a surprise bloomer, the first in the garden in February or early March.  It’s easy to keep edged, but wear gloves,…it’s stickery.

    Creeping Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’ is notable for needing the least amount of water in summer, once a month! The fact that it blooms twice a year and drapes nicely over walls and slopes make it a foothill favorite.

    Creeping thyme, Thymus praecox can replace a small lawn area with ease and can take a bit of foot traffic. It looks best with regular water from drip sprayers in the hot summers.

    Donkeytail spurge, Euphorbia myrsinites will spread by seed throughout the garden and once planted, will pop up in odd places. Dig it out of inconvenient places and trim to keep it full and bushy.  Beware f the white sap and wash hands it you get it on you.

    Firethorn, Pyracantha coccinea makes a sturdy, stickery boundary line in the garden, keeping out trespassers and those who would take a shortcut through your property. Ideal for under an errant teenager’s window! To keep it low growing, trim low and pin the low runners to the ground.

    Geranium ‘Rozanne’ is a fragile, airy looking plant that belies its toughness.  Geranium spreads through underground runners but is well behaved, rather than invasive in any way.  Lovely iridescent flowers cling to slender stems

    Germander, Teucrium chamydroides is an absolute favorite, evergreen, needs little water and blooms in June.  The flowers dry and fall off, rather than it needing deadheading and you can dig a clump and transplant it to spread through a new area in your garden. It’s a fast grower!

    Juniper ‘Blue Star’ or ‘Blue Rug’ is a tough low grower, spreading quickly through a large area. This evergreen juniper will root to the ground where the branches touch.  It has a beautiful color and spiky, piney texture

    Lamb’s ear, Stachys byzantina is an ever ‘grey’ furry-leafed low grower that spreads nicely through underground stolons.  It blooms with insignificant flower spikes so I trim those off in late summer. Lamb’s ear is easy to propagate by laying the seed heads of these trimming down on the ground where you want more.  They will reseed this way with moisture from winter rains.

    Manzanita ‘Emerald Carpet’, Arctostaphylos (CA native) is the one plant I noticed that grows easily on a dry clay bank. Tough as nails, manzanita flowers in spring, has berries in Fall and is evergreen through winter. It’s ideal!

    Pineapple Mint, Salvia elegans, like any mint, has a reputation for being invasive.  Not in the Sierra Foothills,…especially if you plant this in areas that gets only occasional hand watering. The spreading stems can only get through moist soil and has a lovely fragrance when you happen to brush by it.

    Rock Cress, Aubrieta deltoidea

    Rosemary ‘Ken Taylor’ is a semi-upright rosemary with showy dark blue flowers.  It’s ideal for slopes and deer and drought resistant to the extreme.

    Sedum ‘Dragon’s Blood’ is finely textured low growing succulent, ideal for in the ground or in containers.  It turns a brilliant dark red in the winter which gives it its name.

    Sedum ‘Lemon Ball’ is a prolific spreader,…even invasive if well watered.  Ideal for shallow or low containers. Bits will drop from a pot and spread to the ground around it.  It wants to travel.  This succulent tends to die off in places, but gather up the dead stems and it will fill in again. Blooms with yellow star-like flowers in June.

    Small fescue, Vulpia microstachys (CA native) can be seeded into a former lawn area where the lawn has been killed and removed. It need not be mowed and can mix nicely with wildflowers for a meadow area in your garden.

    Snow in summer, Cerastium tomentosum is so lovely, so impressive that when I saw it in a University flower bed, I knew I must have it in my garden.  The grey foliage and pure white, star shaped flowers are lovely! I was happy to find that it’s very deer and drought tolerant.

    St John’s Wort, Hypericum calycinum, bought in a six pak filled an area 10 feet by 10 feet under and oak in my garden.  It needs very very little water and blooms with large starry flowers in late spring.

    Thyme ‘Pink chintz’ forms a low, spreading mat of lacy pink flowers, blooming in May. Evergreen and easy!

    White sedum, Sedum album spread itself delightfully through the garden, blooms in May and fills in every nook and cranny between rocks, making it ideal to grow as an edging in a rock garden. Any Sedum can grow and bloom in the part shade under our oaks.

    Wood strawberry, Fragaria californica (CA native) is an easy, trailing plant that blooms in spring, bears tiny wild fruit and spreads by underground stolons. Grow this in shady areas under oaks and pines.


    Bugleweed, Ajuga, and Creeping thyme are both evergreen and make an excellent combination.

    Bugleweed, Ajuga, and Creeping thyme are both evergreen and make an excellent combination.


    Sue Langley, a passionate gardener and photographer lives and gardens with her husband and Corgi, Maggie on 7 acres just south of Yosemite, Zone 7 at 3000 feet. She also manages the Flea Market Gardening Facebook page and website.