The gardens that lined the lengths of my the backyard at my first home weren’t straight. They were long, smooth curves that evoked a welcoming, almost fairy-tale-like feeling. Between the plants were solar lights that lit the garden at night. The plants in this urban oasis were chosen carefully so that everything could be seen and admired. This included a mix of shrubs, tall perennials, low growing perennials, and groundcovers.
When creating your own planted space, the shape and size of the garden will help determine where your plants are placed. You don’t want to choose a gorgeous ornamental grass that reaches three feet tall and have it overshadow a sweet clump of sea thrift behind it. But, if you choose several heights of plants and dig them in strategically, you’ll create depth and interest. In this article, I share some of my favorite low growing perennials. I’ve also included some herbs, because they can be incredibly ornamental, while also cutting back on your grocery bill because you can use them in the kitchen. And, of course, many of these selections will attract bees and butterflies.
What’s the difference between low growing perennials and groundcovers?
I think there’s a difference between low growing perennials and groundcovers, but also a grey area. Groundcover plants are chosen to creep outwards, spreading and filling a space, like a carpet. They tend to be very flat or quite low to the ground. Examples of this would be delosperma, ajuga, Irish moss, and lamium. An exception to this description would be goutweed, which can reach about a foot in height. But it is invasive and not recommended for home gardens. Low growing perennials can have those same ground cover qualities—some in this list veer close. But I’ve tried to choose based on a low height rather than the spread.
Low growing perennials have a more mounding habit, as they call it in the plant world. And while they may expand over the years, they won’t spread tentacles all over the garden. Plus, their shape has more height. These plants can provide depth to a garden, whereas a groundcover’s job is to simply cover the soil and fill in a space. In my garden, a low growing perennial is about a foot/12 inches (30.5 cm) to a foot and a half.
Some of these low growing perennials I mention (like hostas and heucheras) send up flowers in the early summer that reach past that “low” benchmark, but the stems are so thin and flowers on the smaller side, you can see through them to the plant behind. They are not obstructive.
Where to plant low growing perennials
Low growing perennials are perfect plants for a garden border. If you’re creating a formal garden with symmetry, you’ll choose the shorter plants for the outside, adding taller plants as you move inward. They are also unobtrusive, and great choices to plant alongside pathways.
Pay attention to your garden’s conditions when choosing your plants. Does your soil hold more moisture? Is it in full shade or part shade with a bit of sun? All of these elements will help you narrow down your plant list. Be sure to read plant tags carefully.
Low growing perennials for early spring
While I’m waiting for all the mainstay perennial flowers in my gardens to start producing leaves and flowers in May and June, my early- to mid-spring gardens send up little treasures here and there. One such area is my bulb border where I’ve planted a variety of low growing, fall-planted bulbs, like summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum) and striped squill (Puschkinia libanotica).
Another garden around my weeping mulberry features grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum). One of my favorite gardens at the Keukenhof, when I visited, featured a river of grape hyacinth. These short plants are a great way to add a splash of color in the garden. Plant them in front of taller spring flowering bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils.
Primulas are another spring treat. Whenever I get one as a houseplant from the garden center, as a late winter pick-me-up, I’ll plant it afterwards in the garden. Other diminutive spring plants that have magically appeared in my garden via my neighbors include Grecian windflower (Anemone blanda). If you have an area of the garden that takes much longer to dry out, marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), members of the buttercup family, don’t mind moist soil conditions.
Low growing perennial herbs
I grow a wide variety of both annual and perennial herbs. And depending on your planting design, perennials can work quite well in borders. They provide a lovely scent, have interesting foliage, many don’t mind partial shade, and you can use them in your cooking. My favorite perennial herbs include chives, sage, thyme, and oregano. Just a quick warning about oregano… it replicates by spreading and by going to seed.
A few favorite low growing perennials for late spring through summer and fall
I think heucheras are the perfect low growing perennial for the garden. They come in a rainbow of colors and they keep their nice domed shape as they grow. In my article, I refer to them as versatile foliage superstars. While they do flower, the leaves are the reason for adding them to your garden. And they’re hardy down to zone 4.
There are a LOT of sedum options. Some sedums are perfect as groundcover, like my front yard sedum carpet project. Others form a perfect mound, like Autumn Joy.
The spurge in my garden—‘Bonfire’ (Euphorbia polychroma ‘Bonfire’)—provides three-season color. In the spring, it sends up these glowing yellow bracts, then in summer the leaves are a gorgeous maroon hue, gradually lightening to a light red and orange in the late summer through the fall. It is low-maintenance and hardy down to USDA zone 5. Your garden center may feature other equally lovely varieties that are worth checking out.
Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) is a reliable bloomer that is great for the front of a garden, especially if you have tiers because it will cascade over the side. Be careful of what you are choosing because there is also garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), which can reach up to four feet high! This definitely falls out of the range of a small plant. Once those flowers die back, you’re left with a spiky green foliage that provides a lovely backdrop to other plants.
If you have a part sun to shady area, hostas are a great low growing option. Do pay careful attention to the plant tag and the eventual size of your hosta. You don’t necessarily have to go for something miniature, but you don’t want a giant either.
When I expanded my front yard garden, and was trying to figure out different plant heights for the landscape, I purchased a sea thrift with white flowers. It was the perfect short plant for the area where the garden tapered towards the curb. And then when I was writing Gardening Your Front Yard, I admired a lovely fuchsia variety being used as a groundcover in a garden (and had it photographed). The best way to describe sea thrift (Armeria maritima) is a little tuft of vibrant green grass with thin stems holding pom-pom-like flowers.
Even though it’s native to North America, I discovered Lewisia in an Irish garden. That being said, it’s not native to my region, but rather to the western United States. Apparently it’s named after Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark. Plants grow to be just over a foot in height. This drought-tolerant plant with gorgeous flowers loves full sun, and is hardy down to about USDA zone 3. Plant it in well-draining soil.
A few other low growing perennials worth mentioning
- Shasta daisies
- Japanese painted fern
- Lilyturfs (Liriope)
- Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa)
- Bellflower (Campanula)
Find other perfect perennial plants for various areas of your garden
- Flowers and foliage that will stand out in a small garden
- 20 evergreen groundcovers
- Add height to your garden with tall perennials
- Butterfly host plants for young caterpillars
- Deer-resistant perennials
Basil Cox says
I enjoyed your Penn State Extension webinar this morning. You have made a wonderful career of yourself. Fun to see and hear how much you have learned over the past 20 or so years.
Jessica Walliser says
Hi there. Glad to hear you are still gardening. Hard to believe it’s been 20-plus years. Hope you and the family are well. It was a fun, well-organized webinar the PSU folks put on. Happy you could attend. Best, J.