23 Low Growing Perennials to Elevate Your Landscape Design

Bigger is not always better. In the case of garden design, you need a mixture of different sizes, shapes, and textures to create the most visually appealing and cohesive final product. Shorter plants can be just as crucial as their larger counterparts when used correctly.

Many gardeners opt to fill gaps in their home landscapes with short-lived annuals. But, swapping those out for low growing perennials means they will live for several years, and you can create a lower-maintenance garden without sacrificing aesthetics!

In this article, I’ll share my go-to low-growing perennials plus some of my best tips for how to incorporate them into your own garden.

Low Growing Perennials vs. Ground Cover Plants

These two terms are often used interchangeably, but I do think there’s a clear difference. I consider low-growing perennials to be any long-lived plant that grows no more than a couple of feet tall on average. Ground cover plants fall into this category, yes, but are also defined by sprawling, horizontal growth habits that cover the ground.

All multi-year ground covers are low-growing perennials (there are some ground covers that are annuals). Not all low-growing perennials are ground covers.

23 Low-Growing Perennial Plants for Your Garden

Does your garden seem to be missing something? One of the most common mistakes I see is the use of big shrubs and trees without anything else to balance them out. Smaller perennials can have just as big of an impact (no pun intended), especially when planted at the very front of a bed.

Low-growing perennials are generally super easy to add to an existing garden bed. The only times problems might arise is when trying to fit sun-loving plants amidst large shrubs. You have to be strategic about placement so that shorter plants don’t get choked out.

Another thing to consider is that some larger plants have very robust root systems. If you want to incorporate some of the plants on this list as well, I highly recommend planting everything at the same time before those roots get properly established.

1. Hosta

Hosta spp.

Hosta
  • Average Height: 12-24 in.
  • Hardiness: 3 to 9
  • Light Needs: Partial to full shade

Hostas are reliable foliage plants that can be used to fill even the shadiest garden beds. They come in a variety of sizes, forms, and colours, and can easily be propagated by division as they mature. 

Though primarily grown for their attractive leaves, hostas also produce small, bell-shaped flowers in the summertime. In my own garden, the blooming hostas are a favourite of bumblebees and several other friendly pollinators.

2. Coral Bells

Heuchera spp.

Coral Bells
  • Average Height: 12-18 in.
  • Hardiness: 4 to 9
  • Light Needs: Partial to full shade

Often seen growing side by side with hostas, coral bells offer a surprising amount of colour for a plant whose flowers aren’t remarkably showy. You can find coral bells in shades like bright chartreuse, royal purple, raspberry red, and burnt orange — just to name a few.

The lush, scalloped foliage is reason enough to plant a few coral bells in your own landscape. But some gardeners are also charmed by the thin flower stalks that appear in early summer. 

3. Stonecrop

Hylotelephium telephium

Stonecrop
  • Average Height: 18-24 in.
  • Hardiness: 3 to 9
  • Light Needs: Full sun

Sometimes known as sedum, stonecrop is a succulent-like perennial topped with dense clusters of very small flowers. The most popular variety in most climates is Autumn Joy, but there are plenty of unique cultivars available to home gardeners.

Stonecrops are relatively drought-tolerant, making them excellent candidates for areas with sandy soil that receive direct sunlight. Consider adding stonecrop to your landscape for a low-maintenance pop of fall colour.

4. Astilbe

Astilbe spp.

Astilbe
  • Average Height: 24 in.
  • Hardiness: 3 to 8
  • Light Needs: Full to partial sun

Astilbe is a herbaceous perennial with decorative flower spikes and feathery foliage. It is also known as the false goat’s beard. Though some varieties can grow up to 4 feet tall, most are quite compact.

For the best results, plant astilbe in partial shade. Too much exposure to the afternoon sun can burn delicate flowers and leaves. When planted in the ideal spot, your astilbe will require little (if any) routine maintenance to thrive.

5. Ground Elder

Aegopodium podagraria

Ground Elder
  • Average Height: 12-16 in.
  • Hardiness: 4 to 7
  • Light Needs: Partial to full shade

Ground elder is a member of the carrot family that spreads rapidly via underground stems called rhizomes. Some popular varieties feature variegated leaves, which are more attractive than many other types of ground cover.

Before you plant ground elder in your own garden, take note that it tends to be invasive. Once established, its growth is hard to control, and it may spread to areas you’d rather not. 

6. Daylily

Hemerocallis spp.

Daylily
  • Average Height: 24-36 in.
  • Hardiness: 3 to 10
  • Light Needs: Full sun

Though not a true member of the lily family, daylilies offer a wide range of colour options in a relatively low-maintenance package. The grassy foliage contrasts nicely against other perennials and shrubs that might play a role in your landscape.

Most gardeners are familiar with common orange or yellow daylilies. I strongly encourage you to explore other varieties that may be sold at your local greenhouse. Some daylilies even boast rare flower traits, such as near-black or ruffled petals.

7. Yarrow

Achillea millefolium

Yarrow
  • Average Height: 12-24 in.
  • Hardiness: 3 to 9
  • Light Needs: Full sun

A mainstay of cottage-style gardens, yarrow is sometimes classified as a nuisance weed rather than a low-maintenance perennial. While it does have some invasive qualities, yarrow is a great flowering plant for a number of applications.

I personally recommend planting a yarrow where it won’t easily spread to other areas. It’s very common for yarrow to escape into adjacent turf grass (something that is happening in my own landscape) or meadows. Keep a close eye on it — for good measure — if you live near a naturalized section of land.

8. Woodland Phlox

Phlox divaricata

Woodland Phlox
  • Average Height: 12 in.
  • Hardiness: 3 to 8
  • Light Needs: Partial shade

Occasionally mistaken for creeping phlox (P. subulata), woodland phlox is a native wildflower found in many North American forests. It has distinctive periwinkle blossoms borne atop delicate stalks that usually grow in dense colonies.

Woodland phlox is compact but not quite a true ground cover. It will work best in any shaded bed that you’d like to let naturalize and go a bit ‘wild’. According to the University of Wisconsin, several long-tongued pollinators will appreciate woodland phlox’s presence in your garden.

9. Creeping Phlox

Phlox subulata

Creeping Phlox
  • Average Height: 6 in.
  • Hardiness: 3 to 9
  • Light Needs: Full sun

Also known as moss phlox, this sprawling groundcover is widely available at most garden centres and plant nurseries. It comes in several colours, including white, pink, and bluish-purple.

Unlike woodland phlox, creeping phlox needs full sun. Too little sunlight may affect the number of flowers, which typically form a thick blanket over the foliage in the spring. The needle-like leaves generally blend into the background for the remainder of the growing season.

10. Siberian Bugloss

Brunnera macrophylla

Siberian Bugloss
  • Average Height: 12-18 in.
  • Hardiness: 3 to 8
  • Light Needs: Partial to full shade

Though Siberian bugloss is in no way related to the real deal, its charming blue flowers have earned it the nickname ‘false forget-me-not’. It’s actually very common to find this plant sold under this moniker because the description is so apt!

This perennial loves a variety of growing conditions but will perform best in partial or full shade. Siberian bugloss prefers excellent, moist soil, so you’ll see great results planting it under deciduous shrubs or along the edge of a wooded area.

11. Hellebore

Helleborus spp.

Hellebore
  • Average Height: 12-24 in.
  • Hardiness: 3 to 9
  • Light Needs: Partial shade

For a pop of colour very, very early in the season, you can’t go wrong with a smattering of hellebores. Also known as Lenten or Christmas rose, hellebore is a spring bloomer that often emerges before the last snow has fully melted.

One of the biggest tips I can offer when planting hellebores is to pick a spot that’s shaded by deciduous trees in the summertime. This plant appreciates a good bit of shade during the hotter months but will benefit from the sun it receives in winter and early spring (before those trees put out their annual leaves).

12. Perennial Flax

Linum perenne

Perennial Flax
  • Average Height: 12-24 in.
  • Hardiness: 4 to 9
  • Light Needs: Full to partial sun

Perennial flax is a hardy plant whose stems were once used to make textiles like rope and linen. Today, this perennial is a surprisingly attractive addition to naturalized meadows and home gardens.

The flowers of perennial flax are very reminiscent of a blue phlox but measure up to 1 inch across. You can expect at least two months of continuous blooms during the summer months, with longer displays being possible with adequate shade.

13. Coreopsis

Coreopsis spp.

Coreopsis
  • Average Height: 24 in.
  • Hardiness: 2 to 8
  • Light Needs: Full sun

Commonly called tickseed because of the size and shape of the seeds, coreopsis is a genus of flowering perennials. These plants are native to North America, where they’re some of the most popular wildflowers grown for the benefit of local birds and insects.

Coreopsis flowers are very similar to daisies and usually boast shades of yellow, orange, and red in mixed arrays. They’re incredibly hardy and low-maintenance, including having great drought tolerance, and won’t suffer in poor soil. 

14. Hardy Geranium

Geranium spp.

Hardy Geranium
  • Average Height: 24 in.
  • Hardiness: 3 to 9
  • Light Needs: Full to partial sun

Not to be mistaken for garden geraniums (Pelargonium x hortorum), hardy geraniums are herbaceous perennials within the genus Geranium. Another common name for these flowering plants is cranesbill.

There are several species of hardy geranium native to different parts of the world. A lot of the varieties sold by garden centres are hybrids, though it’s always nice to include a few native plants in your landscape design when possible. Most hardy geraniums form sprawling mounds that choke out competing weeds and create relaxed foregrounds for larger, showier plantings.

15. Foamflower

Tiarella cordifolia

Foamflower
  • Average Height: 24 in.
  • Hardiness: 3 to 8
  • Light Needs: Full to partial sun

This perennial wildflower is native to North America, where it commonly grows in woodland areas. Its foliage is very reminiscent of coral bells’ but the sudsy flower stalks are quite unique.

I recommend planting foamflowers in shaded garden areas, where the spring blooms will be surprisingly long-lived. Though small in stature, the pink and white flowers will have a big visual impact on your garden design.

16. Lungwort

Pulmonaria spp.

Lungwort
  • Average Height: 12 in.
  • Hardiness: 3 to 8
  • Light Needs: Partial to full shade

Lungwort is generally native to Europe and Asia, though a few species have widely naturalized across other regions, including North America. Its underground rhizomes spread gradually to create colonies of interconnected plants.

Lungworts have pink or purple, bell-shaped flowers. The leaves are more visually interesting (and long-lasting), with most varieties boasting white speckles. This is another compact perennial that will happily grow in any woodland-style garden.

17. Columbine

Aquilegia spp.

Columbine
  • Average Height: 24 in.
  • Hardiness: 3 to 8
  • Light Needs: Full to partial sun

These spring or early summer ephemerals are extremely attractive to small hummingbirds and other pollinators. Columbine can provide a valuable food source when other garden flowers are only just starting to bud out.

There are countless varieties of columbine to choose from, many of which boast charming multi-coloured flowers. I’m personally fond of the double-petaled varieties, but keep in mind that these aren’t always the best choice for pollinators.

18. Balloon Flower

Platycodon grandiflorus

Balloon Flower
  • Average Height: 12-24 in.
  • Hardiness: 3 to 8
  • Light Needs: Full to partial sun

The balloon flower is a unique member of the vast bellflower family. It’s named for its large, star-shaped flowers that ‘puff up’ before opening.

Balloon flowers grow in clumps or as singular stems. They are well-suited to rock gardens and cottage-inspired landscape beds. According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, you can cut back the stems in late spring to decrease the overall plant height (this is something I do with my own balloon flowers).

19. Candytuft

Iberis sempervivirens

Candytuft
  • Average Height: 12-18 in.
  • Hardiness: 3 to 9
  • Light Needs: Full to partial sun

Though Candytuft is a small evergreen shrub in warm climates, it is more popularly grown as a herbaceous perennial as far north as USDA Zone 3. Candytuft plants are often described as ground-hugging, growing nearly as wide as they do tall.

Varieties with white, pink, purple, and red blooms are readily available. One thing to note is that the flowers have a sour, unpleasant fragrance. Fortunately, you’re unlikely to notice unless you purposefully take a big whiff. 

20. Dianthus

Dianthus spp.

Dianthus
  • Average Height: 24 in.
  • Hardiness: 3 to 9
  • Light Needs: Full sun

Not all dianthus plants are perennials. Those that are, however, make excellent low-growing filler that matches the cottage-style aesthetic perfectly.

Dianthus flowers are also commonly called pinks. This is not because of the colour (which varies) but because the edges of the petals appear to be cut by serrated pinking shears. The sweet flowers tend to emerge in early spring, before things get too hot and may reappear in late summer or fall.

21. Avens

Geum spp.

Avens
  • Average Height: 12-24 in.
  • Hardiness: 4 to 9
  • Light Needs: Full sun

Avens is a type of low-growing herbaceous perennial in the rose family, and its charming flowers live up to this heritage. Some varieties, especially those in fiery shades of red and orange, also look a bit like poppies.

Avens flowers typically bloom in spring and early summer. They form on thin, delicate stalks that grow out of a mound of dense foliage. The leaves add texture and shape to the garden even when the flowers aren’t active.

22. Bergenia

Bergenia spp.

Bergenia
  • Average Height: 12-24 in.
  • Hardiness: 3 to 8
  • Light Needs: Partial to full shade

You may have heard of this low-growing perennial by the semi-comical name pig squeak. This name comes from the squeaking sound that can be made by rubbing together the leaves of a bergenia.

Odd names aside, bergenia are attractive flowering plants that thrive in partial or full shade. Their clustered flowers come in various shades of pink and red, adding a lovely pop of colour to the spring garden.

23. Creeping Thyme

Thymus serpyllum

Creeping Thyme
  • Average Height: 2-3 in.
  • Hardiness: 4 to 9
  • Light Needs: Full sun

Unlike its close relative, creeping thyme is more commonly grown as an ornamental rather than as an edible herb. Often used as a companion plant, creeping thyme remains incredibly short, acting as a ground cover that can spread a foot or more from its original planting location. All varieties of thyme

The most popular variety of creeping thyme has small, pink flowers. These flowers appear in the summertime and can almost completely cover the foliage below. Creeping thyme is occasionally used as a turf grass alternative and happily grows in rock gardens and other tough terrains.

FAQs Short Perennials and Groundcovers

What is the best perennial for the front of a bed?

For the front of a landscape border or garden bed, you want to use shorter varieties that won’t compete with the plants growing behind them. Some good options include hostas, coral bells, and candytuft. If you have a lot of space to fill, consider a spreading groundcover-like creeping thyme.

Citations

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Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.