green ice plant ground cover for san diego drought tolerant gardens
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Ground Cover Plants: San Diego Beauties that are Drought Tolerant

When we first moved to San Diego we were the most impressed with the amazing ground cover plants along the roads and hillsides. This may be a low-water area, but the ground cover here is stunning.

The best ground cover plants in San Diego are drought-tolerant species that thrive in poor soil, grow well on slopes, spread well, and come in a huge variety of colors, shapes, and sizes.

Best San Diego ground cover plants:

  • Ice Plant
  • Lantana
  • Ivy Geranium
  • Rock Rose
  • Verbena
  • Woolly Thyme
  • Fescue
  • Creeping Rosemary
  • Pig’s Ear Plant
  • Red Carpet
  • White Clover

Any ground cover we use here in San Diego has to tolerate heat, dry conditions, and allow for full sun (the majority of the time). This article will cover a great variety of plants that are good spreaders.

These include ground covers with flowers, succulent cover, unique foliage colors, lawn replacement choices and a few others. We hope you’ll be inspired to try a few of these in your yard or garden.

ice plant trailing on rock with red flowers - San Diego ground cover that's drought tolerant
Trailing ice plant.

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Flowering ground cover for sun

Ground cover with flowers that also tolerates full sun can be a tall order. Luckily for San Diegans, we have a great variety of species that offer wonderful color, ground coverage, and drought tolerance.

Ice Plant — For a cheerful and vibrant ground cover that’s fast spreading, look no further than the many varieties of ice plant. 

These drought-tolerant plants for San Diego hillsides cover our road-side hills beautifully and add splashes of color in many residential landscapes as well. Ice plants have cheerful daisy-like flowers in almost every color.

Ice plant ground cover craves heat and sunlight and will withstand quite a bit of abuse. Very little watering is required, and it grows in almost any soil type. Just make sure there’s some drainage since ice plants are not thirsty plants and won’t appreciate standing water. 

bright green leafy lantana bush with orange yellow flowers in full bloom
Spreading lantana in bloom.

Lantana — This show-stopping butterfly magnet comes in many bright colors and spreads nicely. Stick to the trailing variety for a good ground cover (as opposed to the kind that grows into a bush). 

With colors ranging from bright yellow, purple, white, orange, and a sunset mix that’s equal parts bright orange and yellow (our fav!) … there’s a color for any preference. 

Loves heat and full sun while not requiring a lot of water. During the heat of summer it will appreciate water a couple times per week. 

Ivy Geranium —  We see this stunning ground cover everywhere in San Diego. Hillsides, apartment complexes and botanic gardens love this one for its lovely flowers that bloom most months of the year while requiring very little water.

Speaking of using very little water …

Have you tried or seen a flexi-hose?! I’m in love with mine. It isn’t heavy and takes up sooo little room. It doesn’t kink either. Perfect for small spaces like we have here in San Diego!

Here’s a quick demo … and then back to the discussion about these wonderful drought-tolerant plants! 🙂

This flexi-hose is the bomb!

Only a foot tall or so, with mostly blooms in shades of pink (but white and red varieties can be found as well), it’s a fast grower and perfect for spreading as a groundcover. It’s an easy keeper that likes full sun and occasional watering once established. 

Rock Rose — There are many varieties of the rockrose, and depending on how low to the ground you like your ground cover, you’ll need to find the right one to your taste. The most showy variety is the Orchid Rockrose. Its beautiful bright pink/purple blooms have a deep magenta design right near the yellow middle.

Much like the unique colorings of pansies, these rockroses are a stunning addition to a hillside or garden that needs a very low maintenance flower with drought resistance and a sun-loving disposition.

green spiky groundcover with light purple verbena flowers
Verbena in bloom.

Verbena — Moss verbena (and other varieties) are perfect as a groundcover and are a really colorful addition to rock gardens as well. They’re low growing at about 5-6 inches tall with delicate green foliage that resembles moss. 

Verbena is drought tolerant, likes full sun, and comes in pinks, reds, and purples. They can also bloom year round in San Diego. A bonus for bees and butterflies around here!

These drought-tolerant flowers are also easy to start from seed. If you have a large area you’d like to cover, seed may be the cheapest way to go.

Plant them very shallow so they get warmth from the sun and they’ll do great. These top quality verbena seeds will carpet your area in a magnificent purple robe of color.

Drought resistant ground cover with unique foliage

Ground cover for dry climates doesn’t have to be boring. You’ll enjoy a wide array that offers spiky blues, silvery leaves, an aromatic fuzzy sort, and special variegated foliage.

Some San Diego favorites are:

  • Woolly thyme
  • Variegated periwinkle
  • Snow in summer
  • Creeping rosemary
  • Blue Fescue

Woolly Thyme — This fuzzy and silvery short-growing plant is great for rock gardens. It also has a slow spread so it won’t get out of control.

It’s great for adding color variety as well as scent to large areas with its lovely gray/green hue and amazing smell. It is in the thyme family, after all.

Big Leaf Variegated Periwinkle (Vinca major) — This ground cover offers something truly unique with its gorgeous variegated leaves in varying colors. Vinca is sure to please in any landscape or rock garden with that special foliage and its carpet of dazzling blue flowers.

green creeping vine with blue periwinkle flowers - good ground cover for san diego
Variegated leaves and purple flowers of Vinca major.

Snow in Summer — A favorite in dry areas. This one is a lush ground cover that’s water-wise and full of silvery/gray pointed leaves. As a bonus, you’ll also get profuse white blooms in spring and summer. Full sun, poor soil, and doesn’t need much water. It’s just about the perfect ground cover for San Diego’s climate.

Creeping Rosemary — There is nothing quite so delicious smelling in the garden as a rosemary plant! The creeping rosemary is no exception.

With its fragrant and tasty needle-like foliage and delicate light blue flowers, this creeper is a friend to bees, butterflies, and people alike. It grows around 12 – 24” tall and spreads from 5-6 feet wide. Creeping rosemary is drought tolerant and enjoys full sun. 

Blue Fescue grass — Fescue makes a stunning groundcover for drought-prone gardens and landscapes. Plant this blue-hued spiky grass that’s low growing (only 1 foot tall) together in clusters and enjoy the evergreen (or bluish) foliage all year round.

blue fescue grass for groundcover in san diego
Blue fescue grass.

Succulent ground cover with flowers

Cotyledon pig’s ear plant — The succulent with the funny name and cute round green leaves with a red rim around the tops. This plant looks great anywhere, and adds a nice pop of color to rock gardens.

They are easy to care for and tolerate heat and very dry conditions. You’ll love the unique pink trumpet-like flowers that hang down from towering stems as much as the bees do. 

Blue Spruce Stonecrop — If you love the look of spruce trees, you will have a ball with this stonecrop ground cover. With unique blue evergreen spiky foliage, this short spreader is perfect for drought-prone areas.

This succulent likes it hot and dry and isn’t picky about the soil as long as it drains well. They produce vivid yellow flowers that are long lasting and good for pollinators. 

Campfire Crassula — A stunning sunset orange/red succulent that starts out green and reddens as it matures. It has small closely bunched waxy leaves that absorb water and enable it to withstand hot and dry climates. You’ll also enjoy white fragrant flowers in the summer.

Yellow green stonecrop ground cover with spiky leaves - succulent for San Diego ground cover
Gold moss sedum.

Succulent ground cover full sun

Red Carpet (Sedum) — Gorgeous petite succulent leaves. This amazing plant starts out burgundy in spring and morphs into blue/green middle with red edging. Best of all, they turn a deep red in the fall. Perfect for adding color to your yard while saving water! 

Hens and Chicks — This cheerful full-sun loving succulent ground cover has bright green leaves and burgundy/red edges. Hens and Chicks grow in a rose-like form with layers of leaf petals. It propagates very well and loves heat and sandy soil. 

Gold Moss Sedum (Stringy stonecrop) — If you like the look and creeping quality of moss, this gold moss sedum will make you smile. Rather than the standard green, this stonecrop variety is a vivid yellow/green. The bright pointy leaves are great for layering various texture and color into a drought-tolerant garden. Loves full sun and sandy soil. 

Drought tolerant lawn alternatives

Kurapia sod — You won’t be able to tell it’s not a “real lawn” unless you let it flower. This sod can be mowed or allowed to sprout little white flowers in spring & summer. It tolerates full sun, dry climate, and sandy soil. Good for only very light foot traffic.

White clover — Soft and resistant to dog urine. White clover produces flowers, but you can keep it mowed if you’d rather have all green foliage. If you love bees like we do, let it flower to provide a great food source. The deep roots of this clover provide great drought tolerance, and it does well in poor soil. It even chokes out weeds. 

bright green clover with white flowers a perfect choice for lawn replacement in San Diego
A field of white clover.

Creeping Thyme — This herb-related species has a great earthy fragrance like its herb-cousin thyme and can sometimes be used in cooking as well. With abundant soft leaves that can handle light foot traffic, it’s also a popular lawn replacement. You also get abundant lavender colored flowers that bees and butterflies will love. 

Red Creeping Thyme — In San Diego, this reddish/pink variety is quite popular. Don’t take the “red” in the name too literally. This variety of spreading thyme groundcover is more a hot pink than red.

Otherwise, there are lavender and white varieties as well. Depending on your color scheme and preferences, whatever you choose will look fabulous in a water-wise yard of any kind.

Creeping thyme only grows about 3” tall and spreads nicely. It’s not picky about soil type and only needs watering about every 10 days once established. This groundcover definitely prefers dry soil to wet.

If you’re wanting to cover a large area, you might consider seeding it. Creeping thyme seeds may start slower at first, but since you have control over where you spread them, they’re sure to fill in well. Plus you’ll save money with seeds over buying several plants in a pot.

We like the quality of red creeping thyme seeds from this seller on Etsy.

If you prefer live plants for smaller areas like a rock garden, there are creeping thyme plants in pots that come ready to go.

Planting a few tiny pots is faster than growing from seed when you don’t need a large quantity. Get these beauties right into the ground for instant satisfaction.

Drought tolerant ground cover you can walk on

UC Verde Buffalo grass — You won’t miss your traditional lawn with this fine, soft-to-the-touch grass. Buffalo grass is extremely drought tolerant and does well in heat.

With less water, it can go dormant in the winter and turn a golden wheat color. Holds up well to foot traffic. 

Native Bentgrass — This native grass is very drought tolerant and holds up to low impact foot traffic. It offers the bonus of thriving in full sun but it can tolerate part shade in case your yard has a bit of both.

This grass is a dark medium green and is quite east to keep. It’s also fine with being mowed on the short side if you prefer it to look more like a standard lawn.  

Products mentioned in the article:

Flexi Hose: this hose is the absolute bomb and I’ll never have another type. It stretches and shrinks really small, is light and won’t kink!

Wand sprayer for hose: this sprayer has great reach and eight adjustable spray settings. Perfect to pair with the hose.

Verbena flower seeds: these are a beautiful addition to any area you want color & drought tolerance in your yard! Bonus — monarch butterflies LOVE verbena. <3

Wild creeping thyme seeds: a gorgeous lawn alternative that spreads very well and holds up to light foot traffic.

Wild creeping thyme plants in pots: when you don’t have much ground to cover, you can get live plants in pots to enjoy your plants faster!

Conclusion: San Diego ground cover plants

We hope you were pleasantly surprised with the variety of ground cover that thrives in our climate here in San Diego. There’s a spreading plant (or three!) for any area you’d like to cover or add interest to in your outdoor spaces.

Try various groupings of flowering and non-flowering or arrange a focal point rock garden. They sky’s the limit with a growing season and beautiful weather like ours!

Great companion posts in our gardening series include:


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