If low shrubs come to mind when you're looking for a low-maintenance, small-scale groundcover, take another look at the space you want to fill and consider whether a ground-hugging perennial might work just as well or better.
Low shrubs such as the many manzanita (Arctostaphylos) cultivars under 12 inches tall are widely planted and sold in nearly every nursery. But softer stems and foliage of many creeping, mat-forming perennial species also offer appealing attributes for limited spaces — evergreen appearance, one or more flowering seasons and minimal maintenance.
Dymondia margaretae from the Mediterranean climate of South Africa forms one of the toughest of all soft-stemmed perennial covers. It spreads moderately fast to form a dense mat of green leaves about 3 inches long and less than a half-inch wide.
Each leaf curls just enough at the margins to expose its pale gray underside in tight rosettes set so closely together that no soil is visible beneath.
Even though dymondia colonies aren't considered a lawn substitute, in small areas they accept light foot traffic with no damage whatsoever.
Yellow daisies about an inch wide nestle among the leaves in sporadic bloom throughout summer, but these are a lesser reason for planting dymondia.
The tough foliage cover is the outstanding characteristic, although unseen fleshy roots that reach to great depths underground are a prize themselves.
They allow the evergreen foliage to withstand considerable drought, so much so that no supplemental irrigation is needed once plants are well established. With regular water, however, they respond with faster, lusher growth.