Ground-cover plants

If you want to reduce your garden chores, include some ground-cover plants – they provide an ornamental, dense, weed-proof cover that requires little maintenance.

Plants generally described as ‘ground cover’ carpet the soil with a layer of attractive dense foliage which smothers the weeds. They are robust, steadily increasing in spread. There is a huge range of choice from evergreen and herbaceous perennials, including ornamental grasses and ferns, to low-growing shrubs.

Most colonize ground rapidly or form tight, rounded clumps. Colonizers such as hardy geraniums spread quickly, sending up growth from wide-spreading roots or rooting from stems that touch the ground. Clump-formers, such as hostas, build up more slowly.

Many ground-cover plants have a long and vivid flowering season; others carry handsome berries in autumn and winter. But what really makes all these plants invaluable is foliage; thick enough to starve weed seedlings of light, and with enough variety of colour, texture and shape to create bold statements or delicate effects.

Year-round colour

Evergreens such as Euonymous fortunei and ivy are particularly important in providing year-round cover. Both have a range of silver and gold variegations, leaf sizes, textures and shapes, and are particularly useful for adding a lighter touch in shady places. Some evergreen plants, such as Gaultberia procumbens, take on rich red tones in late summer and autumn. Deciduous plants are less effec-tive than the evergreens in dis-couraging annual weeds, which can germinate before a good leaf canopy is produced in the spring. But they do include some excellent plants, such as lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) and Geranium species. Some, such as hosta, produce such dense roots that, even when dormant, prevent weeds from gaining a foothold.

Ground cover plants

Ground cover plants (Photo credit: wallygrom)

Ground-cover plants must be long lived and able to withstand ordinary winter conditions and spells of dry or wet weather. Any newly planted ground cover needs weeding until the plants become established and knit together.

Established ground-cover plants may need an occasional trim and an annual feed but pruning and frequent feeding are unnecessary. Protect those vulnerable to slugs from early spring on with slug pellets. Most perennials benefit from lifting, dividing and replanting every three years or so.

In open, well-drained or even dry, sunny areas ground-cover plants can include silver and grey plants, such as cistus and he-lianthemums, and aromatic rose-mary and lavender. Ballota pseu-dodictatnnus, catmint {Nepeta x faassenii), Senecio ‘Sunshine’ and Spanish broom (Genista hispani-ca) are all good options.

For sunny spots on sandy, acid soil, heaths and heathers are ideal, and Erica carnea varieties also tolerate slightly alkaline soil. A mixture of heathers can give a year-long flowering season and the colour of the foliage – and even of the dead flowers – extends their interest.

Plants for banks

Banks are often hard to mow but to prevent erosion they need to be well clothed with vegetation. Candidates include rose of Sharon (Hypericum calycinum), prostrate junipers, Mahonia aquifolium, the low-growing cherry laurel, Primus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’ and dwarf bamboo (Sasa veitchii).

Ground-cover roses are vigorous, sprawling, carpeting and rooting as they spread. Older favourites include the prostrate ‘Max Graf, more or less evergreen, with clusters of single pink flowers. Newer varieties include ‘Sussex’, with recurrent, double, soft-apricot blooms.

For very steep banks, in sun or light shade, choose cotoneasters or the evergreen C. dammeri, making a close carpet of glossy green leaves. Bright red berries follow its small white flowers.

English: Peacock, Wisley Summer show of ground...

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General-purpose ground cover plants

The following evergreens grow rapidly and may, in time, become invasive:

Cotoncastersalicifolius ‘Autumn Fire’. A low-growing, semi-evergreen shrub with willow-like leaves. White flowers in early summer followed by red berries.

C.s. ‘Gnome’. A prostrate shrub. Bright red fruits in autumn.

C.s. ‘Skogholm’. A prostrate shrub with bright orange fruits in autumn.

Hedera colchica ‘Dentata Aurea’ and H.c. ‘Sulphur Heart’, syn.

‘Paddy’s Pride, are forms of Persian ivy with variegated leaves.

H. helix var. hibernica(Irish ivy) is a vigorous form of the common ivy, with glossy, dark green leaves.

Hypericum calycinum (rose of Sharon). A suckering evergreen or semi-evergreen shrub, up to 38 cm (15 in) high. Bright yellow flowers in mid-late summer.

Vinca major (greater periwinkle) is a vigorous, trailing shrub, 15-23 cm (6-9 in) high, with blue flowers in spring.

V. minor (lesser periwinkle) which is 8- cm (3-4 in) high, has smaller leaves and a more pronounced trailing habit.

Waldsteinia ternata. A carpeting plant with dark, glossy leaves and small, bright yellow flowers in spring.

The following evergreens have a slow or medium growth rate:

Bergenia ‘Ballawley’ and B. cordifolia ‘Purpurea’. Rhizomatous perennials with glossy leaves and, in spring, clusters of white, pink or red-purple flowers. Cotoneaster micropbyllus. A wide-spreading shrub, 30-45 cm (1-1.5 ft) high. Small, glossy leaves and, in autumn, bright red berries.

Euonymus fortunei ‘Carricri’. There are a number of variegated-leaved forms of this small, spreading shrub. These include ‘Carrieri’, ‘Coloratus’, ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’, ‘Silver Queen’ and ‘Variegatus’. Jiiniperus horizontalis. A prostrate or dwarf, spreading conifer, 8-23 cm (3-9 in) high.

Cultivars, with green, grey-green or blue-green foliage, include ‘Bar Harbor’, ‘Emerald Spreader’ and ‘Giauca’.

J. sabina var. tamariscifolia. A low-growing conifer, 38-45 cm (15-18 in) high, with a dense, mounded, bushy habit. J. x media ‘Pfitzerana’. This wide-spreading conifer, 60-90 cm (2-3 ft) high, has dense branches with drooping tips.

Lonicera pileata. A small-leaved shrub, 45-60 cm (1 V2-1 ft) high, with strong, flat and spreading branches.

Mabonia aquifolium. Growing from 30-60 cm (1-2 ft) high, this shrub bears fragrant yellow flowers in late winter.

Paebysandra terminalis. A shrubby, spreading evergreen bearing spikes of white flowers in spring.

Primus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’ and P.l.

English: Heath ground-cover On a winter's day ...

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‘Zabeliana’. These are small, shrubby forms of the cherry laurel. Both carry attractive spikes of small white flowers in spring.

The following deciduous and herbaceous plants have a medium or rapid growth rate:

Campanula portenseblagiana (syn. C. muralis.) A spreading perennial, 8-10 cm (3-4 in) high, with bell-shaped purple flowers throughout the summer.

Geranium. These hardy perennials, 15-60 cm (6-24 in) high, are clump-forming or spreading. The summer flowers are white, pink, red or blue. Among the best for ground cover are ‘Johnson’s Blue’, G. macrorrhizum, G. procurrens, G. sanguineum and G. endressii ‘Wargrave Pink’.

Hemerocallis species/hybrids (day lily). Clump-forming plants, 45-60 cm high with spikes of lily-like flowers in mid summer.

Hosta. Clump-forming, large-leaved plants up to 4 5 cm (1.5 ft) high. There are many species and cultivars, with a range of leaf shapes and colours and bearing spikes of lily-like flowers in summer.

Nepeta xfaassenii. Clump-forming, with aromatic foliage and bearing lavender-blue flowers in summer. Polygonum affine. Mat-forming, with lanceolate leaves that turn bronze in winter. Short spikes of tiny flowers in summer.

‘Darjeeling Red’, with red flowers, and ‘Superbum’, pink, are good cultivars.

Symphytum grandiflorum (comfrey). Height 15 cm (6 in). Rough-textured leaves and small heads of creamy, pink or blue flowers.

Euonymus fort unci ‘Variegatus’.

Genista pilosa. Height 30 cm (1 ft). Densely-branched, carrying yellow, broom-type flowers in early summer.

Hedera colchica ‘Dentata Aurca’ and H.c.

‘Sulphur Heart’, syn.

‘Paddy’s Pride’.

Hclianthemum (rock rose). Shrubby, evergreen plants, 15-23 cm (6-9 in) high. Several cultivars, with white, yellow, orange or red flowers in summer. Hypericum calycinum (rose of Sharon).

Plants for deep, dry shade, including banks

Galeobdolon argentatttm (Lamium galeobdolon ‘Variegatum’). Long, trailing stems, nettle-like leaves, yellow flowers in early summer. Invasive. Gaultheria shallon. An evergreen shrub, up to I.2 m (4 ft) high, with white or pinkish bell-shaped flowers in summer. Lime-free soil only.

Hedera helix var. hibernica. Irisfoetidissima. Grass-like foliage, 45 cm (1 ½ ft) high. Dull mauve flowers followed by scarlet seeds.

Luzula sylvatica (woodrush). An evergreen rush, 30 cm (1 ft) high.

‘Marginata’ has cream-edged leaves. MAHONIA aquifolium. Pachysandra TERMINALIS. Primus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’ and PA.

‘Zabeliana’. Rubus calycinoides. A prostrate evergreen shrub with small, dark green leaves. Sarcococca humilis. This evergreen shrub, up to 38 cm (15 in) high, has fragrant white flowers in winter. Vinca majorand V. minor. WaJdsteinia TEMATA.

Plants for deep, moist shade

Asarum curopaeum. A herbaceous carpeting plant, 8-10 cm (3-4 in) high, with dark, glossy leaves. Brunnera macrophylla. Herbaceous, 30 cm (1 ft) high, with bright blue flowers in spring.

Convallaria majalis (lily of the valley). The white, bell-shaped flowers, delightfully fragrant, appear in spring. Lamium maculatum (dead nettle). About 8-10 cm (3-4 in) high, with trailing, self-rooting stems and whorls of magenta flowers.

Tiarella cordifolia. An evergreen, up to 15 cm (6 in) high, with spikes of creamy-white flowers in spring. Vancouveria hcxandra. Some 15 cm (6 in) high, this rhiI.omatous plant has delicate leaves and, in spring, long sprays of white flowers.

Plants for sunny banks

Cotoneaster conspicuus ‘Dccorus’. An evergreen shrub, up to 1.5 m (5 ft) high, with arching branches and scarlet berries. C. salicifolius ‘Autumn Eire’.

Plants for steep, rocky banks

Clematis montana and cultivars. Vigorous and scrambling. White or pink flowers in May. C. orientalis has a similar habit, but the bell-shaped flowers, in late summer, are yellow.

Hedera (ivy). There are several kinds, some with glossy green leaves, others variegated.

Loniccra henryi. An evergreen or semi-evergreen honeysuckle, with small yellow and red flowers. L. japonica ‘Halliana’ has white flowers, changing to yellow, that are very fragrant and long-lasting. Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia creeper). A vigorous deciduous climber or creeper, the leaves turning brilliant orange and scarlet in autumn.

Stronger-growing shrubs for the larger areas

Berberis verruculosa. This evergreen shrub, about 90 cm (3 ft) high, bears golden-yellow flowers in spring. Cistus x corbariensis. Up to 90 cm (3 ft) high, evergreen and one of the hardiest of the genus. White flowers in June. Needs full sun.

Genista hispanica (Spanish gorsc). Height 60 cm (2 ft). A deciduous, spiny shrub with yellow flowers in early summer. Hebe rakaiensis. An evergreen shrub, up to 60 cm (2 ft) high, with a dense habit. White flowers in summer.

‘Zabeliana’. Senecio ‘Sunshine’. Growing to 60-90 cm (2-3 ft), this evergreen shrub carries clusters of daisy-like flowers in summer. Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa’. The arching branches of this deciduous 60 cm (2 ft) shrub bear small, greenish flowers in early summer. The leaves are a rich gold in autumn.

Svmphoricarpos x chenaultii ‘Hancock’. A 60 cm (2 ft) deciduous shrub with a suckering habit. The tiny yellow-green flowers are followed by pink or purple berries.

Viburnum davidii. An evergreen shrub, up to 75 cm (2 1/2 ft) high. The white flowers, in summer, are followed (on female plants) by turquoise-blue berries.

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