Make life easier with Ground Cover Plants in your Garden

 In Ground cover plants, Hardy perennials, Low maintenance gardening

.Ground cover plants are such useful plants and can make for an easier life.

A few years ago I visited a friend’s garden that was open in aid of charity.

water droplets on Epimedium leaves

Water droplets on Epimedium leaves

This was a very big garden full of lovely things.

It was in the height of summer, when weeds can pose a few challenges if you turn your back for too long!

But this friend was so confident that his garden was in tip top condition, there was a bottle of fine wine for the person who found the weed that he had purposely left!

Showmanship perhaps but his confidence was down to the planting lots of ground covering plants!


Not just for public spaces

Carpeting plants are not just for public spaces and there is absolutely no reason for them to be boring!

Carpet plants are more commonly called ground cover plants and they do exactly that- they completely cover the soil.

Of course, some varieties do it more quickly than others and some are a lot more decorative than others.

I think that the choice of plant to grow will be a personal choice.

Above all I think that it is important to choose a plant that has good foliage since few ground cover plants have flowers or berries for long.

hardy geranium plants

Geranium macrorrhizum

I’m going to exclude most herbaceous perennials from my variety recommendations.

They do have their place and certainly can provide good colour.

Indeed some are so successful, such as Lady’s Mantle [Alchemilla], that they need to be kept under control.

Many hardy Geranium form good ground cover and for a dry shady spot under a tree I find Geranium macrorrhizum varieties indispensable. It’s evergreen too!






Weed Control

Most gardeners plant ground cover plants in the expectation that they will be the answer to all weeds in the garden.

Sadly, this is not the case!

Whilst a dense carpet of foliage will prevent most annual weeds growing, it will not stop the nasty perennial ones that are already established.

So if your beds and borders have couch grass, creeping thistle, dock, bindweed and horse tail in them you will need to get rid of that before planting ground cover plants!

There are plenty of good weed smothering ground cover plants but you have to give them a chance.

a spreading ivy plant

Hedera helix Green Ripple

If you have a patch of the lawn that constantly struggles perhaps a good patch of ground cover plants will look more interesting?

Poor lawns are often due to shade and dryness created by nearby trees and buildings.

Far better to give up the struggle and plant up with periwinkles [Vinca minor], low growing Cotoneaster or even small leaf ivy.

There is no doubt that ground cover plants offer low maintenance and easy care gardening.

So if your life is busy with work, bringing up the kids or you are just finding it more difficult to get everything done in the garden, then ground cover plants are for you!



Wildlife benefits

Gaultheria plants

Gaultheria procumbens needs acid soil

Wildlife, especially so called ‘mini-beasts’, will love your switch to ground cover!

There will be all year round cover for them and that in turn will encourage more birds and other desirable wildlife into your garden.

Some low growing and ground covering plants will suit some garden situations much better than others. That initial choice can make all the difference to success or failure.

So with “right plant for the right place” firmly in mind what else do we need to consider when looking for good ground covering plants?

Well getting the vigour right for your spot is important. And whilst you may want a plant that is going to give that full carpeting effect as a soon as possible, you don’t want it to invade the rest of the garden!


How thickly do I plant?

Coupled with this is getting the planting density right.

My advice here is to not be mean and plant too thinly.

There is an optimum plant density per square yard and this will vary with each variety.

But since these plants are invariably available as younger plants in small pots, the cost of planting ground cover plants will not break the bank. And there is invariably a bulk buy discount available.

Plants required per square metre can range from 3 to 10 but remember to plant thickly if you are impatient for that complete ground cover!

A few deciduous plants make for good ground cover but the majority are going to be evergreen.

Whichever you choose do consider adding a seasonal element by under-planting your ground cover plants with spring and autumn flowering bulbs.

Ajuga ground cover plants

Ajuga reptans Catlins Giant

Many plants will tolerate both dry and wet soil conditions.

But few are really happy in the shade of a tree that sucks all the moisture out of the soil.






Some recommendations

I can recommend the small leaf and low growing Euonymus fortunei forms.

Look for variegated ‘Emerald Gaiety’ [silver] and ‘Emerald ‘n Gold’ [yellow] but the tiny green leaf ‘Minimus’ is superb too!

Small leaf ivy is good here too. Variegated leaf ivy varieties will brighten things up.

a pink flowered strawberry plant

Pretty Pink Panda strawberry

Elephants Ears [Bergenia] is a good standby for both dry shade and full sun.

Some varieties have leaves that change to rich purple and red in winter. The spring pink and white flowers are popular with bees.

Periwinkles are good reliable ground covering plants, both for full sun and shade.

Here is a plant that offers varying leaf and flower colour but I would caution against planting the larger leaf Vinca major versions.

Vinca minor -sometimes found growing wild in our woods- is the species to select from as it remains tidy and low growing.

A green carpet of plants

Pachysandra terminalis Green Carpet

Most commonly planted ground cover plants are not especially fussy about soil acidity.

However one of the best prefers a soil that has at least a neutral pH.

This is Pachysandra and from a steady start it spreads by under-ground roots. And then shoots to form long lasting ground cover.








When is the best time to plant them?

Just like other hardy plants, autumn and winter are good times to plant! But these plants can be planted all year round.

So if you’re gap filling, I hope that you’ll give ground cover plants a go.

And if you’re looking to reduce time you spend weeding these plants could help you.

There’s an extensive list on the RHS website here.  

Winter flowering heathers are good ground cover plants and I’ve written about them here.

If you can get a copy, Graham Stuart Thomas‘ book entitled ‘Plants for Ground-Cover’ is excellent. Although first published in 1970 it is still relevant today!

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