Mention the words ground cover planting in some circles and a flicker book of dull, static planting vignettes starts to roll out, shaped by demands for a robust, amenity response. This may apply when imagination and resources are low, but really there is no justification for it being offered as a generic response to massed planting. What distinguishes ground cover from other forms of planting is the need for dual purpose: beauty and function. Good ground cover must colonise with selected desirable plants, which by their growth and presence preclude seeding and ingress of any undesirable plants – the noxious weeds.
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Like most gardeners, I strive to balance the desire for a beautiful garden and a dearth of time to devote to it. Any techniques that reduce the chore of weeding are welcomed, provided presentation is not unduly compromised. Ground cover appeals in this context, but I don’t see it as a licence to neglect. Despite ground cover’s perception as a labour-saving device, once installed, ground cover planting can’t be left totally unattended. But, with careful selection and grouping, levels of intervention should be light and infrequent.
Below are a selection of ground cover plants that I’d recommend.
Useful evergreen plant that slowly expands to form a dense thatch of strappy, dark-green foliage, perfect for ground cover. Late-season, purple flowers are more abundant in a sunny aspect, although will tolerate dappled shade. Equally at home in formal or informal schemes. 50cm x 30cm. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 6a-10b.
Aster pyrenaeus ‘Lutetia’
Mildew-resistant, persistent and vigorous, even in lean soils. Bears lilac-pink flowers from August to October. Good ground cover to plant with silver aromatics, such as lavender. 65cm x 75cm. RHS H6, USDA 5a-8b.
Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo’
Neat mounds of serrated green foliage frame abundant spikes of rosy-purple flowers from June. If spent flowers are trimmed back, a second ground cover flush takes up the display during September. 55cm x 55cm. RHS H5.
Persicaria affinis ‘Darjeeling Red’
Tolerant of dry conditions in both sun and light shade, this plant with fine, glossy foliage colonises new ground through adventitious roots on running stems to form a dense mat of ground cover. 25cm x 40cm. AGM. RHS H5, USDA 5a-8b. A.
Artemisia stelleriana ‘Boughton Silver’
Silver-felted, oak-like leaves on lax prostrate stems form a dense, low-maintenance carpet of ground cover. Stud with Allium cernuum to add another layer of colour once the yellow flowers die down. 20cm x 40cm. RHS H4, USDA 3a-8b.
Sedum telephium subsp. ruprechtii
Slumped stems bear grey-green foliage, contrasting with flat heads of creamy-buff flowers. In autumn, ground cover foliage turns burgundy and flower heads achieve a gold colouring. 40cm x 50cm. RHS H4, USDA 3a-9a.
Calamintha nepeta ‘Blue Cloud’
Drought-tolerant floriferous plant for gravel, scree or rose ground cover underplanting. Peppermint-scented foliage is topped by a froth of tiny, lavender-blue flowers June to September. 40cm x 40cm. RHS H5, USDA 5a-9b.
Known as the wall daisy, for its capacity to cling to a vertical surface, it will survive in the leanest, driest soil. A prolific, self-seeding habit ensures regeneration, even after cold winters. Ideal ground cover. 30cm x 35cm. AGM. RHS H7, USDA 6a-9b.
Hemerocallis ‘Little Grapette’
This shorter, multi-headed form has a long season of purple flowers and neat, strappy foliage that matures to bright autumnal yellow. Works well in massed effect.
45cm x 50cm. RHS H3, USDA 4a-10b.
Large, grey-green-felted leaves form an expansive basal mound, while hooded, lemon flowers ascend in whorls from June onwards. Attractive winter structure. 90cm x 65cm. AGM. RHS H4, USDA 4a-9b.
Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’
Valuable semi-evergreen form where attractive burgundy veining is prominent on new young leaves. Pale-yellow flowers are held proud of the foliage in April but are secondary to the foliage, which attains an attractive bronzed autumnal colouring for robust ground cover. 35cm x 35cm. AGM. RHS H6-7, USDA 5a-9a.
Hosta ‘Devon Green’
Glossy, elongated leaves of vibrant green emerge in April and expand to form flat circular rosettes. Foliage waxes to glowing yellow in autumn. Tolerant of average soil. 45cm x 50cm. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 3a-8b.
Teucrium scorodonia ‘Crispum’
Sage-like green leaves have attractive tightly crimped margins, giving valuable textural variety for this ground cover option. Durable and distinctive with simple, lime-green flower spikes that stand for many weeks. 40cm x 45cm. RHS H6, USDA 7a-11.
Pulmonaria ‘Lewis Palmer’
With electric-blue flowers and handsome, silver-spotted foliage it’s happy in reasonably moisture-retentive soil. Trim off all the foliage after flowering to stimulate new leaf growth. 40cm x 45cm. AGM. RHS H7, USDA 5a-8b.
Clematis x jouiniana ‘Praecox’
Ascending woody stems terminate in clusters of scented, powder-blue flowers from late summer. Can be kept low to at as ground cover in shady swathes at a woodland edge. 1.5-7m x 1.2- 6m. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 4a-9b.
Mukdenia rossii ‘Karasuba’
Simple sprays of white flowers in spring give way to vibrant autumnal red and bronze foliage. This ground cover plant grows best in moisture-retentive, humus-rich soil in dappled shade. 25cm x 30cm. RHS H6, USDA 4a-9b.
Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’
Pretty, nodding, claret-red flowers in spring, sit above attractively marked foliage that lasts late into autumn. An occasional Helleborus foetidus will add a bright, evergreen note to the ground cover. 65cm x 40cm. RHS H6-7, USDA 5a-7b.
Will grow anywhere that large-scale ground cover is required, but keep out of direct, prevailing winds. Borage-like, blue flowers appear in advance of the immense hairy, heart-shaped leaves. 45cm x 65cm. RHS H5, USDA 8b.
Elegant, unfurling fronds of coppery pink contrast well the many blues and yellows of early spring. Prefers dappled shade and humus-rich soil, though copes with leaner conditions. Good ground cover partner to Geum ‘Lemon Drops’ and Briza media. 45cm x 35cm. AGM. RHS H4, USDA 5a-9a.
Ground cover plant cultivation
Open, dry and sunny conditions support a broader range of ground cover plants if soil is open and aerated to keep microbial activity alive. Where sun is a constant, evaporation of precious moisture from the surface is reduced by the application of surface gravel or stone mulch. This also helps prevent a surface crust forming. Chance seedlings in these spaces are easily removed until the expanse of low, creeping foliage swells to precludes unwelcome interlopers.
Thorough manual cultivation of the soil with incorporation of organic material to open the texture and increase moisture retention significantly adds to success. Occasional feeding of the soil improves performance for ground cover. A 5cm mulch of well-rotted manure and leaf mould (20/80 ratio) in spring will be taken down to the lower soil profile by worms, improving aeration and fertility.
Where to buy ground cover plants
• Beth Chatto Nurseries, Elmstead Market, Colchester, Essex CO7 7DB. Tel 01206 822007, bethchatto.co.uk
• The Plant Specialist, Whitefield Lane, Great Missenden HP16 0BH. Tel 01494 866650, theplantspecialist.co.uk