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Growing plants for ground cover

Growing plants for ground cover

Ground cover plants are excellent for a range of situations in the garden, from covering steep banks to brightening up bare patches of soil beneath trees and shrubs. Their root systems will also help stabilise the soil on steep and sloping areas of the garden. They help suppress weeds and are generally low maintenance plants, ideal for those gardeners with limited time.

Top tips

1. Before planting your ground cover plants it's a good idea to weed the area carefully, removing the roots of persistent weeds such as dandelions, ground elder and couch grass. Even the best ground cover plants won't be able to suppress these weeds and it's much harder to remove them once your plants have started growing!

2. Break up the soil to a spades depth with a garden fork and work in plenty of organic matter such as well rotted manure, compost or recycled green waste to help retain moisture and improve soil fertility. Once your plants are established there will be little chance to improve the soil so it's best to get them off to a good start at planting time.

3. Mulch your new plants in their first year with organic matter, bark chips, gravel or landscape fabric to help retain moisture whilst their roots establish. Water regularly if the weather is hot and dry.

4. Keep on top of weeding to prevent competition for light, nutrients and water. You may find plants take a little longer to grow to their full potential in heavy shade, even very vigorous varieties, so you'll need to be vigilant in weeding whilst these plants establish.

5. Shrubby or perennial ground cover plants are the easiest to maintain although there are a few annual ground cover plants which will grow in sunny areas of the garden.

Ground cover plants for sun

Many ground cover plants have adapted to growing in sunny, dry locations - they often have foliage which is hairy, leathery or silver in colour to reduce moisture loss, such as Delosperma which has succulent leaves. These plants also have extensive root systems that penetrate deeply to find moisture.

Shrubs Perennials Annuals Bulbs/tubers
Calluna vulgaris (Scots Heather) Alyssum (perennial and annual varieties) Alyssum (perennial and annual varieties) Anemone blanda
Cotoneaster salicifolius 'Gnom' Anthemis punctata subsp. Cupaniana Bidens 'Gold Star' Lilies (Ground cover)
Cranberry Aubrieta Limnanthes douglasii (Poached Egg Plant)  
Cytisus scoparius subsp. maritimus (Broom) Delosperma (Hardy Ice Plant) Nasturtium  
Erica carnea (Winter Heath) Dianthus gratianopolitanus (Cheddar Pink) Osteospermum  
Hebe pinguifolia 'Pagei' Fuchsia 'Ground Cover Collection' Petunia (Trailing varieties)  
Hypericum calycinum Hardy Geraniums Pumpkins and squashes  
Potentilla fruticosa 'Abbotswood' Helianthemum (Rock Rose) Sweet Pea (Trailing varieties)  
Stephanacanda incisa 'Crispa' Lithodora diffusa 'Heavenly Blue'    
Thyme Mint (Mentha)    
Vinca minor (Lesser Periwinkle) Moss Phlox    
  Nepeta x faassenii (Catmint)    
  Saponaria (Tumbling Ted)    
  Sedum acre (Biting Stonecrop)    
  Veronica prostrata (Prostrate Speedwell)  

Ground cover plants for shade

Most of us have shady areas in our gardens; beneath trees and shrubs or alongside buildings, where growing conditions are challenging. These are often seen as problem spaces but there are plenty of colourful flower and foliage plants such as hardy Geraniums and ferns which will thrive in these conditions and provide excellent ground cover and interest.

Shrubs Perennials Ferns Bulbs/tubers
Cotoneaster salicifolius 'Gnom' Alchemilla mollis (Lady's Mantle) Adiantum venustum (Himalayan Maidenhair Fern) Bluebells
Euonymus fortunei Bergenia Athyrium filix-femina (Lady Fern) Cyclamen neapolitanum
Gaultheria shallon, Gaultheria procumbens Brunnera macrophylla 'King's Ransom' Blechnum penna-marina  
Hypericum calycinum Dicentra formosa (Wild Bleeding Heart) Blechnum spicant (Hard Fern)  
Mahonia repens Epimedium x warleyense (Barrenwort) Polypodium vulgare (Common Polypody)  
Sarcococca confusa (Sweet Box) Fuchsia 'Ground Cover Collection' Polystichum setiferum (Soft Shield Fern)  
Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis Galium odoratum (Sweet Woodruff)    
Vinca minor (Lesser Periwinkle) Hardy Geraniums    
  Ivy (Hedera)    
  Lamium maculatum (Spotted Dead Nettle)    
  Lily of the Valley    
  Omphalodes cappadocica (Navelwort)    
  Pansy 'Trailing Collection'    
  Pulmonaria saccharata (Lungwort)    
  Tiarella cordifolia (Foam Flower)  

Quick Links:

Aubrieta on steep bank

Ground cover plants such as Aubrieta are excellent for steep banks - they suppress weeds, help stabilise the soil and are low maintenance.

Mulching a new plant

Mulch your new plants in their first year with organic matter, bark chips, gravel or landscape fabric to help retain moisture whilst their roots establish.

Ground cover plants with gravel mulch

Try using gravel or slate chips whilst your plants establish - not only does this suppress weeds and retain soil moisture, it looks decorative too!

Hypericum calycinum

Hypericum calycinum (St John's Wort) is an excellent groundcover plant, tolerating deep shade and dry soil.


Thyme and Helianthemum are fantastic for a hot and sunny spot in the garden, providing a nectar-rich ground cover for bees and butterflies.

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