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Ground cover

Plants to keep your soil weed-free

RHS Plant of the Century, geranium Rozanne
RHS Plant of the Century, geranium Rozanne

Bare earth isn’t attractive. Keeping weeds at bay is like painting the Forth Road Bridge. Even if you manage that, your borders are left looking ‘gappy’, plus moisture can evaporate faster, meaning you have to water more frequently.

Ground cover plants are an invaluable tool, but so often underused, or used wrongly, as 70s-style ‘rockery’ plants.

Euphorbia griffithii Fireglow growing through golden marjoram and Arabis ferdinandi-coburgii Old Gold
Euphorbia griffithii Fireglow growing through golden marjoram and Arabis ferdinandi-coburgii Old Gold, March 2016

A ground cover plant is one that knits together with its fellows, is low growing, sets off its bigger neighbours and acts as a weed suppressant. Not a bad CV. Most of these plants are low-growing herbaceous perennials, so do check out that page for ideas too.

Self-seeded nasturtiums
Self-seeded nasturtiums flowering well into October

You can use anything you like – sempervivums, climbers, annuals, herbs like golden marjoram and thyme. Go to a garden centre or nursery and ignore how the plants are sectioned off and think laterally. It’s your garden – do what you like.

Don’t forget to check out stands of alpines – don’t stint on numbers. These are often small plants (unless you get the real rampant types), so you’re going to need a minimum of three, probably five or seven in a bigger garden to make an impact.

Chives, Heucheras and Campanula carpatica
Chives, Heucheras and Campanula carpatica

One low grower is Arabis ferdinandi-coburgii Old Gold, with a name bigger than itself. It has green and gold-streaked leaves bearing small white flowers and each plant will grow to 6″ high, with a spread of 12″.

Alongside this, I have a tiny Sedum album Coral Carpet – the leaves look like tiny coral berries, flush redder with the cold, and get tiny pink/white flowers in summer. This too grows to 6″, spreading to 16″.

With all these plants, make sure you plant them close enough so they knit together.

There’s a Euphorbia for every occasion and for this one, it’s E. myrsinites. They’re tough as old boots, with striking leaf structure and colour, plus lime flowers/bracts in spring. Don’t get the sap on your skin (it can cause a rash). It’s also rampant once it gets going.

Vinca major variegata with Euphorbia and Hellebores
Newly-planted Vinca major variegata with Euphorbia and Hellebores, April 2016

Heucheras and Heucherellas are a lovely group of ground huggers. My favourites are Plum Pudding (deep purple leaves, sprays of white flowers), Marmalade (golden pink upper leaves, purple underneath), Obsidian (almost black) and Silver Blush (silver/purple). They do tend to become bare at the bottom after a few years, so divide and replant.

For shade, two of the best are Pulmonaria (liverwort) and Vinca minor and major (lesser periwinkle). Both come in tones of blue, pink and white.

Ivy works well in shade, although variegated varieties will have stronger colours in sun. Ivy only flowers and bears fruit growing upright.

Everlasting sweet pea swamping sunflowers
Hmm… everlasting sweet pea swamping sunflowers. I didn’t claim it looked great

One trick of Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst was to grow clematis as ground cover, in a similar way to Monet’s nasturtiums trailing over the paths at Giverny.

It’s worth a go – my perennial sweet pea gets to perform that function to cover the bare ankles of sunflowers.

Colours clash, but you can’t have everything and at least you can’t see the bare soil.

I also have self-seeded nasturtiums doing the ground cover thing – sadly, on the path, not in the beds. It just means a narrower path to negotiate…