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Choosing the best ground cover plants

Val Bourne / 18 August 2015

Gardening expert Val Bourne recommends some of her favourite ground cover plants, ideal for preventing weeds growing.

Helianthemum nummularium
Common rock roses, Helianthemum nummularium, make excellent ground cover in sunny gardens

Why plant ground cover plants?

Ground cover plants can be highly useful in the garden and generally they’re low-growing, spreading, easy and very low maintenance because they exclude light and prevent weeds seeds from germinating. Ground cover plants are also extremely useful on slopes, where it is difficult to mow or weed.

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What ground cover plants to avoid

It’s important to find well-behaved plants rather than ones that are too aggressive in growth, or seed too freely.

For this reason it’s best to avoid spreading comfreys, such Symphytum grandiflorum (they’re too invasive) and pulmonarias. Both will self-seed freely into neighbouring parts of the garden.

Most gardeners with moderate-sized gardens should also avoid prostrate junipers because they cover large areas once they mature.

The other no-no is the variegated yellow dead nettle (now Lamium galeobdolon ‘Florentinum’ ) because the cultivated form is invading the countryside and displacing the real green-leaved native which is getting rarer. Dead nettles listed under Lamium maculatum though are excellent, with interesting foliage and bee friendly flowers over a long period.

Choose plants wisely

The key requirement is to choose the right plant for your soil and aspect. Then your plants will thrive.

All slopes tend to be well-drained unless they are completely sunless. They look best with low-growing plants that are drought tolerant once established. Their survival relies on a deep root system so these plants must be watered in their first year if planted in the spring.

If you plant in early September the soil should be warm enough for them to survive unaided.

Shady slopes will rely on a mixture of green foliage and you can add yellow-variegated foliage to add further light and shade.

Sunny slopes are best planted with silver-leaved or chalky-green foliage.

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Plants for a sunny slope

Ground cover roses

Ground cover roses make excellent low-growing shrubs and the Flower Carpet and County Series of Roses will all manage well on slopes as long as the gradient is not too steep.

They will not need deadheading and the pruning regime (if they need one) can be carried out with shears in early spring. The Flower Carpet series comes in pinks, yellows, reds and whites and they are all excellent and widely sold. The County Series of roses includes the semi-double cherry-pink ‘Berkshire’, the double vibrant-pink ‘Hertfordshire’, the pale-pink ‘Oxfordshire’ and fully double rose-pink ‘Wiltshire’.

There are also yellows, whites and reds. Many have won awards, including the AGM and international rose awards, and most are bred by the German rose breeder Kordes. They specialise in disease-free roses. The best supplier is

Pollinating insects will appreciate the singles and semi-double flowers more then the fully double ones.

Ground cover clematis

Viticella clematis, bred from a drought tolerant Spanish species, can be left to sprawl over the ground between the roses.

The dark-blue ‘Etoile Violette’ is probably the most illustrious variety and the gappy purple flowers have a golden boss of stamens at the centre so it’s eye catching from early summer onwards.

There are pom-pom, long-lasting doubles such as the dusky-maroon ‘Purpurea Plena Elegans’ and the navy-blue ‘Mary Rose’’.

Lighter clematis, best with vibrant roses, include ‘Betty Corning’ and ‘Prince Charles’ - both grey-blues. Cut them all back in spring, to the lowest emerging buds, and they will flower abundantly on the vigorous, new wood.

Salvia officinalis ‘Berrgarten’

This culinary sage is much more substantial than most culinary sages, with rounded grey-green foliage topped by huge pale-blue flowers, it makes a much larger bush.

You could mingle it among other sages such as the damson-leaved Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’, the variegated green and cream ‘Icterine’ and the purple, cream and green ‘Tricolour’. Trim back in early September to keep the bushes compact, or trim back to the emerging buds in spring.

Silver-leaved lamiums include the white-flowered L. maculatum ‘White Nancy’ and the pale-pink ‘Beacon Silver’ sprawl very well carpeting the ground. Shear them back in spring.

Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’

This form rarely flowers, but the lamb’s ear foliage is neat, woolly and silvery. A good edging for roses.

Artemisia pontica

A running silvery fine-filigree artemisia for ground cover. This should need no maintenance.

Achillea nobilis subsp. neilreichii

Rambling spreading low-growing achillea with custard-cream flowers and silvery fine foliage.

Geranium x riversleaianium 'Mavis Simpson'

Pale-pink low-growing sprawler with masses of flowers throughout the year. There is also a darker pink named ‘Russell Prichard’. Both widely available.

Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’

A big bushy catmint with small, silver-green leaves and masses of summer-blue flowering spikes. Bees adore all catmints. If you can shear this back in late-July and it will quickly flower again. Widely available.

Alchemilla mollis

The frothy lime-green flowers look fabulous in rose time. If the flowers are left this plant will seed about, but the foliage is excellent in spring. Widely available.

Helianthemum nummularium

Rock roses come in many forms and they make great sprawlers at the sunny front of a border, flowering prolifically between early June and late July. Shear back in late August, after flowering, so that they stay compact and overwinter well.

Ground cover plants for dappled shade and good soil

Hedera helix

Ivy foliage looks superb in shade, but not all ivies sprawl.

Good green ivies

Green ivies are excellent with cool-white flowers like snowdrops.


Slow-growing and never rampant with high-gloss, wavy, deep green leaves. Good for clipping and topiary, or with snowdrops.


Medium-green arrowhead leaves, giving a mossy effect – good at creeping over steps.

Golden foliage ivies

Ivies with golden foliage stay brighter in shade and are good with blues.


Very distinct arrowhead shape (sometimes called bird's foot), this trails well and is slow-growing enough to use in troughs.


Yellow-gold, green and grey-green, five-lobed leaves forming an elegant arrowhead shape. Vigorous grower.

'Romanze' (ground cover)

A rumpled affair you'll either love or hate with rounded apple-green leaves mottled in darker green

Cool cream, green and white ivies

Good at lighting up shade. These tone with cool pink and blue spring flowers, or contrast with dark foliage and flowers.


Grey-green lobed leaves subtly margined in white. This fast-growing ivy can be used to carpet the ground or it can climb.

'Silver King' syn. 'Koniger's Variegated' (ground cover)

Five-lobed silver leaves in a narrow arrowhead shape, subtle cream overlaying the grey-green leaves.

Other suggestions for shade

Tiarella cordifolia

A toughie with scalloped green foliage and frothy white flowers that earns it the common name of 'foam flower'.

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’

Pretty sprays of blue flowers in spring above frosted white foliage edged and veined in green.

Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’

Dainty sprays of two tone flowers in spring, in primrose yellow and cream, accompanied by green heart-shaped leaves that bear a red glow in spring. Shear off in winter if you can.

Hardy ground cover ferns

Dryopteris erythrosora

Many will tolerate shade and some do roam. Among the best is the autumn fern which colours up to russet in autumn. The new growth is pinkish too.

Adiantum venustum

A Himalayan maidenhair fern with dainty, triangular leaves. When happy this rambles. Needs moist conditions.

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