Ground cover plants are naturally low-growing plants that form attractive mounds or carpets. They cover the ground quickly, covering bare soil. They are often low-maintenance and often evergreen.
Ground cover plants are used to fill in gaps at the front of a border, as well as those tricky spots at the bases of shrubs that are difficult to plant. They can also help cover the bare 'legs' of roses, complementing their flowers. Ground cover plants are also great for covering tricky sites, such as slopes, which are difficult to access and plant. Some can also be grown as an alternative to a lawn.
As they cover the soil, ground cover plants are great for suppressing weeds. They act like a mulch, so they can help to lock in soil moisture and nutrients. Some can even help with soil erosion on slopes, their roots holding everything together when it rains.
When choosing ground cover plants, choose varieties that suit the soil and aspect of your garden. Weed the area thoroughly before you plant, as it will be difficult to remove weeds once the plants are in.
Alan Titchmarsh shares his five favourite plants for ground cover in the garden, in this short video from BBC Gardeners' World Magazine.
There are many types of ground cover plant, grown for their evergreen foliage or flowers, and sometimes both. Here are 20 of the best.
Hardy geraniums are incredibly versatile plants, as they thrive in sun or shade and in most soil types. They look good in almost all styles of planting, from cottage gardens to a more contemporary schemes. They're great for growing at the front of the border and under shrubs and roses. They come in a wide range of colours, from white to pink and blue. They're not evergreen, so their foliage dies back in winter, but they flower for months, from late spring to early autumn, and are popular with bees. One of the best hardy geraniums is Geranium 'Rozanne' ('Gerwat') – its vivid blue flowers light up the garden for months on end in summer.
Height x Spread: 60cm x 90cm
'Flower Carpet' roses
'Flower Carpet' roses are a group of roses that are grown as ground cover, creating a carpet of flowers, as their name suggests. They have semi-double flowers and semi-evergreen foliage. They can be used as an unusual addition to the front of the border, or for covering a slope. They come in a range of colours, including white, coral, pink and red. They need a sheltered, sunny spot and well-drained soil.
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H x S: 50cm x 1m
Clump-forming, low-growing campanulas or bellflowers, including Campanula carpatica and Campanula portenschlagiana, are useful perennials for filling for the front of a sunny border, gravel garden, rockery or raised bed. They produce blue, bell-shaped flowers above pretty foliage from June to September. They're not evergreen so the foliage will die back in winter. Grow in well-drained soil.
H x S: 60cm x 20cm
Lily of the Valley
Lily of the valley, Convallaria majalis, is an excellent ground cover plant for a shady border or woodland garden. It's also especially useful for growing in the shady areas under shrubs. It bears scented white bell-shaped in late spring. It spreads quickly and has gorgeous white, bell-shaped flowers in late spring, which are deliciously scented. It also makes a lovely cut flower. Grow in moist soil. Lily of the valley is not evergreen, so the foliage will die back in winter.
H x S: 20cm x 30cm
Lesser periwinkle, Vinca minor
The lesser periwinkle, Vinca minor, has the reputation for being a bit of a thug in a border. But if you've got a tricky area to cover – such as dry shade – this can be a useful plant. It's evergreen and grows fast, and bears pretty blue or purple flowers in spring and summer. Periwinkle grows in virtually any soil or aspect.
H x S: 20cm x 50cm-2m
Heucheras are grown for their attractive, evergreen and scalloped foliage in a range of colours, from green to pale orange to red, purple and almost black. They form attractive clumps and make useful ground cover for a shady spot. They also bear spikes of tiny flowers in summer.
H x S: 30cm x 35cm
Bright clumps of aubretias – mostly in shades of blue and purple, but also red or pink – are a sign that spring has arrived. They thrive on well drained soil (they especially like alkaline soil) in full sun, and are ideal for growing along the top of walls, where they can spill over the edge, or on a stony slope. They are also great for gravel gardens and rockeries. Cut back after flowering and they may reward you with a second flush in summer. Aubretias aren't evergreen so will die back in winter.
H x S: 20cm x 40cm
Heathers are low growing, evergreen shrubs that make excellent ground cover plants. Native to heaths and moorlands, they do best in acidic soil in a sunny spot. The flowers range in colour from white, pink, purple and red. There are two main types: calluna heather flowers from late summer through to winter, while ericas flower from winter to spring. The flowers are much loved by bees.
H x S: 20cm x 40cm
Lavender is a great choice for a front of a border, planting under roses, lining a path, or for covering a sunny area. Lavandula angustifolia is evergreen and more hardy and long-lived than French and Spanish lavenders – try the classic varieties 'Hidcote' and Lavandula 'Munstead'. The flowers are very attractive to bees. Grow in well drained soil in a sunny spot and cut back after flowering to keep the plants neat. Give them another light trim in spring.
H x S: 40cm x 50cm
In parts of Cornwall, you can see crocosmia (formerly called montbretia) growing on cliffs, where it has naturalised and grows en masse. Crocosmia emerges from underground corms in spring and forms dense clumps, creating a carpet of yellow, orange or red in late summer. Grow in a sheltered, sunny site and mulch in winter if you live in a cold area.
H x S: 80cm x 60cm
If you have a large area to cover quickly, especially one that is on poor soil or is tricky to plant, why not consider a wildflower meadow? There are many seed mixes available, for all kinds of soils and aspects, with either a mix of annuals, perennials or both. You can also buy ready-sown wildflower turf, which you lay over a prepared area as you would a carpet. The palette will develop as the seasons change, and the flowers are, of course, fantastic for wildlife. Meadows are relatively low maintenance, just requiring a cut or two a year. You could even consider replacing all or part of your lawn with a wildflower meadow – this is especially useful if part of your lawn which is tricky to mow – on a slope, for example.
H x S: 1m x 3m
Low growing, spreading herbs are perfect for covering the ground or replacing an area of lawn, and have the added bonus of providing delicious flavour for cooking. Their flowers are incredibly popular with bees, too. In a sunny spot, try thyme, oregano, camomile, or prostrate rosemary, which is evergreen and has bright blue flowers in early spring. It also has deep roots and can therefore help with soil erosion on a sloping site. In a shady spot, try sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) which is good for growing under inhospitable spots under trees, bearing starry, white flowers in spring. It is also known as the hay plant, as its flowers and leaves smell of hay and can be dried for use in pot pourri or as an insect repellent. Or try wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, a low growing, evergreen shrub with minty leaves that be dried and made into a tea. It bears red berries in winter and likes acidic soil.
H x S: 20cm x 60cm
Rock rose, Helianthemum
Helianthemums (rock rose) are clump forming, evergreen shrubs that bear pretty, papery flowers in a range of colours, including yellow, orange, white and pink, in early and midsummer. They look great at the front of a sunny border or in a rock or gravel garden. Plants may need protection harsh winters.
H x S: at least 30cm x 50cm
Pachysandra terminalis (Japanese spurge) forms a dense, evergreen carpet of shiny, serrated leaves, with tiny white flowers in May and June. It’s useful for providing ground cover under trees and shrubs and does well in dry shade. It likes acid soil, so is often grown as ground cover under rhododendrons.
H x S: 25cm x 60cm
Mexican daisy, Erigeron karviskianus
Erigeron karviskianus, Mexican daisy or fleabane, may hail from Mexico but it is more than happy spreading in sunny gardens in the UK, where it will grow at the front of a border, creep down the sides of stone or brick steps, tuck itself into wall crevices and establish between paving slabs. It spreads slowly via its roots and also self seeds. It flowers from May to November and is very low maintenance. The daisy-like flowers often become pink with age, and different shades of flower will be found on one plant.
H x S: 40cm x 40cm
Epimediums (also known as barrenwort or bishop’s hat) have heart-shaped evergreen leaves and delicate, nodding flowers in spring. They make good ground cover plants under shrubs or trees in a shady spot. They look lovely planted with hellebores and other spring-flowering plants. For the best results, grow epimediums in dappled shade and acid soil.
H x S: from 30cm x 30cm
Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost'
Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ is an attractive evergreen ground cover plant that has eye-catching heart-shaped silver foliage with dark green veins. It is perfect for brightening a shady spot. In April and May it bears pretty blue flowers that look like forget-me-nots and are attractive to bees. Grow in moist, well drained soil in shade.
H x S: 45cm x 60cm
Elephant's ears, Bergenia
Bergenia (elephant’s ears) are tough plants that quickly form dense clumps. They have large, shiny, evergreen leaves, some of which are tinged an attractive red in winter, and attractive pink or purple flowers in April and May. They prefer moist, well-drained soil in a shady spot but also cope well with drought. They are a good alternative to hostas, which also make good ground cover in shade – bergenias are much less prone to slug damage.
H x S: 50cm x 50cm
With their attractive leaves that unfurl beautifully in spring, ferns are good ground cover plant for a shady spot in a border or under a tree. Some are evergreen, others deciduous, and they come in a range of sizes. They make a great foil for other shade loving plants. They prefer moist, well drained soil (the evergreen varieties are more tolerant of drier conditions) and are untroubled by most pests and diseases.
H x S: from 20cm x 20cm
Beesia calthifolia is a great evergreen ground cover plant for an area in partial shade. It has attractive, heart-shaped foliage with pale green veins and bears tiny starry white flowers in late spring and early summer. The pods that follow the flowers are an added feature. It looks good growing with ferns and other shade lovers. Grow in moist, well drained soil.
H x S: 30cm x 30cm
Advice on buying ground cover plants
- You can buy ground cover plants at nurseries and garden centres – many will have a dedicated ground cover section. You can also buy ground cover plants online
- Buy plants that will thrive in the area that you want to cover – the aspect (damp shade, dry shade, full sun, dappled shade) as well as the soil in your garden
- Check the eventual spread of the plant and make sure you have room for it
- Depending on the plant you may need to plant several together to make an impact