Groundcover plants are some of the hardest-working elements of a garden. Choose wisely and they'll give you year-round interest and form, says plantsman Graham Rice
Groundcover plants are invaluable. These are plants that make a dense low cover, some in sun and some in shade, some deciduous and some evergreen, some vigorous and some more restrained. There are groundcover plants that are extremely efficient at preventing weed seed germination and some also provide barriers to the spread of perennial weeds.
But groundcover plants also have a role in the garden beyond their practical utilitarian value in helping control weeds. Visually, they are also important. After all, would you prefer to look at bare soil between your choice plants or flowers and foliage? No; not only is bare soil unappealing, but foliage and flowers can make a harmonious background to our other plants and work with them to enhance the overall value of our plantings.
These plants play a long season role in our beds and borders, and their foliage is the key element. So it makes sense to choose plants whose foliage is especially attractive. These are ten choices, all of which have received the prestigious RHS Award of Garden Merit.
H1 - H7 indicated the new hardiness ratings
Full details of hardiness ratings (510kB pdf)
Hosta 'Francee' (fortunei)
Hostas are some of the most effective ground covers you can grow and more than 90 have been awarded AGMs. ‘Francee' has leaves edged in bright white which repeatedly overlap to create a dense cover that weeds rarely penetrate. It’s also one of the toughest and, unlike some hostas, is widely available and not expensive. Plant with other varieties or in groups of three or five in shade. 70cm (28in). H7.
The ultimate ground covering fern is bracken, but no one wants that in their borders. The oak fern, Gymnocarpium dryopteris, is very very different and is the perfect shade loving woodland garden perennial to weave a carpet of fresh foliage around and between choice shade lovers. The goldish green fronds of this British native interknit prettily and are perfect around trilliums and other special woodlanders. 25cm (10in). H5.
Many hardy geraniums make good groundcover plants, and a number have impressive foliage - but Geranium renardii stands out. The lobed leaves have the greyish colouring of sage leaves, they’re soft to the touch, intricately veined, and develop into a dense mound of foliage. Purple-veined white flowers open above the leaves in late spring. Happy at the front of sunny border, poor dry soils encourage greyer foliage. 35cm (14in). H5.
In lime-free soil and full sun, heathers are ideal low and neat evergreen ground covers with the bonus of summer flowers. And Calluna vulgaris ‘Wickwar Flame’ not only features bright yellow foliage all summer, but in winter the whole plant develops vivid reddish orange tints. What’s more, from August well into autumn the stems are lined with small pinkish bells. A spring trim with shears keeps plants neat and dense. 50cm (20in). H7.
This is the plant that took the old shade-loving standby Brunnera macrophylla into a different class. The striking heart-shaped foliage always had a few silver spots but in ‘Jack Frost’ almost the whole leaf is silver and attractively veined in dark green. It makes dense clumps, will even take dry shade once established, and there is the bonus of clouds of small forget-me-not flowers in spring. 40cm (16in). H6.
When the RHS grew over one hundred bergenias side-by-side, Bergenia purpurascens var. delavayi was one of the standout AGM winners. The large, leathery evergreen leaves we expect from bergenias emerge bright green and by winter have matured to bronze purple with their undersides in a bright, livery pink. Spreading steadily, the foliage is rather upright but the cover is dense and enhanced by crowded clusters of bright pink spring flowers. 30cm (1ft). H5.
Some ground covers are bold and vivid, evergreen Asarum europaeum is more demure in its appearance but attractive and effective. Its prettily waved, rich green, heart-shaped leaves are solid and resilient in texture and attractively veined in pale creamy green. They overlap into a low dense rippling carpet and hide the tubular ground level purple flowers, which are more intriguing than flamboyant. The roots smell strongly of ginger. 15cm (6in). H6.
Nothing shines quite like Artemisia schmidtiana ‘Nana’. Overlapping silvery white stems lay low across the soil, each stem lined with shimmering leaves split into slender flat filaments which are gathered more tightly towards the tips, almost into a rosette. Ideal in gravel in sun where it makes a fine companion for choice spring bulbs, it usually retains some foliage though the winter. The species, too, has an AGM. 30cm. 9cm (‘Nana’). H5.
There are relatively few plants with blue foliage, even fewer that are effective ground cover, and many of those are junipers. In fact, the sharp needles of Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Carpet’ are a lovely silvery aqua blue green and crowd the slightly rusty coloured branches that stretch out flat across the soil branching as they go. Needs sun, and lovely with taller and more rounded foliage plants. 30cm (12in). H7.
It’s colourful, it’s effective, but think for a moment before you plant Phalaris arundinacea var. picta ‘Feesey’ because it can be very vigorous, especially in wet soil. In the right place its mass of slender brightly striped leaves, tinted pink as they emerge, can keep weeds at bay very effectively. But it does spread… Cut back hard in midsummer to promote new pink-tinted growth. 80cm. H7.