23 stunning ground cover plants to create a tapestry of colour in difficult-to-plant areas

May 4th, 2024
Posted In: Gardening know how

Ground cover plants are low-growing plants that spread easily to cover areas where nothing much wants to grow.

For example, do you have bare patches under trees? Are you tired of weeding them and trying to keep them clear?

Ground cover plants will help prevent weed seeds germinating in the soil. And they’re more beautiful to look at than bare earth.

I’ve recently visited Copton Ash, a specialist nursery and garden created by Tim and Gillian Ingram. They have created a tapestry of texture and colour with ground cover plants, so I asked Tim to tell us how.

A tapestry of ground cover plants

Tim and Gillian Ingram grow a ‘tapestry’ of ground cover plants under their apple trees. They used to weed this area or cover it with straw – it was an endless job. Now the ground cover plants spread and self-seed, out-competing most weed seeds, so this is not only more beautiful but it’s also easier to look after. This section is mainly hellebores, Brunnera macrophylla and Anthriscus Ravenswing (Black cow parsley).

Copton Ash is in Kent and it opens for the National Garden Scheme.

And Tim and Gillian sell alpine and woodland plants at the Plant Fairs Roadshow, a co-operative of independent nurseries selling plants in beautiful gardens around South East England.

The secret to successful ground cover plants

Choose plants that are happy to grow, spread or self-seed.  Tim and Gillian have a large garden so they don’t have time to be constantly weeding or manicuring all of it.

So a light hand with the weeding gives self-seeding plants choice as to where they want to grow. This is often much more successful than trying to force plants to grow where they don’t want to.

Plants that spread and self-seed will intermingle, creating what Tim calls a ‘tapestry of planting’. Some of the self-seeders aren’t ‘low growing’ but they dot happily around the other ground cover plants to add texture and colour.

‘Woodland plants’ are particularly good in difficult spots. They’re used to dealing with shady or dry conditions.

The following plants are widely available, although a few are more unusual. Most are also very hardy, many withstanding winters in USDA zones 3,4 or 5 and any UK winter.

23 brilliant plants for ground cover

Which ground cover plants are invasive?

One word of warning: plants that spread or self-seed can be invasive in the wrong place.

It’s important to remember that different plants are invasive in different places – a plant that grows well in one country or climate may grow too well in another country or climate. So always check whether a plant is invasive where you are.

Don’t rely on people telling you that a plant is invasive. Unless they specify where it is invasive, they may or may not be right.

You should do an online search for ‘is X invasive in (your area)?’ Then look at the government or university sites, as they are official.

Your grandmother, for example, could have told you that spotted dead-nettle (Lamium maculatum) was invasive and that you should never plant it.

However, by the time you have your own garden, you could be living in a completely different county, state or country – where spotted dead-nettle is a useful ground cover.

Tim’s favourite spreading ground cover plants

  1. Siberian bugloss/perennial forget-me-not (Brunnera macrophylla, especially ‘Jack Frost’)
  2. Snowdrops
  3. Cyclamen hederifolium
  4. Hellebores
  5. Dicentra (Bleeding heart)
  6. Geraniums phaeum and macrorrhizum
  7. Variegated dead-nettle (Lamium maculatum)
  8. Arum italicum (Italian arum lily)
  9. Trilliums (Wakerobin) – less easy-grow but special!
  10. Ferns, especially polystichum or dryopteris ferns.
  11. Impatiens (Busy Lizzie), especially Impatiens ‘Omeiana’
  12. Epimediums
  13. Viola labradorica (Labrador viola)
  14. Ajuga reptans (Bugleweed) ,especially purpurea
  15. Vinca major (periwinkle)

Self-seeding plants that grow through ground cover for a tapestry effect

  1. Polygonatum (Solomon’s Seal)
  2. Disporum ‘Night Heron’ (Chinese Fairy Bells)
  3. Euphorbias (especially Euphorbia dulcis ‘Chameleon’)
  4. Anthriscus Ravenswing (Black cow parsley)
  5. Smyrnium perfoliatum
  6. Bluebells

Siberian bugloss/perennial forget-me-not

Tim calls Siberian bugloss/perennial forget-me-not (Brunnera macrophylla) his best ground cover perennial for early spring. It has pretty forget-me-not flowers. And some have variegated leaves.

Brunnera macrophylla is hardy to minus 40C/minus 40F, so almost anyone can grow it. It creates a pale blue froth over the emerging spring leaves.

Perennial forget-me-nots (Brunnera macrophylla)

Perennial forget-me-nots (Brunnera macrophylla) create a frothy blue haze at Copton Ash. The top photograph is Brunnera macrophylla ‘Silver Heart’ because it has variegated leaves.

Snowdrops

Tim and Gillian started their ground cover under trees by planting snowdrops.

It took several years for the snowdrops to spread but you could speed it up by planting new bulbs every year. Snowdrops disappear under ground by the time perennials emerge in spring, so they’re the perfect option for parts of the garden which are bare in winter. They’re very hardy, down to minus 40C/minus 40F.

Snowdrops for the first flowers of the year.

Tim and Gillian start the ground cover under their fruit trees with snowdrops, which flower from late winter onwards. These disappear underground in spring but mix well with the hellebores.

Cyclamen

Cyclamen (Cyclamen hederofolium) is another pretty woodland ground cover. The flowers are pink or white and pop up in the autumn, followed by attractive heart-shaped leaves which cover the ground over winter. Both leaves and flowers disappear underground during the summer, which means that cyclamen combines well with perennials that go underground in winter.

Tim describes it as ‘one of the very best plants for the winter, going dormant when it gets very dry in the summer.’

Cyclamen is hardy down to minus 20C/5F. Sources say that it doesn’t like very dry weather, but Copton Ash is in East Kent, which is quite dry (26″ rainfall per year).

Cyclamen ground cover

Cyclamen is one of the easiest and prettiest ground cover plants for winter.

Hellebores

Hellebores are easy to grow. They’re mainly evergreen and they’re happy in shade. They flower in spring, so they’re important for pollinators, and some have pretty variegated leaves.

Many hellebores are also exceptionally hardy (down to minus 40C/minus 40F), but check the variety for your climate.

Hellebores are easy-care ground cover plants.

Many varieties of hellebore are easy-care ground cover plants. Some can grow in quite deep shade. There are lots of varieties, some with marbled leaves. There are a few more tender varieties so check the label or ask the grower when you’re buying hellebores.

Bleeding heart (Dicentra)

Dicentra or Bleeding heart is another very easy-care ground cover. It’s hardy down to minus 40C/minus 40F.

Tim says that it can go dormant (disappear underground) in hot, dry summers but in spring, it mixes beautifully with the Brunnera.

Bleeding heart (Dicentra) ground cover plants

Big colonies of pink-flowered Dicentra spectabilis (Bleeding heart) spread under the trees in Tim and Gillian’s Copton Ash garden. You can see the cloud of Brunnera macrophylla in the background.

Hardy geraniums (especially Phaeum and Macrorrhizum)

Hardy geraniums are the ideal easy care plants and spread easily.

Hardy geraniums are the ideal easy care plants and spread easily. Top right is Geranium phaeum and the pink flowers are Geranium macrorrhizum, both geraniums that are good in shade, even quite dry shade.

Hardy geraniums (also known as cranesbills) are a very useful plant to have in the garden. They’re a completely different plant to the one often labelled ‘geranium’ in garden centres. The garden centre ‘geraniums’ are usually brightly coloured Mediterranean plants called pelargoniums, usually grown in pots.

Hardy geraniums flower for months at a time, and when the flowers are over, you can chop them back to get another flush of flowers later in the year. They can cope with most soil conditions, and will grow in shade.

Many varieties hardy down to minus 34C/minus 30F but check labels for hardiness where you are.

Lamium and Italian arum – variegated leaves work beautifully in shade

Some people don’t like variegated leaves, but they brighten up a shady corner beautifully.

Spotted dead-nettle (Lamium maculatum) is a mat-forming plant that will grow in full shade, as well as partial shade. It spreads well, and is very hardy.

Lamium (dead-nettle) 'Silver Beacon' and Arum italicum marmoratum (Italian arum) both have beautifully variegated leaves. The arum can spread too vigorously, but it has a graceful shape.

Lamium (dead-nettle) ‘Silver Beacon’ (top) and Arum italicum marmoratum (Italian arum) both have beautifully variegated leaves. The arum can spread too vigorously, but it has a graceful shape. It’s another good plant for full or part shade.

Something special…trilliums and farfugium

Neither trilliums nor farfugiums are as easy-grow as most of the plants in this post, but Tim says that when you’ve got your tapestry ground cover flourishing, you can clear a few of the more dominant plants away, so that you can include ‘something special.’

Trilliums and farfugeums (Spotty dotty)

Tim likes to include a few ‘special’ plants in the ground cover tapestry. Spotty dotty (farfugium – top photo) prefers full or part shade, but doesn’t like to dry out. Trilliums take up to seven years to flower, so they really are something special, but they too are happy in full or part shade, as long as they don’t dry out. Both plants are used in exotic or jungle gardens. See the new jungle garden for more plants with unusual leaves.

Ferns

There are literally thousands of varieties of fern, so it’s important to check the label when buying them. Ferns with the names ‘polystichum’ and ‘dryopteris’ are likely to be the best ground cover, particularly for shade or dry shade.

Tim allows his local wild ferns to spread where they like, popping up to give vertical interest in the low-growing ground cover.

Ferns for dry shade

Ferns are mainly woodland plants so they’re happy growing amongst trees. Some will do well in dry shade, but may need watering while they get established. See this post for more about choosing plants for shady gardens.

Impatiens (Busy Lizzie)

Many of us think of Busy Lizzies as brightly coloured container plants that we replace every year.

However, there are some impatiens that will grow survive mild UK winters in the ground. Tim has both the common impatiens and a rather special one Impatiens ‘Omeiana’, which has pointed variegated leaves.

Impatiens Omeiana

Consider leaf shape and colour when planning the texture of your ground cover tapestry. This is Impatiens Omeiana, which is happy in shade, but will only survive mild UK winters with relatively little frost or snow.

Epimediums – ground cover plants for dry shade

Epimediums are ground cover plants for sheltered, woodland, rocky or shady spots in the garden. They have beautiful -often variegated – leaves and delicate aquilegia-like flowers in spring. Tim has planted a slightly unusual variety – Epimedium ‘Spine Tingler.’

Some epimediums are evergreen, others lose their leaves in winter, so check the variety when buying. They’re generally hardy down to minus 26C/minus 15F.

Epimediums for ground cover in shady or rocky areas

The leaves of epimedium are as interesting as the delicate flowers, and they make good woodland or rock garden ground cover. The lower photograph is Epimedium ‘Spine Tingler’.

Labrador viola (Viola labradorica)

This is a charming dark leafed version of the ordinary viola. In Tim and Gillian’s garden, it spreads with Ajuga and there are little spikes of Euphorbia ‘Chameleon’ popping up in the mix.

Labrador violas - pretty dark-leafed ground cover plants.

Labrador violas – pretty dark-leafed ground cover plants. It’s hard to believe that these charming little flowers are hardy to minus 40C/minus 40F.

Bugleweed – Ajuga reptans purpurea

Tim says that ajugas are very tolerant plants. They’re happy to survive even when almost smothered in summer perennials, then returning as ground cover the following spring when the perennials are underground. They grow well with bulbs and can tolerate unusually dry or wet weather. They’re hardy down to minus 40C/minus 40F.

Charming low-growing ajuga reptans

Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans purpurea) is a charming low growing plant that flowers in spring and wends it way through perennials such as the eryngium just emerging here.

Vinca major (periwinkle)

With variegated leaves and blue flowers that carry on through spring and summer, this resilient plant can spread a little too freely but it’s one of the best ground cover plants for difficult spots.

Vinca major (periwinkle)

A bit of a thug, but it’ll thrive where many other plants won’t. It’s often used for hilly areas which are difficult to mow. See this post for more advice on sloping gardens.

Good self-seeders for vertical interest

Tim says that it’s good to have some vertical spikes coming through ground cover. He uses self-seeding plants, which dot themselves about the garden, choosing where they want to grow.

You’ll find several, including Smyrnium perfoliatum, in 25 best self-seeding plants.

Solomon's seal

Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum) can grow in quite deep shade and will thrive under trees. It’s drought tolerant once established.

Self-seeded Euphorbia dulcis 'Chameleon' with Labrador violas.

Euphorbia dulcis ‘Chameleon’ with Labrador violas.

Anthriscus Ravenswing (Black Cow Parsley)

Anthriscus Ravenswing (Black Cow Parsley). With feathery black leaves, this self seeder adds depth and texture to the ground cover tapestry.

See more of the Copton Ash Garden in video:

There are some beautiful views of Copton Ash’s lovely woodland planting and ground covers in this video interview.

Middlesized Garden Youtube video on ground cover plants

More about planting for shady spots

Most areas which need ground cover are quite shady, so you may find it useful to check out Shade Gardening – How to Choose Plants.

And if you’d like to try something special, then why not transform a shady corner of your garden with a stunning stumpery?

And see this post for 10 solutions to a difficult shady corner.

Pin to remember the best ground cover plants

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23 brilliant ground cover plants


2 comments on "23 stunning ground cover plants to create a tapestry of colour in difficult-to-plant areas"

  1. Lisa Nazarenko says:

    Thank you for this valuable information!

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