Plants that spread – the key to easy, successful gardening

August 4th, 2019
Posted In: Gardening know how, Gardening on a budget

Plants that spread can save you so much time and money. And they’re the plants that create colour in my garden from July to the first frosts.

My top 10 plants that spread are:

  1. Day lilies
  2. Japanese anemones
  3. Phlomis russeliana
  4. Echinops (globe thistle)
  5. Acanthus mollis (‘Rue Ledan’ is less invasive)
  6. Asters/symphyotricum
  7. Crocosmia
  8. Dahlias
  9. Virginia creeper
  10. Persicarias
Plants that spread include day lilies

The day lilies in the foreground are plants that spread (sometimes too much!). The crocosmia spreads too, making July and August very colourful.

An old friend came to stay last weekend. ‘The garden’s looking wonderful,’ she said. ‘But it must be so much work. You must spend hours gardening every day to keep it like this.’

I don’t spend hours every day. I spend around 2-3 hours a week. I told her that.

And it doesn’t even cost a lot to keep it looking good. See here for my tips on how to save money when gardening.

The strategy starts with….

Start with making a big statement. We have one big border just outside the kitchen window. It’s the first thing anyone sees when they come out the back door. Most of the gardening I do is in that border.

If you have one or two strong ‘feature plants’ in a prominent border, then they will attract all the attention. They are mainly perennials, which are the backbone of easy gardening. See this post to find out more about why perennials work so well in your garden.

The rest of the garden is low-maintenance shrubs, plants that spread, plants that self-seed and…er…weeds.

And I must admit that parts of the garden do not look ‘wonderful.’ But by the time anyone gets to those borders, they have a glass of wine in their hand. And they’re still recovering from the impact of the huge, fluffy dark red Cotinus coggyria ‘Grace’ which dominates the garden.

Use a large feature plant to create impact in a border

One or two really strong feature plants in the border will attract attention away from the weeds. This is Cotinus coggyria ‘Grace.’

The key to maximising colour and minimising work…

Let the plants do the gardening. In spring, there are the bulbs. I try always to buy bulbs that spread.

That means that I don’t have to plant new bulbs every autumn. Sometimes the spring garden needs a bit of a top-up, but most bulbs come back year after year.

Ballerina tulips spread around the garden

Ballerina tulips come back year after year and naturalise well. Plant them deep and they will spread.

After the bulbs, self-seeding plants will fill lots of holes if you let them. Here is my list of 25 self-seeding plants which filled the garden in May.

Self-seeded poppy and coriander

Poppies and coriander are two of my favourite self-seeders. I love watching the bees wriggle around in the poppies.

Both self-seeders and plants that spread will grow better in some gardens than others. It’s mainly about your soil and aspect. So your best self-seeders and spreaders may not be the same as mine. But this gives you a place to start.

Then add plants that spread…

After the end of June, plants that spread dominate my garden. Day lilies, dahlias, Japanese anemones, acanthus mollis, phlomis, crocosmia, persicaria and asters/symphyotricum have all grown from a little plant or a scrap of a root into a huge clump.

Plants that spread in an English garden

Plants that spread in this picture include day lilies, stipa tenuissima and crocosmia.

Echinops are wildlife friendly and spread well

Echinops is a good plant for filling a space. It gets too big sometimes and I have to tie it back. But the pollinators love it.

Phlomis russeliana spread to form clumps and offer summer and winter interest.

These Phlomis russeliana have spread from a small piece of root given to me by a friend. They flower in late June and the seed heads continue to provide winter interest until the following February.

Day lily 'Flore Pleno' spreads around borders

This day lily (Hemerocallis fulva ‘Flore Pleno’) was in another border. But it got too crowded, so I dug lots up and planted a few tubers here. I like it next to the Phormium ‘Joker’.

What’s the difference between plants that spread and invasive plants?

Most of the plants that spread in our gardens are invasive in some parts of the world. If the climate and soil suits a plant, then it will spread too much, colonising space that would otherwise be taken up by native plants. It can also be toxic to native pollinators. It’s worth checking which plants are considered dangerously invasive in your part of the world.

Agapanthus, for example, is considered invasive in Southern Australia, where it is drier and hotter than it is here. A row of agapanthus lining a driveway near Melbourne looks magnificent, but these plants can do too well and invade the surrounding countryside. In Southern England, they can barely be persuaded to flower. They generally do better in pots.

Choose a non-invasive rhododendron and buy from a specialist grower like Burncoose nurseries.

There was a flurry of concern over whether rhododendrons would be made an illegal invasive plant but only Rhododendron ponticum is damaging habitats in the UK. There are hundreds of other varieties of rhododendron, such as those seen in this display from Burncoose Nurseries at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2019.

In California, Stipa tenuissima has been added to the Watch List of the California Invasive Plants Council. In the UK, it keeps nicely to itself.

Meanwhile Rhododendron ponticum, which are native to areas across Asia from China to Turkey, have become invasive in the UK. Their suckering root system can travel for many miles, out-competing native plants, poisoning some species of bees and creating swathes of dense shade. But most rhododendrons are much better behaved – check the plant label before buying.

So should we avoid invasive plants?

If a plant spreads well, and you have a middle-sized garden with borders to fill, it can be an excellent choice. They’re likely to do well without any fuss.

After every couple of years, you will probably have to get out your spade and dig up several clumps. But that’s about an hour of work every two years. That’s pretty low maintenance.

It is illegal to plant some very invasive plants in the UK. The RHS has a list of illegal non-native plants which you can download.  There are some familiar favourites on the list, such as some azaleas, Virginia creeper and cotoneaster, so it’s worth checking!

But try less invasive varieties of plants that spread

And every plant has less invasive varieties. Acanthus mollis, for example (Bear’s breeches) has a very invasive common version with a purple tint to its flowers. I have planted three Acanthus mollis ‘Rue Ledan’. These have pure white flowers and are less invasive. It has taken them a few years to get established but they are now forming very satisfying clumps.

So check labels and ask plant growers if you want plants that spread but are not too invasive.

Acanthus mollis 'Rue Ledan' spread but are not too invasive

The white spires of Acanthus mollis ‘Rue Ledan’ in my garden. This is a less invasive form of Bear’s Breeches. The smoke for a photography project being done by photographer Mikael Buck.

And, if you have a small garden and it’s in a town, then it’s not difficult to keep spreading plants under control. Just take plants out when they get too big for their boots.

Unless you have Japanese knotweed, which is the most invasive plant of all in the UK. This must be removed by experts. Don’t try to do it yourself.

Do dahlias spread?

Some dahlias in my garden do spread. That’s because I don’t dig dahlias up for winter. I protect them with a pile of compost or mulch. However I live in temperate South East England, the equivalent of a USA hardiness zone 9. Dahlias may not survive harsher winters in the ground.

Dahlias sometimes spread if you leave them in the soil over winter.

Dahlia ‘Orange Cushion’ has spread in my border because it has been there for ten years and I have never dug it up. But it has got too big and sprawly. I will have to dig it up this autumn and replant the healthiest tubers.

Dahlias that do well in the ground over winter seem to spread quite vigorously. If you dig your dahlias up every winter, then they are unlikely to spread, as they won’t have the opportunity.

Plants that spread are almost free

They spread over the ground quickly, so for the price of one or two plants, you can ultimately fill a big chunk of border.

And you can often get them from free. I’ve had small pieces of root given to me from friends, which have turned into major clumps. These include phlomis and persicaria. And I’m now trying to encourage some white anemones given to me by a friend to take root. I think Japanese anemones can take a few years to get established. After which they will take over the world.

Japanese anemones spread from small roots and help stifle weed growth but can be invasive.

Japanese anemones are so pretty, but they are on the borderline between ‘plants that spread’ and invasive plants. I’ve tried to dig my Japanese anemones out twice, but even the tiniest piece of root regenerates into another whole bed of Japanese anemones. I find that they smother other plants, but they also smother weeds. So they’re pretty, stifle weeds and need no care. But once you plant them, it’s hard to get rid of them.

Persicarias are easy, low-maintenance plants

A friend gave me a few small sections of persicaria root last autumn. I planted them straight into the ground. They have immediately grown into satisfying clumps without any extra attention. My friend says they spread particularly well in damp soil.

Climbers that spread

Spreading is the point of a climber. But once again, there’s a difference between a climber that grows halfway down the street and one that stays modestly on its own bit of wall.

If you have alot of area to cover, you need a fairly vigorous climber. But you don’t want to find its tendrils half a mile away.

So choose a slightly less vigorous variety. For example, we have Chinese Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus Henryana) on our back wall. This is less vigorous than ordinary Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).

We still have to cut it back twice a year, but it is otherwise completely trouble-free.

Chinese virgnia creeper is less vigorous than Virginia creeper

Chinese virginia creeper (Parthenocissus Henryana) on the back wall outside our kitchen. It’s another less invasive variety of a plant that sometimes spreads too much (Parthenocissus tricuspidata/Boston ivy/Virginia creeper)

In the recent heatwave, the virginia creeper insulated the kitchen wall. The kitchen was noticeably cooler than other rooms that didn’t have a creeper on the outside wall. In the early twentieth century, it was common to see houses swathed in creepers and ivies.

Then builders and decorators started to say that it was damaging the house. In fact, the RHS says that it’s rare for climbers to damage a house, although they should be kept under control. They can work their tendrils under guttering or roof tiles. But otherwise climbers can help protect the brickwork from weather and pollution. And when the leaves are on, climbers help insulate a house from excessive heat and cold.

I hope there’s going to be more work done on this, as it will help air pollution and pollinating insects if climbers return to the walls of our homes.

For more about how to choose the best climbing plants for your garden, see here.

Shop my favourite gardening books, tools and products

I’m often asked for recommendations, so I’ve put together some useful lists of gardening books, tools and products on the Middlesized Garden Amazon store.

Note: Links to Amazon are affiliate, see disclosure. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases but it doesn’t affect the price you pay.

For example, I’ve put together a short list of good books that will specifically help you choose plants. Sometimes the information on the label just isn’t enough!

Pin to remember plants that spread

And for a free weekly email with more tips, ideas and inspiration on making your garden look good with minimum effort, see here.

Plants that spread make for low maintenance gardening!

2 comments on "Plants that spread – the key to easy, successful gardening"

  1. Heather says:

    A similar looking garden to my own.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 + 4 =