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GROUND COVER Planting and Weed Control in the Garden


Ground cover plants are often wrongly sold or advertised as being the sole solution to weeds in some areas of the garden.

In this and the following list of ground cover plants, we talk only about those that are true weed suppressing plants once established. Many articles simply include space fillers. Different!

Not all of the plants that are sold as ground cover are up to the job. There are two basic types of groundcover. The first is for creating a carpet of plants which are important in the 'garden' sense. The second is 'Utopia' - so often sought, but rarely found - the complete smothering of weeds - without any added effort. Huh!

Ground-cover planting can be a useful means of controlling weeds, but it is important to remove existing weeds before planting.

Weeds in GardenKilling Existing Weeds before Planting your Ground Cover Planting Scheme.

Types of Weeds - Annual and Perennial.

There are two basic types of weeds to consider when deciding upon a course of action with groundcover plants.

Annual weeds which live for just one year – though re-generate themselves quite efficiently year after year, by simply spreading their seeds about before they die down in the autumn.

Perennial weeds live for many years; sometimes evergreen; often dying to ground level each year. The ones that die down each year often have fleshy roots in which they store energy for new growth the following spring.

All plants – whether weeds or cultivated garden plants - have the same requirements for life. Water, food/nutrients and light! Deprive plants of one of these, and you will at least seriously inhibit its growth or in the longer term, kill it. Understand that, and you are well on the way to a successful groundcover planting scheme.

Types of Weeds - Annual and Perennial.

There are two basic types of weeds to consider when deciding upon a course of action with groundcover plants.

  • Annual weeds which live for just one year – though re-generate themselves quite efficiently year after year, by simply spreading their seeds about before they die down in the autumn.
  • Perennial weeds which live for many years; sometimes evergreen; often dying to ground level each year. The ones that die down each year often have fleshy roots in which they store energy for new growth the following spring.

All plants – whether weeds or cultivated garden plants - have the same requirements for life. Water, food/nutrients and light! Deprive plants of one of these, and you will at least seriously inhibit its growth or in the longer term, kill it. Understand that, and you are well on the way to a successful groundcover planting scheme.

If there is an existing problem with weed growth, it is best dealt with before attempting a long term solution with plants. It would be folly to buy masses of so-called ground cover, weed suppressing plants to plant amongst existing weeds. The plants such as Sedum and alpine Phlox (Phlox subata) which are often advertised as weed suppressers are not generally suitable. They are good ground cover plants, but that does not make them suitable for combating an existing weed problem. Without competition from existing weeds, they will do a good job at preventing new weeds from growing, but they or most other plants will not solve an existing weed problem.

The most important thing is to get rid of the weeds first: Before planting!

There should be no mystique about ground cover planting, for most plants will create ground cover once they are growing well. They will not grow well if they have to compete with weeds that have not been properly cleared.

Ground cover planting – and groundcover plants – can be found in many common plants used in the garden, including many popular groundcover shrubs and perennials. They need not be evergreen either, for most weeds tend to grow at the same time as other plants – Spring, Summer, and to a lesser extent – Autumn.

Any plant that provides a good canopy of foliage will have a ground covering effect, effectively blocking out weeds or providing basic cover for the earth to prevent that damage caused by rain pounding the soil and causing compaction which in turn affects the basic soil structure.

Ground cover planting is normally used by gardeners as a means of trying to suppress weeds – often with poor effect. To go with that, ground cover is sometimes used to simply cover up an unsightly bank or other area where ‘normal plants’ seem reluctant to grow. Little thought is given to the advantageous effect to the soil resulting from ground cover planting.

Choice of Suitable Plants for Ground Cover in the garden.

Beth Chatto Planted Border

Not too many weeds in this superb border at Beth Chatto's Garden. Groundcover planting does not come much better! Rudbeckia, Asters, Grasses, Persicaria and many other plants, form a good cover against weeds. Oh, and they also make for a beautiful 'ground cover' area!

There is a huge range plants for ground cover planting, and the good thing is – that they need not be the usual range of somewhat boring, creeping, evergreens so often sold as being the answer.  Look at any good herbaceous perennial border and you will rarely see a weed problem.

Herbaceous perennials are not evergreen; die down for more or less half of the year; give us a wealth of colour and interest for the other half of the year; prevent the growth of weeds! The reason why these deciduous plants are such good groundcover plants is that they provide a dense canopy of foliage during the growing season – and do it quite quickly in the spring - to either prevent weed seeds from germinating or, they are quickly deprived of light and food, so cannot over-run the planted area.

Kill the weeds first then plant your groundcover plants. Then care for your plants for the first few months. Then you will achieve ground cover planting that lives up to its name. You can also have an area of beauty, and not simply droves of the same old plants sold for the purpose. Cotoneaster, Heathers, Hypericum, Sedum, Ivy, Pachysandra and the like can be left to the ‘garden designers’ and landscape gardeners. Strive to create an area of colour and year round interest instead!

Perennials Plants and Ground Cover Planting.

As will be seen in the picture of the mixed border above,  perennials make great groundcover plants , and provide beautiful flower and foliage interest for much of the year. Add a few naturalised bulbs - Daffodils, Autumn Crocus - Colchicum, Anemones and Eranthis - Winter Aconite, and you extend the traditional herbaceous border by quite a few months. Add some grasses for their autumn/winter effect, and then you have year round interest - and weed suppressing groundcover planting!

If your ground cover plants are to smother the ground, then they will have to be quite vigorous growers themselves. Low growing shrubs are usually used, but there are not many weeds that grow beneath rhododendrons - or any other well established shrub for that matter! There are traditional favourites for this job i.e. the low growing Cotoneasters, Heathers, Hypericums, Lavenders, Ceanothus (Low varieties), Berberis, Euonymus Emerald Gaiety, E. Emerald & Gold, Hederas (ivies) Hardy Geraniums (Not the hanging basket types) Hebes, Hostas, Potentillas, Sedums, Senecio (Now called Brachyglottis), Helianthemums, Cistus, Winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum).

Don’t forget the low growing conifers either. Junipers are probably best - Juniper pfitzeriana ‘Aurea’ , J. x media ‘Old Gold’ are 2 good yellow/gold spreaders, whilst J. ‘Blue Carpet’ and J. horizontalis ‘Glauca’ are good ‘blues’. J. tamariscifolia is also good; and don’t forget J. horizontalis ‘Hughes’ .
For something different, try the evergreen honeysuckle (Lonicera halliana) allowing it to spread along the ground; and don’t forget some of the groundcover shrub roses. Rosa Red Blanket, R. Frau Dagmar Hastrup and R. Rosy Cushion are often used.



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