Although carpeting the ground with dense groupings of low-growing plants is principally about reducing the amount of weeding needed to keep beds looking good, using ground cover can contribute to the low maintenance garden in others ways too. In addition to being functional, well chosen and carefully planted ground cover can also provide an attractive feature in its own right.
Weed suppression is the time-honoured use for ground cover planting and something it does very well, once it has become established, since a solid mat of plants is very effective at out-competing new weeds for light, nutrients and water. However, when newly planted at the right distance to allow them to spread properly, there will be considerable gaps of open soil between the individual young plants, which obviously offers weeds a much easier time of it.
To prevent the bed becoming over-run before the ground cover can get going, it is often a very good idea to cover any bare ground with a good thick layer of mulch to stop any weeds from getting a hold. In addition, this also helps to retain moisture and keep the soil warm, which should help speed up plant growth; a good quality open mulch, such as shredded forest bark or coir shells, spread around 2 inches (5cm) deep between the new plants will be ideal. It may need to be topped up each year in the spring, until the plants grow into each other and form a dense carpet.
Established ground cover plants can themselves act as a form of living mulch, reducing evaporation from the underlying soil in warm weather and so holding moisture where the other plants in the bed can make use of it. In terms of low maintenance gardening, this can be a real help by lessening the amount and frequency of watering required – and with the ever present threat of hose-pipe bans that seem to accompany British summers these days, this can be a major benefit.
For gardens in areas which are known to be prone to droughts or sites with very open and rapidly draining soils, densely planted evergreen ground cover shrubs, such as rosemary, lavender or varieties of Cistus – especially C. skanbergii – are perfect candidates. Naturally drought resistant, they provide a point of interest while shading the soil from the worst of the dry conditions, making it less likely to be blown away with the wind, which can often be a problem for the lighter types of soil.
Picking Your Plants
There is no shortage of options when it comes to picking suitable plants, although as always the individual climate, aspect and growing conditions of your garden must be taken into account. You will also need to decide whether you want to go for a blanket coverage of a single type of plant or mix the varieties to inject some contrast in colour or texture. If you do opt for a mixture of plants, selecting ones which grow at roughly the same rate should avoid any unsightly bald patches in the overall effect.
In addition to rosemary and lavender, plants such as creeping thymes, Cotoneaster, Juniperus, Erica, Euonymus, Hypericum, Vinca and Santolina are all worth considering. For an alternative and rather different approach, odd though it sounds, some climbing plants can also do a very good job of providing ground cover – particularly those which are self-layering or attach themselves by means of thick tendrils.
Some kinds of ivies and clematis can be used in this way, along with Parthenocissus, Kennedia and Trachelospermum – though since many are not fully frost tolerant, you may need to be careful where you use them.
Many of the low growing shrubs commonly sold to provide ground cover are good-looking plants themselves and those chosen for their evergreen or variegated foliage offer year round interest in addition to performing a useful role in keeping weeding to a minimum. Whether used to blanket a little-used corner, or to set off the rest of the plot, ground cover plants offer a very attractive solution to low maintenance gardening.