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Easy, low-maintenance ground covers

Ground covers can be among the most attractive and useful plant groupings in your home landscape.

Ground covers can be among the most attractive and useful plant groupings in your home landscape.

Easy to grow ground covers can often be more attractive than lawns. Their flowers and foliage bring colour and brightness to difficult areas in the garden.

Ground covering plants are just that — they spread or creep over the ground to form a dense, living carpet of foliage which can take the place of a lawn or fulfil many other useful purposes in the garden.

They include plants that propagate quickly to form a dense, lawn‑like carpet of greenery, plants that have coloured foliage or which flower profusely, and others that are really small, spreading shrubs. There is a large variety of texture and leaf form too, and there are ground covers to suit varying soil types and virtually any terrain, whether a rocky, steep bank or a damp, shady corner.

Few ground cover plants can be considered as a complete replacement for a lawn, because most of them will not stand up to heavy pedestrian traffic. However, for small back or front gardens, ground covers are often an ideal alternative to a lawn.

Most low‑growing, spreading plants will stand being trodden on occasionally for the unavoidable tasks of weeding and cutting back, and carefully placed stepping stones will help prevent bald patches developing in areas that have to be trodden on more frequently. You may care to arrange these in a random pattern to create a ’spontaneous’ effect.

In terrace or townhouse gardens where paving occupies much of the available space, ground covers can be used to flank paths or fill in between paved sections. A soft sea of foliage is also easier to maintain than a lawn.

Even in larger gardens, ground cover plants can be used instead of lawn to provide a change in texture and to cut down on maintenance. A front garden that is not used as a leisure area, but is designed to complement a house, can use a ground cover as a permanent and trouble‑free ‘floor’. With careful planning, you could use ground covers to create a garden in which there is no visible soil.

A hardy ground cover plant is often better than a lawn as a covering for the spaces between pathways and garden beds. In large garden beds, or rockeries, a very low, spreading ground cover can have a unifying influence and help maintain the moisture level of the soil. A quick‑growing, uniform ground cover does away with the bare, clean-shaven effect that accompanies the establishment of a new garden, when immature trees and shrubs are planted some distance apart. Some home owners like to establish a ground cover even before taking occupation of their newly‑built house.

Ground covers are particularly well suited to informal gardens, and areas that are difficult to landscape in a conventional way. It is often difficult, or impossible, to grow a lawn on steep, rocky blocks of land, and even if a lawn can be established, mowing and maintenance could be a problem.

Since they spread rapidly to form a dense mass, one or more ground covers can be used over a terraced area to reduce the number of weeds. They can also be used on sloping banks where mowing would be difficult. Both the carpeting type of cover and the low shrub plants are suitable for sloping banks ‑ the choice depends on the type of foliage that is required.

Choose the right plant for the right place. As ground covering involves the mass use of a particular species, it must look attractive over an area of several square metres. If you use several ground cover plants, do not plant a slow‑growing type next to a vigorous grower, as it could be overwhelmed. Some ground covers look neater with an occasional pruning or mowing. Normally, however, the only necessary pruning will be to remove damaged foliage or disproportionate, straggling branches, or just to keep the plant confined to it’s allotted area. Certain plants such as pachysandra or English ivy will look much neater and better if they are trimmed or mowed back to 15 cm every other year.

Spreading plants such as juniperus horizontalis plumosus and Grevillea biternata provide wide ground coverage. Planted on a sloping site, these long-lived shrubs will eventually form a dense mat of attractive foliage.


Many gardens have areas where grass will not grow properly because they are permanently shaded by buildings or partly shaded by trees. A wide selection of ground covers can be used as a replacement for grass in these areas. Those with colourful foliage are often chosen for shady areas.

Ground covers do not only provide attractive borders to garden beds; they also serve as a living mulch for shrubs and trees. When plants have spread over the bed, weed growth will be largely eliminated.

Flowering ground covers are an attractive addition to most garden beds. Phlox subulata (Alpine phlox), Gazanias, Helianthemum nummularium and Geranium incanum are among the higher growing ground cover plants that are used for their colour.

Alyssum (Lobularia maritima) is a sweetly‑ scented, low‑profile ground cover which is widely used in South Africa.

This is the first in a new series dealing with Ground Covers. Future posts will deal with Propagation of ground covers, Planting and Caring for ground covers, and profiles of a number of popular ground covers.