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How to Plant Creeping Plants and Ground Cover Plants

Discover why, where and how best to plant these garden-enhancing plants, as well as which to choose

Houzz UK contributor and award-winning landscape and garden designer. Claudia de… More

If you’re looking to suppress weeds, cover bare areas of soil, find plants suitable for rockeries or simply enhance the front of a border, here are just some of the plants to consider for this purpose.

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Grow an outdoor ‘carpet’
Campanula may be annuals, herbaceous or evergreen perennials. Campanula poscharskyana is semi-evergreen and a spreading perennial form of this trailing bellflower, which creates a low mound of rounded leaves. The stems bear lovely blue-violet, star-shaped flowers from spring well into autumn. Campanula looks lovely popping up in between steps and stones, and forms a beautiful blue and green carpet, like here at Iford Manor in Wiltshire.

Campanula Portenschlagiana is a very vigorous form. It has less of a trailing habit, but it still bears bell- or star-shaped flowers on branching stems, forming a dense, low-growing mat.

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Soften outside edges
Paths and paved areas around buildings are often dry spaces and can look quite stark, especially without pots, so may need to be softened. You can use a mixture of creeping plants and perennials to help bring the garden closer to the house without having a planted border.

In this image from Knepp Castle in West Sussex, the paved areas have been planted with upright sisyrinchium and masses of Erigeron karvinskianus, a perennial that forms large mats of tiny daisy-like flowers. Erigeron is also a great plant to use in walls, in steps and any paved areas. It will happily self seed, popping up in different areas.

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Entice the bees
Using sweet-smelling creeping thyme as a ground cover will help to attract bees, as well as create scented mounds to brush past. For a white form, opt for Thymus serpyllum ‘Snowdrift’. For a good bushy thyme often used in cooking, look for Thymus ‘Silver Posie’, which has white-margined leaves and pale-pink flowers. Thyme thrives in well-drained, dry, sunny positions, so make sure it doesn’t become waterlogged.

Another good scented creeping plant often used in the place of a lawn is the herbaceous chamomile. The aromatic leaves form a dense mat, and daisy-like white flowers are produced in the summer. If planted in shady areas the lawn will become patchy, so choose open, sunnier sites. Only trim the flowers in the late summer to prevent dead patches, and don’t walk on newly planted chamomile lawns for at least 12 weeks.

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Bring some love to shady spots
Ajuga reptans is a great plant for shady areas of the garden and is usually grown for its evergreen foliage rather than the flower. However, in late spring/early summer you will be delighted by the short spikes of deep blue-violet flowers. This plant makes a lovely low-maintenance ground cover and a nice choice would be Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop’, which can also tolerate sunlight.

Brunnera, the perennial forget-me-not, is another good plant for shady areas of the garden, flowering from April to June. Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ has a nice silvery mottled foliage with bright-blue dainty flowers.

The mat-forming and evergreen Pachysandra Terminalis is also a great plant for shady areas. The plant, often also called Japanese spurge, flowers in the summer, producing upright clusters of tiny white flowers, but most of the year you are blessed with rosettes of dark-green leaves serrated at the edges. This plant does very well in areas of bare ground between deciduous shrubs and trees.

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Try a trailer
Vinca minor (lesser periwinkle) will brighten up a shady spot and often flower – from spring well into autumn – where other plants won’t. Choose ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ for a pure white form and for a variegated leaf with violet-blue flowers, opt for Vinca minor ‘Ralph Shugert’. For a lovely deep-purple flower, opt for Vinca minor ‘Atropurpurea’. For a very vigorous larger variety, choose Vinca major ‘Variegata’, which has big blue-violet flowers and ovate leaves margined with cream.

For damp areas, choose creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’), a bright-green trailing foliage plant that has cup-shaped yellow flowers from June to August. This is a good plant for softening the edges of a pond, and as it grows rapidly it will soon hide unsightly features, too.

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Plant beneath
Cornus canadensis is a herbaceous creeping dogwood that forms a dense mat of foliage and blooms beneath trees and shrubs, which can often be problem areas when it comes to what to plant. In the late spring, snowy white petal flowers form, surrounded by rich green leaves, and in the autumn, once the flowers have faded, these are followed by clusters of bright red berries.

Galium odoratum, or sweet woodruff, is a valuable plant for a woodland setting and spreads quite rapidly with its underground rhizomes. Its sweetly scented clusters of star-shaped flowers in the spring are great for attracting bees.

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Green up a rockery
Finding the right plants for a very dry sunny bank can be difficult, but drought-resistant creeping phlox comes in a wonderful array of vibrant colours and forms a mat of fragrant flowers that will suppress weeds. Phlox ‘Bavaria’ produces a lovely white flower with a gleaming purple eye and it will camouflage an ugly slope. All phlox are attractive to butterflies and are easy to grow as ground cover or in a rockery.

Lithodora diffusa ‘Heavenly Blue’ loves being in a sunny rockery or border. It has lovely star-shaped blue flowers from spring until summer, is low-growing with evergreen foliage and will quickly cover a wide area.

Aubrieta is one of the most recognised trailing plants; it’s one you’ll often see draped over walls. The rich purple flowers cascade down and the aptly named ‘Purple Cascade’ forms a lovely mat of foliage and flowers, although it is relatively short-lived. For a longer flowering plant that continues for at least eight weeks, choose Aubrieta ‘Axcent Deep Purple’.

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Make it edible
Fragaria vesca, or wild strawberry, is a small woodland or alpine strawberry and it can be used effectively as ground cover. The creeping stolons will be more likely to produce some small edible fruits if planted in sunnier areas, but they will also tolerate partial shade. The plants look better towards the front of a border or along a path, or trailing over a pot or stone.

Another plant that’s great for cascading over rocks and has a hugging habit is Alyssum ‘Carpet of Snow’. This hardy spreading annual, which is also edible, has tiny white flowers throughout the summer months and both the leaves and the flowers, which have a similar taste to kale, can be added to soups, omelettes and salads. Being wind-tolerant this plant is useful for coastal gardens too.

Apart from creeping thyme, there is another herb that flowers and which can be used in cooking as well as acting as a good ground cover: Rosmarinus officinalis Prostratus Group produces blue flowers, needs to be planted in full sun and have good drainage. It can also be grown in a pot.

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Introduce a mossy effect
Often sold as a house plant, Soleirolia soleirolii, more commonly known as mind-your- own-business or baby’s tears, can also be found outdoors smothering a drain; this is because it does well in moist, shady areas. You also see it in living walls and Japanese-style gardens where it is used as a substitute for moss. Due to its slender spreading stems that root as it runs, the tiny leaves of this mat-forming creeping perennial form a soft mound like a deep-pile carpet.

For a mat-forming flowered version of soleirolia you could opt for Pratia pedunculata, which has tiny star-shaped blue flowers. But beware as it can be very invasive and many people complain that they can’t get rid of it once it has entered the garden.

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Choose all-year-round green ground cover
Creeping juniper, or Juniperus horizontalis, will add visual interest to the garden throughout the year. The plant is often seen in municipal planting areas due to its low-height growing habit, making it good for covering large bare areas. A good choice for the garden would be Juniperus horizontalis ‘Wiltonii’, which has steel-blue foliage and turns a purple colour in colder winters. Alternatively, look for Juniperus horizontalis ‘Blue Chip’ with fine silvery blue foliage. Juniperus prefer full sun and dry conditions, otherwise they can be susceptible to blight.

For a variegated evergreen leaf, look for the vigorous Euonymus fortunei ‘Harlequin’, the dwarf spindle bush, whose young white shoots turn into variegated silver-green leaves. Come winter the leaves turn a lovely pinkish-red, which will brighten up the garden.

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