Are you totally over seeing bare dirt in your flower beds? Ground cover plants are what you need – shrubs or perennials that spread to create a lush, green carpet over the soil. The best ground cover plants are hardy, spread quickly, provide dense cover and limit weed growth.
Before you invest in this kind of foliage, check that the plants you choose are going to thrive in the temperate British climate. You’ll also have to do some initial weed control and plenty of watering through the first couple of seasons while they become established.
If you’re ready to add some extra greenery to your garden, here are the best ground cover plants for UK gardens.
What Are the Best Ground Cover Plants?
Although it’s native to South America, nasturtiums took off in the UK thanks to their stunning colours, edible properties and just how easy they are to grow. Even better, they act as natural pest control, keeping caterpillars and aphids away from more valuable flowers and crops, and they attract pollinators. Plant them in kitchen gardens or among insect hotels and leave the chemical pesticides on the shelf.
Asarabacca, sometimes called foalfoot, offers dense, evergreen foliage, with small, rounded leaves that have a rich green colour, sometimes with creamy veins and silver mottling. In late spring, you might notice purple bell-shaped flowers blooming, although they’re typically hidden beneath the leaves. Asarabacca is perfect for creating a glade-like effect in wildlife gardens – it’s known to attract butterflies, too.
Periwinkle is a fast-growing evergreen that becomes established very quickly. It’s perfect for awkward, difficult-to-fill spots, and is a cost-effective way to get thick coverage, fast. The drawback is that, for the exact same reasons, periwinkle can be difficult to get rid of if you ever change your gardening scheme.
This succulent-type plant is super easy to care for, with its fleshy leaves retaining water that can keep it hydrated in drier months. It keeps close to the ground, but the fantastic yellows, pinks and browns of sedum adds show-stopping contrast to any flower bed. In the UK, sedum will need to be in a full-sun position, which is why it’s not only among the best ground cover plants, it’s also fantastic for living roof cover.
Ribbon grass, sometimes called ‘Feesey’, is a variety of Phalaris arundinacea, or reed canary grass, which grows in tall, perennial clumps. It’s incredibly common in the UK, often growing around lakes and streams, but also flourishing in poor-quality soil like brownfield sites. Ribbon grass is great for adding visual variety to a garden, especially with its pink-tinged leaves, but it can grow invasively, so plant with caution.
Petunia (trailing varieties)
Trailing petunias, like the “Charlie’s Angels Champagne” variety, give excellent ground cover alongside fantastic, trumpet-shaped flowers in stunning shades of purple in summer and autumn. them in a spot that’s sunny but sheltered from the wind, and keep their soil moist. Petunias are also a favourite for hanging basket displays.
We’re used to seeing juniper in its classic shade of green, but this variety has an icy-blue tinge, earning it the nickname ‘blue carpet’. A juniper shrub really won’t need much maintenance at all, and provides dense coverage roughly 1-2m across.
Most people are familiar with lavender, and it really is such a versatile plant! Its silvery-green leaves and stems grow in thick clumps, blooming with fragranced purple flowers that come back each year. Lavender looks wonderful outside traditional homes and formal, French-style gardens, but also works well in more modern, low-maintenance spaces.
Despite its name, Irish moss is actually part of the carnation family, but it grows in bushy carpets that are perfect for Japanese-inspired rock gardens and creeping between the paving stones of grass-free spaces. In spring, it blooms with delicate white flowers that look stunning at the edge of a path or flower bed.
Johnson’s Blue geraniums are especially hardy, and will grow both upwards and outwards to fill a space. The small flowers and leaves are perfect for adding texture and busyness between statement plants like shrubs and roses. Look for varieties in pink or purple as well as blue.
The cheerful, daisy-like flowers of chamomile make any garden feel more welcoming. It’s incredibly low-maintenance too, and is a great candidate for grass-lawn alternatives. It fares well in sandy soil too, so it’s perfect for beach-themed gardens if you’re by the sea.
Although it’s more common in the US, Mondo grass makes for fantastic ground cover if you can get hold of some in the UK. It comes in several varieties, including variegated leaves and glossy green-black. Plant it alongside other grasses, in borders, or even in clusters of planters.
Wickwar flame/Scots heather
Wickwar flame, or Caluna vulgaris, is one of those plants that looks striking in every season. It bursts into yellow foliage in summer, which slowly turns into oranges and reds and winter approaches, interrupted briefly by tiny pink flowers in autumn. Although heathers are usually associated with coarse highland landscapes, the spicy shades of Wickwar flame are perfect for making a garden look more tropical and exotic, like a tiki-style garden in the UK.
Hostas are known for being highly effective ground covers, and come in countless varieties. ‘Francee’ has white-edged leaves that cascade over each other for some stunning flower bed action. Plus, it’s one of the more readily available hosta varieties.
Sweet alyssum is one of my favourite ground cover plants, growing in dense clouds of tiny white and purple flowers that give off a honey-like perfume. What you lose from sweet alyssum being an annual, you more than recoup from its hardiness and tolerance for heat and drought. Frost will kill it off but, as a self-sower, you can reasonably expect it to return each year.
No garden is truly complete without roses, and there is always a variety to suit what you’re looking for. For example, groundcover roses which extend outwards, rather than upwards, providing you with a stunning blanket of blooms. Although these varieties typically have very little fragrance, their pretty blends of white, pink, red and yellow make petals up for it.
Lily of the Valley
Considering how delicate its picture-perfect bells appear, Lily of the Valley is as hardy as any of the other plants on this list. Like the best ground cover plants are prone to do, Lily of the Valley can spread quickly, so make use of confined spaces and sturdy garden edging to minimise your maintenance. Also be aware that Lily of the Valley is toxic to cats and dogs, so avoid it if you’re looking for dog-friendly garden ideas.
Sometimes known as ‘carpet’ bugleweed, you know you’re on the right track when floor coverage is in the name. Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) has green-brown foliage that will add depth and dimension to your flower beds, while at the same time making it difficult for weeds to creep through. In summer, tiny towers of purple or white flowers appear, giving you a stunning layer of chocolatey, coppery and violet tones.
Choosing the Best Ground Cover Plants for Your Garden
All of these ground cover plants will serve you well. To choose the best match, consider both the style of your garden and the climate conditions your plants will be faced with. Soil composition, sunlight, wind exposure and space to grow will play a big part in the longevity of your plants, and whether they struggle to survive, or vigorously thrive (even threatening your other plants).