Hannah Stephenson looks at ground cover plants that'll help suppress weeds and add colour and form to borders.
As spring begins, it may be a good time to think about how to reduce the weeding you have to do in future years - and good ground cover is essential if you want to lessen the backbreaking work of constant weeding.
Densely-planted areas should keep weeds at bay because the dark stops seeds from germinating. Well-chosen ground cover plants can also give a softer appearance to hard surfaces such as brickwork and paving.
Here's a few pointers to keep in mind...
Use the right plants
There are many obvious perennials to use, which will quickly take up space and add colour to the border, such as the wild geranium (cranesbill), but some need more work than others. Many make excellent permanent edging, such as Alchemilla mollis, Bergenia cordifolia 'Purpurea' and Saxifraga x urbium.
Check first, however, that such plants will be suitable for your soil. And remember that deciduous ground cover plants lose their leaves in autumn, so if you are using them in abundance you may find yourself with some ugly gaps in your border during the winter months.
Other quick-growing varieties include Persicaria affinis, which thrives in sun or light shade and provides up to a 24-inch evergreen carpet, with pinkish-purple flowers emerging in summer.
Helianthemum 'Praecox' produces small yellow flowers above a 6-inch evergreen carpet of grey-green leaves, flowering between June and August.
Other relatively trouble-free ground cover plants include Ajuga reptans, astilbe, Calluna vulgaris, Erica carnea and Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald Gaiety'.
Watch out for invasive species
Vigorous ground cover has its pros and cons. The advantage is that vigorous plants will fill an area quickly at less cost - but if you ever decide to change your scheme, they may be difficult to get rid of.
Periwinkle (vinca) is extremely hard to get rid of, snow-in-summer will fill a sunny site in just one season but will also take over everything else. And lily-of-the-valley, while wonderfully fragrant, has deep vein-like roots which are almost impossible to eradicate should you wish to do so.
Perennial geraniums are also quite vigorous, but they are easier to contain and do provide some welcome colour during the summer.
Fill difficult spots
If you have a difficult spot to fill, such as a steep bank in shade, Ajuga reptans (bugle) is a strong evergreen, which carries spikes of blue flowers from late spring to midsummer. It spreads quickly, forming a carpet which will easily act as ground cover under shrubs and trees.
Other shade-lovers that make good ground cover include heucheras, which come in a range of colours from almost black to acid green. Their flowers are also a magnet to bees.
Infill with reliable favourites
When planting a border and graduating it from taller plants at the back to lower-growing varieties at the front, you can always add interest by placing a number of taller species forward into the middle ground, which applies particularly to tall hardy perennials such as lupins and delphiniums.
Good infill plants, once you have established the framework of your border, include potentilla, rosemary, spiraea, cystus, acanthus and rudbeckia, while at the lowest level towards the front of the border you could use dwarf hebes, alchemilla, epimedium and lamium.
Plant carefully enough and you should soon have a riot of colour, without the need for too much hoeing or hand-weeding.
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