It is convenient to define ground cover plants as any low-growing species that displays a spreading habit. Many are characterised by possessing modified underground stems in the form of rhizomes or stolons (runners) that, in turn, give rise to new growth above ground. Ideally, the distance between adjacent growths should be minimal, so as to provide the appearance of a tightly-woven carpet of vegetation.
Typically, the species used for this purpose fall into one of five main categories. They may be vines which, though essentially woody, have only thin stems that spread rapidly. The remaining categories are all non-woody species and consist of low-growing, spreading shrubs, some of the larger and coarser species of moss and various ornamental grasses.
In addition to providing visual appeal, ground cover plants fulfil two other very important functions. In both natural and tailored environments, they provide a means to prevent soil erosion and are used widely in locations where there might otherwise be a risk of landslides. These include sites such as railway embankments and old mine dumps where, in addition to safety issues, they also serve to restore a more natural landscape.
Although equally able to stabilise smaller inclines on the domestic scene, of greater significance to the nation’s gardeners is the fact that, once an area is freed of weeds, this type of dense coverage has the ability to choke any attempts to re-infest that area. It thus provides a far more acceptable and eco-friendly solution than the continued use of weed killers.
Ground cover species, like other plants, have their environmental preferences and, in particular, some species are better able to grow in shaded positions, while other varieties need greater exposure to sunlight in order to thrive. Those in the former category and especially those that also have limited water requirements, can prove invaluable in filling those areas of bare soil that are usually to be found at the bases of trees. Here, access to sunlight is usually minimal and the competition for water is usually too intense to support the growth of the grasses that are commonly used for lawns.
As well as sunlight and moisture, there are other factors that will need to be taken into account when deciding upon the most appropriate choice of ground cover plants. While most of these low-growing, spreading species are quite resilient, even the ornamental grasses may become damaged by constant foot traffic and so these should be used to line pathways rather than providing them.
Because of its intended purpose, lawn grass requires considerable attention throughout most of the year, although other forms of cover may be less demanding, it is not really true to claim that they require no maintenance. Evergreen species are the least demanding and, other than limiting their spread, may largely be left to their own devices. By contrast, those ground cover plants that produce flowers and fruit, though offering gardeners the advantage of adding a touch of colour, will also need rather more effort to keep them looking clean and tidy when their colourful display begins to die off.
Windy Willows is a commercial nursery offering extensive stocks and expertise. We are happy to advise gardeners and supply ground cover and other plants to meet their specific needs.