5 essential … low growing shrubs for ground cover

Whilst we often think first of perennials when looking for ground cover plants, there are many low growing shrubs that do the job quickly and effectively and that can provide a longer season of interest and more spread for your money.

Cotoneasters are wonderfully versatile shrubs which can be evergreen or deciduous and vary widely in size and form.  However, one thing that they all have in common is their long season of interest and easiness to grow.  Cotoneaster conspicuus ‘Decorus’ is a low growing, semi-evergreen cotoneaster with very small, glossy dark green leaves, an arching habit and a mature height and spread of 1-1.5m x 2m.


The branches are smothered in small white flowers for a long period in summer which in autumn are followed by bright red berries.  Any well-drained soil and any aspect will suit this Cotoneaster which makes it especially useful in dry, shady spots, but it may need protection from cold, drying winds in colder areas.

Nandina domestica ‘Firepower’ provides neat, colourful ground cover with a long season of interest in a sun or part shade and looks great planted in groups.  It is a dwarf form of heavenly bamboo with a compact, rounded form and shiny mid-green leaves that turn fiery shades of red and copper in autumn.


Additional autumn interest is provided by the glossy red berries while in mid-summer conical clusters of tiny white flowers appear amongst the leaves.  Frost hardy (it may need some protection in colder areas), it is not fussy about soil type as long as it is moist and well-drained.
Garden tip: lightly cut back any shoots that are spoiling the overall shape in mid to late spring.

As well as providing wonderful fast growing ground cover in full sun or partial shade, Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’, or purple sage, also scores highly on good looks, aroma and usefulness.  The highly aromatic young leaves emerge a deep reddish purple maturing to a lovely soft grey/green with a mauve hue (the hotter and sunnier the conditions the deeper the purple colouring).  Purple sage combines particularly well with any purple/lilac/mauve flowered plants such as lavender or nepeta, and bees love sage’s own beautiful lilac/mauve flowers that appear over a long period during May to July.


Purple sage leaves have the same culinary uses as common sage including making a tasty, astringent tea which has a variety of medicinal properties and the edible flowers look really lovely scattered over summer salads.  Sage is fully hardy as long as it is grown on well-drained soil that is not acid and it makes a good container plant.  Height and spread: 100cm x 80cm.
Garden tips: Prune plants lightly after flowering and in spring to keep them bushy.  Mature and/or leggy plants can be pruned hard in spring (when it can look a bit shabby after winter), but take some cuttings as insurance.  Sage is prone to becoming woody and is best replaced every 4-5 years.

Viburnum davidii is a good looking shrub for all seasons with a low growing, naturally domed shape that makes for great ground cover beneath other taller shrubs of more vertical habit.  The large leathery oval leaves are dark green and heavily veined and held on red tinged stems.


In May flattened heads of tubular white flowers appear, followed later in the year by startling metallic turquoise berries on bright red stems (NB: cross-pollination must occur for fruits to be produced).  A must for woodland borders, Viburnum davidii is also happy in full sun and on any moderately fertile, well-drained and moist soil.  Height and spread: 1m x 1-1.5m.
Garden tips: Little to no pruning required.  If pruning is carried out, cut back to strong stems or to plant base to retain domed shape.

It’s hard to beat a good ground cover rose for sheer floriferousness and, well, ground covering.  Rosa ‘Kent’, one of the ‘Towne and Country’ series, is a repeat-flowering, reliable performer that forms a small, neat mound and looks good over a long season.


Slightly scented, semi-double white flowers with a cream flush open in great abundance from July to September, set off perfectly by the shiny dark green leaves and followed in autumn by small red hips.


Rosa Kent thriving in a mixed border in an exposed garden – used here to provide flowering interest & structure without blocking the views

Requires a fertile, humus rich, moist soil and full sun to light shade.  It makes a good patio plant in a container and the flowers, which stand up well to rain, are also good for cutting.  Height and spread: 1m.
Gardening tips: Little annual pruning required.  Remove dead, diseased, damaged or congested branches to the base in late winter.  If plants grow too large for their allotted space, prune vigorous branches by one third and prune side shoots to two or three buds from main stem.


Photo credits:  Janet Bligh

Sunny delights – flowering shrubs for hot dry gardens

For anyone blessed with a sunny garden with free-draining soil in the UK, it can be difficult to grow a wide range of garden shrubs as many of the plants which can cope with cold British winters also require a reasonably moisture-retentive soil. Frustrating though it can be for the plantaholics amongst us, it’s always best to plant according to soil and site conditions – unless you like a challenge!  There are a number of flowering shrubs which I plant in sheltered, dry, sunny borders with poor soil – and which I know will thrive and flower well, which is the point after all!

Shrubby Potentilla is a very reliable plant, and is both drought-tolerant and hardy.  Naturally growing as a rounded or dome-shaped shrub (approx 1m-1.5m wide and high), it is also very useful to keep weeds at bay, as it grows into a medium size ground-cover plant.  Flowers range from creamy white (‘Abbotswood’), to pale pink (‘Princess’) through to pale yellow (‘Primrose Beauty’) and brighter yellow (‘Elizabeth’ and ‘Goldfinger’) and on to the more orangey tones of Potentilla ‘Red Ace’ and ‘Sunset’.

Potentilla fruticosa ‘Goldfinger’

Everybody’s favourite (isn’t it?!) Lavender, isn’t particularly long-lived unless it’s treated with care and if possible trimmed back regularly before & after flowering (to stop it becoming leggy).  Still, it’s always a valuable addition to the garden (even if you have to grow it in pots) as there’s really nothing like it for fragrance and intense colour when planted en masse, not to mention the fact that it’s a great little shrub to attract bees into the garden.

There are so many varieties of Lavender available, ranging in size and flowering period – and also hardiness, which is vitally important to know about in the UK.  We are very lucky in Hampshire to have a number of local growers which we can visit to see lavender fields in full bloom.  I regularly drive past the Lavender Fields at Selborne, and in midsummer it’s a real showstopper (www.thelavenderfields.co.uk).

Cistus ladanifer

Cistus (commonly known as the rock rose) is a prolific flowerer in early summer – blooms are white or shades of pink.  I particularly like Cistus ladanifer and Cistus purpureus ‘Alan Fradd’ which have white flowers with a maroon blotches.  Very striking.

Cistus x pulverulentus ‘Sunset’ in a mixed border

Another favourite is Cistus x pulverulentus ‘Sunset’ which has beautiful cerise flowers.  The blooms on Cistus only last a day, but there are so many of them that the shrubs are smothered in flowers for weeks.

Hebes too are great in dry sunny spots.  Hailing from New Zealand, Australia or South America, they range from carpeting ground cover plants, to very large shrubs, so it’s important to do your homework before buying!  Most flower well given sufficient light, and come with white, blue or pink flowers.

Hebe parviflora angustifolia can cope with light shade as well as full sun

They do need attention with regard to pruning (or at least light trimming) to stop them getting too leggy and out of shape, but in the right position (and provided they are hardy enough) they are very useful as evergreen plants to provide structure in the garden in winter.

For early flowering, Ceanothus (the California lilac) is fantastic.  When it’s happy it will be smothered in clusters of small blue flowers. Tolerant of either acid or alkaline soils, it’s best if protected from cold dry winds, so shrubs are ideal trained against a sunny wall or fence where they form valuable evergreen coverage.  As free-standing shrubs, some Ceanothus varieties are quite low to the ground (in particular Ceanothus thyrsiflorus var repens) and therefore offer excellent ground-cover, whereas varieties such as Ceanothus arboreus grow into very large shrubs or small trees (up to 4 metres high).

Bright blue flowers on Ceanothus ‘Concha’

A great shrub for late flower is Perovskia (Russian Sage).  It’s a small shrub (or technically a sub-shrub) which after being cut back close to the ground in late spring, grows upright powdery white stems which flower in late summer and early autumn.  Perovskia thrives in chalky and sandy soils, but really does need full sun and hates waterlogged soils.

Perovskia – a haze of lilac blue in late summer

Not surprisingly most of the shrubs which can cope with dry sunny conditions and poor soil originate from the Mediterranean region or places with similar conditions, and as a result the aren’t ideally suited to the British climate. Generally they will grow fairly happily in average garden soil, but they will suffer in cold wet winters especially if the soil doesn’t drain well or they get hit by sudden frost, so chances are they will need replacing regularly.  Personally, I think it’s worth it!