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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Fabulous plants for November

All is not lost!  Although there’s no denying there isn’t as much colour and interest to enjoy in the garden at this time of year, there’s still a number of valuable plants worth considering planting.  Here’s a small selection:

Fagus sylvatica

Beech columns and hedges at RHS Wisley

Beech columns and hedges at RHS Wisley

Beech (Fagus sylvatica) makes a great hedge for the garden, offering interest more or less all year round.  In spring the young leaves of common Beech are soft green, gradually brightening and becoming a richer green.   Later in the year the colour changes into the yellows and russets of autumn, and the dry coppery brown leaves are usually retained throughout the winter, glowing in winter sun, and continuing to provide wind protection and screening.  So although a beech hedge is technically deciduous, it offers many of the advantages of an evergreen hedge but with additional seasonal interest.

An alternative to the common beech, is Copper beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropurpurea’) which has attractive purple leaves in spring, gradually darkening as the season progresses.

Beech is native to the UK and tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions, including well-drained chalk, although on heavy clay, or very cold, exposed sites and in frost pockets, Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) is a better choice (and to be honest, it’s quite hard to tell the difference with hedging unless you look very closely at the leaves).

Beech is best planted in full sun or partial shade, and if you’re planning on planting a hedge or tree, November is the best time to be doing it as bare-root plants are now available and the soil is still fairly warm. These plants are not only cheaper to buy than container plants, but quick to establish.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’  (Japanese Silver Grass)

Miscanthus sinensis 'Malepartus'

‘Malepartus’ is a vigorous, free-flowering deciduous grass growing to 2m tall, with broad arching leaves and prolific pink-tinged flower heads in summer (somewhat earlier than many other grasses). In autumn the flowers start to turn silvery white for the winter.  This is a bushy grass spreading to about 1.5m and is tolerant of most soils if well drained but not too dry. It is happy in either exposed or more sheltered situations, it can take a little shade but prefers full sun.

Graceful and stately, Miscanthus ‘Malepartus’ can be used in borders, screen plantings and backgrounds and it works beautifully as an accent or specimen plant – but give it plenty of room to really do its thing.  It is generally pest free and very easy to grow, only needing the dead foliage and old flowered stems removing in spring as new growth appears from the base.

Cyclamen hederifolium

The ivy-leaved Cyclamen is a beautiful tiny perennial that provides very valuable low-growing autumn colour for the garden.  Each flower lasts for weeks and the display is lengthened by the succession of flowers.

cyclamen hederifolium

Both the pink and white varieties grow to about 12cm in height, and make a stunning carpeting effect when planted en masse.  The silvery-green patterned leaves are usually produced after the flowers.

Planted as tubers and spreading over time, these hardy Cyclamen enjoy sun or partial shade, and are very drought tolerant in shade.  They particularly thrive in soils with added leaf litter so are fantastic to grow under trees and shrubs.

Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’
This lovely Clematis is a wonderful climbing plant for the winter garden.  Not only is it evergreen, but also flowers between November and February when most gardens are crying out for some colour.  ‘Freckles’ needs a warm, sheltered and preferably sunny position and thrives in any fertile, well-drained soil.

Clematis cirrhosa Freckles

It is seen to best advantage scrambling over an arch where you can walk underneath and look up into the dainty nodding creamy yellow flowers all speckled with red inside. You could also allow it to grow through shrubs, or a hedge, which need brightening up over winter. After the flowers attractive silky seedheads are produced.

Clematis Freckles seedheads

There is no need to prune Clematis cirrhosa unless it is getting too big, and hard pruning is not recommended. ‘Freckles’ will usually reach about 3.5m in height.

Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’
Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ is a tough, popular evergreen shrub. The bright green variegated foliage has white leaf margins, which on some, but not all, leaves flush to a deep rose pink in cold winters.

It could never be called exciting, but it is a hugely valuable shrub for difficult areas (such as dry shade where it is also useful for brightening things up) and it is a truly low maintenance plant, just needing a light clip if it is getting out of shape.

Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald Gaiety'

If planted next to a wall or fence it will spread upwards to about 2m, otherwise it forms a low, spreading bush about 60cm high by 1m wide (in time).

Click on the links below to read about more great autumn plants

Acer Palmatum
Hydrangea quercifolia
Vitis ‘Brandt’
Dahlia ‘David Howard’
Sedum
Schizostylis
Liriope muscari

Trees for autumn colour

Photo credits:  Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic

Autumn glow

I LOVE this time of year!  10 years ago, in early October, I  moved to Petersfield from London. After 15 years living in the capital, I was (to put it mildly) a bit worried about moving to the middle of nowhere, as I then saw it. But after a couple of weeks spent driving around my new home area as autumn took hold, I realised that I had made a very very good move. The immediate area around Petersfield is hilly and wooded and the countryside is stunning.  And there are so many beautiful trees that, 10 years on from my move to the sticks, I still find this time of year a real thrill and can’t quite believe how lucky I am to live here.

In this part of Hampshire we have the Hangers – ancient beech woods covering the hills nearby and which can be seen for miles around. They are a brilliant coppery orange at the moment. Stunning!  

My work takes me in every direction from Petersfield which means I get to design planting schemes for very varied conditions.  Up around the Surrey borders the soil is predominantly acidic, so trees like Acers (Japanese maples) and Liquidambars do very well. At this time of year, it’s great to drive around and spot the brilliant red of these trees in gardens all over the area.

Liquidambar styraciflua

Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’ is a particularly attractive tree (with leaves not unlike an Acer) and it makes a great focal point as a single specimen. It prefers soils which aren’t too dry (so no good on shallow chalky soil) and reaches a mature height of about 15 metres, so it needs space. It will grow on more neutral soils, but the best autumn colour is achieved on acid soils. If you have alkaline soil, apparently it’s possible to improve the leaf colour of Liquidambars by adding sulphur to the soil (by spreading sulphur chips). It needs to be done over a number of years and takes a while to take effect.  It’s not something I’ve ever done, but I’d love to hear from anyone who has tried it.

Betula jacquemontii

In my own garden where the soil has a neutral pH, I have a multi-stemmed Silver Birch tree (Betula Jacquemontii) whose leaves are currently a bright buttery yellow and look fantastic next to the brilliant white of its bark. Silver birches are very tolerant trees, thriving in most (but not waterlogged) soils, and they are great value throughout the year by virtue of their stunning bark.  I use them a lot in gardens for that reason (often in chalky soil where choice is more limited).  I particularly like them in small groups, and preferably with an uplighter in the ground below ensuring they can be seen at night too when they make a statuesque addition to the garden.

If you would like to know a bit more about why leaves change colour at this time of year, the Royal Forestry website has lots of interesting information.

http://www.rfs.org.uk/learning/autumn-colours

There are many beautiful small trees to choose from for autumn colour  – Acer palmatum and Amelanchier lamarckii to name but two – or you could take your pick from the Cherry (Prunus) family and also Crabapples (Malus).  One of the best crabs for autumn colour is Malus Tschonoskii, and of course the other advantage to planting a crabapple is that they offer not only lovely spring blossom and autumn colour, but also coloured fruit in autumn.

Take some time now to identify where your garden could benefit from a splash of colour at this time of year.  Looking at which trees are succeeding in your neighbours’ gardens is also a useful way to get an indication for what will work for you, and with the tree-planting season underway now, you can add some spectacular autumn colour to your own garden for years to come.

Autumn colour at Hilliers Arboretum, Hampshire

Picture credits: http://www.photoforsale.co.uk/