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A round bush with purple flowers beside a gravel pathway
Ground covers can provide the perfect finishing touch to your garden, and there’s one for virtually every situation.

 

What you need to know about ground cover plants

Name: various genus, species and cultivars.

Plant type: low-growing, spreading, sometimes cascading.

Height: generally less than 30cm.

Appearance and characteristics of ground cover plants

In both nature and design, plants occur or are positioned in four main layers: upper canopy – trees and palms; mid-level – smaller trees, large shrubs, smaller palms and tree ferns; low level – grassy plants, small shrubs, herbs and perennials; and finally, the ground covers  scrambling or prostate sub-shrubs, perennials, herbs and creepers. When it comes to home gardens, the ground covers are all too often forgotten. Ground covers are fantastic to add to the landscape, they provide colour and form in otherwise empty areas, bring a more natural and balanced feel to a garden space, and can be real problem-solvers, working as “living mulch” to keep out weeds and retain moisture, and even helping to control erosion.

Big ground covers like some grevilleas are ideal set-and-forget plants for difficult spots, such as hard-to-access sloping areas that you don’t want to be regularly maintaining.

Ground cover plants all share one common characteristic: they spread. To go beyond this, we can put them into three main groups, defined primarily by their growth habits. It’s worth understanding these distinctions, as they will help you to select the right plant for your garden. 

A green bush with purple flowers in a garden

Spreading by runners or stolons 

These are best described as the “true” ground covers, as they will root at various points as they grow, with each section having the potential to become a new plant. This tends to make them very hardy, and is also useful for binding soil. Native violet (Viola banksii, often sold as Viola hederacea) is a great example.

Prostrate forms

These are varieties of larger plants that have a low-growing, horizontal or cascading habit. In some cases they will be grafted plants, and one plant can, with time, cover a large area. They may also develop a somewhat mounded form with age. The native cultivar Grevillea Poorinda Royal Mantle is probably the best example of this group. It will generally reach a height of only 10–20cm with a spread of 5m+.

Scrambling, rambling and running

This is a sort of catch-all group for those plants with a range of other habits, or that will adapt to work like ground covers. It includes the climbers that will happily grow as ground covers in the absence of anything to climb up. The popular climber, star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), is the ideal example. If it has nothing to climb, it will happily scramble across the ground, forming a dense mat.  

Uses for ground cover plants

Ground cover plants are grown for a variety of uses, including:

  • adding textural layers to the garden 
  • adding foliage form, colour and flowers over a wide area 
  • acting as a “living mulch”, supressing weeds and retaining moisture while adding organic matter to the soil through leaf fall
  • binding and stabilising the soil and controlling erosion. 

Preferred conditions 

It’s important that you match your ground cover plants to your needs and your situation. Some are very tolerant of the conditions they will grow in, while others can be quite fickle. Native violet, for example, must have moist shade. It will stop in a neat line when it spreads to sunny areas, and will die back if it becomes dry, generally reshooting when conditions become favourable again.  

Do a little research before buying in order to work out the right plants for you, and if in doubt, ask nursery staff about the range available. To make the right decision, you will need the following information: 

  • Levels of light: full sun, part sun, filtered light or shade?
  • Soil: sandy, quality loam, clay? 
  • Moisture: is the soil typically dry, reliably moist or damp? 
  • Aspect: is the area exposed to wind? Is it level or sloping? Will there be frost or intense heat?

How to plant ground cover plants

Again, this will vary with the plants you choose, however here are a few general tips.

In the planting hole itself, soil should be improved to suit the plant. With ground cover plants you also need to consider the surrounding soil.

Spreading by runners or stolons

If the soil is exposed, “fluff” it up a little with a pronged cultivator to make the establishment of new runners easier. If the area is to be mulched, use a finely textured mulch, and don't layer it too thick.

Prostrate forms and scramblers, ramblers and runners

Once these ground cover plants are established, you won’t be able to easily re-mulch the soil or conduct any other maintenance. Before planting, thoroughly remove any weeds, roots and all, and apply a thick (at least 5cm) layer of mulch over the surrounding area.

Regular maintenance and pruning for your ground cover plants

Most ground cover plants are very easy care, requiring little general maintenance or pruning.

  • Fertilise annually with a controlled-release fertiliser.
  • Remove any dead material that may develop.
  • The climbers that are grown as ground covers will sometimes throw out shoots that reach skywards as the plant looks for things to climb. Just trim these off.  

If you like this then try

11 ground covers for your garden: discover 11 gorgeous ground cover plants suited to Australian gardens.

Grevillea: whether a ground cover or a shrub, the grevillea is a worthy addition to just about every garden.

Daffodil: add some spring “wow” to your ground cover display by planting daffodils to naturalise. .

Start planting today

Check out our huge range of plants now and get your garden growing.

 

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Health & Safety

Asbestos, lead-based paints and copper chromium arsenic (CCA) treated timber are health hazards you need to look out for when renovating older homes. These substances can easily be disturbed when renovating and exposure to them can cause a range of life-threatening diseases and conditions including cancer. For information on the dangers of asbestos, lead-based paint and CCA treated timber and tips for dealing with these materials contact your local council's Environmental Health Officer or visit our Health & Safety page.

When following our advice in our D.I.Y. videos, make sure you use all equipment, including PPE, safely by following the manufacturer’s instructions. Check that the equipment is suitable for the task and that PPE fits properly. If you are unsure, hire an expert to do the job or talk to a Bunnings Team Member.