This Month in the Garden (December 2020) with Derek Cox

For 26 years I wrote articles for a national gardening newspaper on trees, shrubs, alpines, fruit trees and landscaping gardens. Consequently a team from the paper would meet to give advice at most of the major flower shows. Amongst the team were experts on perennials, annuals and vegetables.

One of the questions we were often asked, especially by elderly people, was about using plants as ground cover to help with the weeding. Occasionally one of the team would suggest certain perennials that would not only give ground cover, but also present the questioner with attractive flowers throughout the summer months.

Here to some extent I agreed with some of the plants mentioned, but often I had to disagree when many deciduous perennials were mentioned. The reason for this is that the majority of perennials we grow in our gardens are not native to the UK and as a consequence they do not start to come into growth by mid or late April and by this time many of our native weeds will have started into growth over a month before.

If you are an avid gardener you can cope with this, but as the weather is cold at this time of the year the elderly will not wish to be out in the garden every week weeding.

There are quite a number of evergreen perennials that will clump up to form dense carpets. I have a superb coppery-red Heuchera which in six years has formed a carpet some 2.5 feet (75cm) in diameter; this has pink flowers in early summer and its foliage helps to brighten a winters day.

Bergenia ‘Morgenrot’ (elephant’s ears), picture above, has large evergreen leaves and red flowers in late spring, this is a plant that seems to thrive in the poorest soils, but it hates wet feet. In my garden even our native violets remain evergreen forming dense seeded carpets even in 75% shade, these provide me with white, lavender, blue, or even reddish coloured flowers during late February, March and April.

However, when it comes down to ground cover I will always turn to shrubs, which in many cases provide us with absolutely prostrate evergreen carpets. If you want rapid ground cover the plant Vinca minor ‘Argenteovariegata’ which in my garden planted as a single plant some 15 years ago now forms a 12 feet (3.5m) carpet of creamy-white edged evergreen leaves and bright blue flowers in early spring. When not in flower this is one of the ground cover plants you can walk over and as its branches root as they grow you can cut off branches that have rooted and plant them elsewhere.

There is a 6 inch (15cm) wide gravel strip at the side of my ornamental concrete drive which acts as a drain, but growing in this gravel is a plant of Cotoneaster dammeri, pictured here, and the prostrate branches seem to only grow one way and that is onto my driveway. This superb ground cover produces white hawthorn-like flower in May and orange-red berries in the autumn. Sarcoccoca hookeriana humilis will, in time form a dense suckering carpet some 12 inches (30cm) in height, but I have seen it as a carpet some 12 feet (3.5m) across and massed with tiny white, highly fragrant flowers in February.

We rarely think of conifers as ground cover, but I have Cryptomeria japonica ‘Vilmoriniana’ that forms a dense congested carpet some three feet (90cm) in diameter. This is not an immediate carpeter as my plant is around 10 years old, but it would look ideal in a large rockery.

One last word before Christmas, my hollies are massed over with berries and the gold variegated one stands out in contrast.

May I wish you all a happy, virus free Christmas and I look forward to writing about my garden in the New Year.