Tough Plants for Tough Sites
Free-draining soils are \"hungry.\" The organic matter you feed them usually breaks down quickly, to short-lived effect. If you're looking to choose plants better suited to its condition, rather than trying to change the soil, look no further than your feet: many ground cover plants thrive on sunny sites, such as shrubby cinquefoil or sage. Several flowering ground cover plants that thrive on sunny sites are also aromatic, such as lavender or thyme.
This gravel border features mostly Mediterranean-style groundcover plants, including thyme and catmint.
Perfect for a hot spot, the silvery leaves of lamb's ears reflect the heat of the sun and prevent the plant from drying out.
Ground shaded by a leafy tree canopy can be extremely dry throughout the summer, but shade-loving lenten rose, hostas and wood ferns can thrive there. Another option is reducing a tree's crown so more light and moisture reach the ground below, then planting variegated ground elder, sweet woodruff, bunchberry, Japenese spurge or one of the many species of ivy.
Many colorful hardy geraniums are tough enough to cope with the difficult conditions under a dense tree canopy. Bigroot geraniums, in particular, do well here.
Twice the Value
Plants with long-lasting foliage make good ground cover. Their value doubles if, like these astilbes, they also bloom.
Under a Light Canopy
Semi-shaded conditions suit a wide range of leafy groundcover plants, including wild ginger, sedges and Rodger's flower. This mix of green shades has a naturalistic quality.
Mat-Forming Ground Cover
Vigorous spreading plants like English ivy and privet honeysuckle make ideal low-maintenance ground cover in large gardens, where they can get the space they need. Periwinkle puts down roots from spreading shoots to form a dense mat, and its small leaves contrast well with those of pigsqueak. Try to resist planting these prolific reproducers in smaller gardens; they'll make quick work of the space you were planning to use to showcase other beauties.
Carpet of Color
In limited space, consider using a mix of leafy plants planted close together, such as false speria, masterwort, or Endres cranesbill. You will achieve the dense effect you want, but it will be more ornamental.
Low-growing creeping Jenny and common bugle suppress weeds while also providing a colorful contrast to larger plants.