Five plants to smother weeds

Plantsman Graham Rice suggests five great plants to stop weeds in their tracks.

hosta
Hosta
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What do we do about weeds? Well, spraying with weedkiller is one way to do it, but there’s a growing resistance to using chemicals in the garden. And making sure the weedkiller only goes on the weeds can be tricky. If you get it wrong, you can kill the plants you want to keep – bye-bye rose bush.

The other approach is to pull the weeds out by hand. This is easy and it works and, frankly, is something that you’ll probably always have to do. But it can, quite literally, be a pain – especially those nettles and brambles!

But why not try a completely different approach? Choose to grow ground cover plants instead, these are attractive plants that naturally smother weeds. They cover the ground and don’t leave any spaces where weeds can grow. It sounds ideal – and, frankly, it is.

Just one thing. Ground cover plants are much better at smothering the growth of new weeds than squeezing out weeds that are well established. Don’t for a moment suppose that if you plant these weed smotherers where there are already masses of weeds then the weeds will magically disappear. You need to do some weeding first.

Alchemilla mollis
Alchemilla mollis

Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla)

This is another of those fantastic plants that does three different jobs for you – three plants in one. Of course, it smothers the weeds. First it’s the broad rounded leaves that spread out in a weed-smothering mass. Then it’s upright flower stems, so many crowded into such a tight space – no room for weeds. And then it’s the flowers, masses of tiny stars in a lovely chartreuse shade that never clashes with anything else. Oh, and the flowers last well in water too, so they are great for cutting.

Lady’s Mantle is traditionally used around roses where it also hides those bare stems at the base. Grows to 30-50cm.

Ajuga reptans
Ajuga reptans

Bugle (Ajuga)

This is a great plant for shade. Bugle keeps out weeds by steadily creeping over the surface of the soil, putting down roots as it goes, and all the leaves knit together to leave not a millimetre of soil into which a weed can wheedle.

Only a few centimetres high, as far as looks are concerned it’s all about the leaves. Those leaves, which tend to lay flat on the soil, come in a huge variety of colours: green, bronze, pink, cream, white – often the foliage is a slightly startling mix of shades. Plus, in late spring, there are short spikes of blue flowers, which the pollinators love. It’s relentless but, oddly, if it spreads too far it’s easy to pull out. Grows to 15cm.

Heuchera 'Fire Chief'
Heuchera ‘Fire Chief’

Heuchera

Wow, the colours! No one plant has leaves that come in so many different shades. Pretty much every colour except bright blue, sometimes two or three different colours in one leaf, and often the colour changes as the months pass. There’s nothing quite like them.

And as for the weeds, well, heucheras make neat domes of rounded leaves all emerging from a tight crown. The plants stay fairly small so you need a series of them planted side by side for them to do a top job on the weeds but they’re happy in sun or in partial shade. Grow to 20-40cm.

hosta
Hosta

Hosta

These are the real stars. Ranging in size from miniature to monster, monster being no more than a metre high, although the leaves die away in the winter from spring to autumn they overlap and overlap again so that underneath it’s so dark that the weeds don’t get a look in. Happy in shade, and in sun if the soil is not parched, different varieties in different leaf colours and colour patterns knit together to make a seamless blanket of efficient weed suppression. And what’s this? Some even have fragrant flowers. Grow under shrubs, under trees, in dark corners – just the job. Grows to 20cm-1m.

Pachysandra terminalis
Pachysandra terminalis

Pachysandra

Sneered at by plant experts because we see it everywhere, the reason that so many gardeners have it in their gardens, of course, is that it’s a great plant. And what a winner at smothering weeds. Here’s how it does it. It only grows about 20cm high, but each vertical stem is topped with 5cm evergreen leaves that overlap each other in a ring. So the leaves block out every little bit of light from below. But these upright stems are so tightly packed that the rings of leaves overlap each other as well. Underneath? Nothing. Happy in sun or shade. Grows to 20cm.

Graham Rice

About Graham Rice

Graham Rice is an award-winning garden writer and blogger with
special interests in perennials, annuals and container plants, and
choosing plants for specific garden situations. His blog Transatlantic
Gardener
was awarded Garden Blog Of The Year in 2014 and his
Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Perennials was awarded
Garden Book of The Year.
View all posts by Graham.