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Top 10 subtropical groundcovers

Phil Dudman

Phil Dudman

September 2, 2013

I reckon that ground covers are the unsung heroes of the garden. Just think of the work they do, covering and greening large areas of ground, filling gaps and borders, choking out weeds and generally beautifying the view.
I’ve decided to give groundcovers their time in the sun (or shade… depending on their individual preference) and have listed 10 of my top groundcover picks for subtropical gardens. Some of these are as common as muck, but then there’s a reason why they are common, and that’s because they are great performers, and they need to be.

Tradescantia spathacea 'Stripe me Pink' groundcover syn Rhoeo discolor

Tradescantia spathacea ‘Stripe me Pink’ groundcover

Moses in the Cradle (Tradescantia spathacea – synonym Rhoeo discolour)
Classic border for lush tropical style gardens. Dense, clumping rosettes of succulent purple and green leaves, 15cm long. Forms a solid groundcover in sun to part shade. Extremely drought hardy. Easy to grow from cuttings directly planted in ground. Sap may cause irritation, so cover your skin when handling. Look out for variegated form, ‘Stripe me Pink’ (pictured)

Star Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides)
Normally thought of as a climber but it makes an excellent ground cover for large areas. Best planted en masse as vines will run over surrounding plants. Lends itself to regular trimming which gives it a neat sharp appearance. Deep glossy green leaves, fragrant white blooms in mid-late spring (not so popular with people who are sensitive to the heavy floral perfume). Variegated Star Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides ‘Variegatum’) – a more compact form – is used more commonly as a ground cover. Doesn’t flower as well, but its variegation adds year round interest.

Mini mondo grass mown as a lawn

Mini mondo grass mown as a lawn alternative

Mini mondo used to accentuate paving design. Design Jim Roustas Glorious Gardens

Mini mondo used to accentuate paving design. Design Jim Roustas Glorious Gardens

Mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus)
Tufts of fine, deep green grass-like leaves, 10-15cm long. Spreads rapidly through underground stems (stolons) to form a soft shagpile carpet. Excellent border for pathways, tough, can withstand light traffic. Drought tolerant, frost tolerant, suitable for poor soils, full sun, part shade. Mini Mondo, (Ophiopogon japonicus nana), has shorter leaves, less spreading, good lawn alternative, lends itself to great planting effects, particularly accentuating patterns in paving and other surfaces.

Bromeliads used as a subtropical groundcover

Guzmania bromeliads used as a subtropical groundcover

With so many wonderful leaf shapes, textures and colours, bromeliads make a fabulous ground cover. Use one single species for impact or mix them up. Varieties with showy flowers are a bonus. Especially good for shaded areas and places with very shallow soil such as under large trees. Bromeliads are epiphytes, and will often grow happily with their roots in mulch layer. Don’t require a lot of water and can withstand long periods of dry. Easy to propagate by division.

Viola hederacea Native violet groundcover

Viola hederacea Native violet groundcover

Native violet (Viola hederacea)
Fast spreading creeper. Great option for covering large areas in moist shade. Very low growing so won’t steamroll other plants, just tuck in amongst them. Possible lawn replacement in shade, withstands very light traffic. Small, bright green kidney shaped leaves, purple and white flowers most of the year. Propagates easily by division.

Grevillea 'Poorinda Royal Mantle' Photo Angus Stewart

Grevillea ‘Poorinda Royal Mantle’ Photo Angus Stewart

Grevillea ‘Poorinda Royal Mantle’
Dense foliage, excellent for covering large areas, particularly good for covering banks. Masses of red toothbrush-like, bird-attracting flowers late winter-spring. Attractive foliage looks good all year round. Suitable for poor soils but must be well-drained. Full sun.

Scaevola (native fan flower)

Scaevola (native fan flower)

Purple Fan Flower (Scaevola aemula)
Masses of mauve fan-shaped flowers for most of the year. Tiny mid-green leaves on a low growing spreading groundcover (up to 30cm). Thrives on neglect, excellent for rockeries and borders. Easy to propagate, responds well to clipping. Full sun to part shade.

Variegated Liriope (Liriope muscari ‘Variegata’)
Attractive strappy variegated leaf, 10cm tall. Dense spikes of lavender blue flowers. Used everywhere in landscaping, hardy, very adaptable, sun to semishade, borders, narrow gardens, rockeries, mass plantings.

Zoysia grass groundcover

Zoysia grass groundcover

Shore Juniper (Juniperus conferta)
Fast prostrate-growing juniper with light blue-green needles. Wonderful dense cover 60cm high, 2m wide, will cascade over walls. Hardy, drought tolerant, suitable for seaside areas, full sun.

Temple Grass, No Mow Grass (Zoysia tenuifolia)
Fine, bright green leaves. While slow growing and no mowing needed, it’s not suitable as a general lawn, but is good lawn ‘alternative’ in low traffic areas. Great for banks, rockeries, between stepping stones. Will develop clumps or ‘lumps’ on the surface, which is an attractive feature. Can be mowed once or twice a year to create neater appearance. Drought tolerant.

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Sancha Dickson
Sancha Dickson
10 years ago

I have a subtropical steep hillside garden N/E facing on the shores of Sydney Harbour. Salt spray from the North easterly in summer is a problem.
I have a boat shed with lattice on the roof which I would like to cover with greenery but so far have failed. Any ideas?

5 years ago

Sydney sub-tropical ??