Trailing plants combine function with beauty. They cascade over an edge, spread across the ground or tumble from a pot or hanging basket, softening hard edges and adding colour and texture. Without the softening touch of a trailing plant, garden edges, paths, the sides of steps and many containers could look stark and bare.

As well as softening the scene, trailing plants make use of another dimension in the garden - empty space even in mid air! Always pop in a trailer when planting up a hanging basket or tall pot so that some growth spills over the edge of the container.

All plant types

Trailers can be big, bold and flowery such as bougainvillea or groundcover roses, or subtle, delicate foliage selections such the small silver-leafed Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’. Trailing plants may also be described as ‘prostrate’.

They can be found among all types of plants from groundcovers and climbers to shrubs and even small trees. There are also annuals that grow with a trailing habit such as lobelia and nasturtium.

Classic combinations

Some trailing plants relish certain situations in a garden and can be guaranteed to work. The soft silver grey leaves and sprays of pale mauve flowers of catmints (such as Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’) team well with roses and gravel paths and create an iconic look in gardens. If nepeta grows too big or starts to look untidy, give it a quick haircut, water and a little liquid fertiliser. Watch it spring back with fresh new growth.

Another classic combination is Spanish shawl (Heterocentron elegans) with paving or a low wall. The tight, ground-hugging stems keep the plant flat so its rich purple flowers appear to paint the surface with colour. This plant grows in a hot sunny position.

There are also some fail-safe choices for shaded situations. Lamium or deadnettle (Lamium maculatum) is a groundcover plant that can trail over walls. There are varieties with bright white and green variegated leaves such as ‘White Nancy’ that light up a dull, shaded corner. This trailing plant can spread but is readily pruned or trimmed.

Low-care choice

For the ultimate low-care trailing plant, choose a trailing succulent. The top choice for a hanging basket or elevated container is one with the cute name of donkey’s tail (Sedum morganianum), which has pendulous rope-like stems clad in small, succulent leaves. The trailing stems are easily broken so handle this plant with care and avoid windy locations. If the stems do break, they are easily potted up to form a new plant.

Trailing shrubs and trees

Shrubs with a lax or sprawling habit can also be encouraged to trail. Russelia or coral plant (Russelia equisetiformis) is a shrub with long stems of tubular coral-coloured flowers and fine, bright green leaves that can be used to spill over a low wall or down an embankment. It can grow in sun or part shade.

Not as colourful as russelia but just as eye-catching is an Australian native tree called ‘Cousin It’. This is a trailing she oak (Casuarina glauca) with dark green trailing branches that almost look as if they’ve oozed across the ground, over the edge of a container or down a wall. Growing ‘Cousin It’ as a feature plant is sure to attract comment from adults and children.

Other trailing native plants include Grevillea ‘Poorinda Royal Mantle’ and prostrate forms of banksia and wattle.