Shady areas can be challenging to grow in, but filling low-light areas with shade ground cover plants is a great low-maintenance option for gardeners. Thankfully there are a surprising number of options when it comes to shade-loving ground covers. In this article, I’ll introduce you to my favorites, along with sharing some quick tidbits of info on establishing these ground-hugging plants.
The benefits of planting ground covers in the shade
There are many benefits of covering soil in shady areas with low growing ground covers. First, these are often the same areas that are difficult to grow typical lawn grasses in. If you have a low light area where the grass is patchy and struggles to grow, consider replacing it with shade ground cover plants. By replacing your lawn with ground covers, you also have the perk of not having to mow.
Low maintenance groundcovers also prevent erosion and reduce weeds. With time, they form a dense carpet over the soil, protecting it from wind and heavy rainfall, and further shading the soil beneath, which prevents weed seeds from germinating and reduces watering needs once the plants are established.
Quick definition of shade/part shade
Before we dive into what makes a great shade ground cover, we need to define what is meant by “shade”. Full shade receives less than 4 hours of direct sunlight per day. Partial shade receives between 4 and 6 hours of full sun per day. Dappled shade, say beneath a small canopy tree like a mature dogwood, is still considered to be partial shade, even if it is spotty.
Whether your shady spot is considered full shade or partial shade, the ground covers I detail later in this article will do quite nicely. The only light conditions to avoid for these plants is full sun. Full sun areas receive at least 6 to 8 hours of sun per day and offer too much light for these shade-preferring plants.
Qualities to look for in shade ground cover plants
It’s important to consider the traits you desire in the ground cover plant you choose.
First, opt for non-invasive choices whenever possible. Invasive ground covers like English ivy (Hedera helix), Pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis), or Periwinkle (Vinca minor) have stems and/or roots that spread very quickly, which may seem like a good thing when you want to cover a lot of ground quickly. However, they tend to escape cultivation and into wild areas, making them a threat to indigenous plants.
Secondly, determine if you’d prefer to grow a single ground cover or mix several together. Often, mixing is the way to go because that way, if one species performs poorly or succumbs to pest or disease, you already have another established to take its place. You can really create a lovely matrix of mixed ground covers growing together for a creative design.
And lastly, think about whether you want a shade ground cover that flowers or if evergreen foliage is more important to you. There are even some varieties of ground covers for shade I introduce below that are both flowering and evergreen!
How to find the best shade ground cover for your area
When on the hunt for a shade ground cover, you’ll want to choose one that is hardy for the range of growing zones in which your garden is located. Make sure your choice is suitable for your climate. All of the varieties in this article are perennials, but some are hardier than others. If you live in, say, Minnesota, you’ll need a hardier plant than someone living in South Carolina. Choose appropriately.
Also, if your shady area is beneath a very large tree with an extensive root system, it’s worth seeking out drought-tolerant shade ground cover plants. Under big trees there’s a tremendous amount of competition for water, so drought-tolerance is a must for any shade ground cover planted there.
Let’s meet some of the best shade ground cover options. I’ve separated them into a few groups:
- Unusual choices
- Easy-to-find options
- Evergreen ground covers
- Shrub groundcover
Unusual shade ground cover plants that flower
- Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis): This petite ground cover is great for beneath deciduous trees, though it can be tough to find on the market. It produces four-petaled white flowers that are followed by red berries. Bunchberry is a relative of the dogwood (same Genus) and is also called creeping dogwood. 6 inches tall. Native of North America. Best for moist areas. Zones 2 to 6.
- Barrenwort (Epimedium species): The elongated heart-shaped leaves of this drought-tolerant shade ground cover are super cute, but its toughness is what makes it a real star. Tiny flowers are fleeting in the early spring, but the foliage remains semi-evergreen all winter long. Thick rhizomes mean this plant will survive under pine trees and large canopy trees with ease. Deer and rabbit resistance is another plus. Hardy zones 5 to 9.
- Green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum): A native of the eastern US, green and gold produces small bright yellow flowers in the spring and spreads via rhizomes. Average, well-drained soil is best when planted in shade. Forms a dense mat quickly, but it’s not evergreen. Hardy zones 5 to 9.
- Yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon): This fast spreading shade ground cover has variegated leaves and yellow flowers. It is tolerant of drought and deer, and roots as the stems creep along. A warning that in some parts of the US it has been declared an invasive plant. Zones 4 to 9.
- Wild ginger (Asarum canadense): This North American native plant has medium green leaves and prefers rich, moist shady conditions. The flowers are small and hidden beneath the heart-shaped foliage that reaches 6-10 inches tall. Wild ginger spreads by underground rhizomes. Perfect for woodland gardens. Deer resistant. Hardy zones 4 to 6.
- Hostas (Hosta species.): While most gardeners think of hostas as shade plants, they are also shade ground covers, particularly the smaller leaved varieties. If planted closely together, they make a solid carpet of foliage over the ground, leaving very little room for weeds. Their biggest downside is how much the deer enjoy eating them. Zones 3 to 8.
- Ferns (many species): There are so many different ferns that make excellent shade ground cover choices. Some of my favorites are the Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum), the hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula), and the lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina). Hardiness varies by species, but all ferns are resistant to deer browse and almost all of them prefer shade conditions. In other words, you can’t go wrong with ferns!
- Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum): Produces white flowers in the early spring. Forms a thick carpet of medium green, fine foliage. The blooms smell very sweet but they aren’t long lasting. Sweet woodruff covers shady areas fast, but the foliage dies back to the ground each winter, so sweet woodruff is not evergreen. Drought-tolerant. 4-6 inches tall. Zones 4 to 8.
- Dead nettle (Lamium maculatum): This lovely little ground cover is tough as nails. It comes in varieties with pink flowers and others with white blooms. The flowers appear in the spring and are a favorite of bumble bee queens. It does not fair well in high humidity when the foliage can turn brown and crispy, but having it in the shade helps prevent that. Deer-resistant. Hardy zones 3 to 8.
- Bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum): The hot pink blooms of this shade ground cover appear for a brief time in early spring. They are accompanied by lovely serrated round leaves. Bloody cranesbill is resistant to deer and rabbits and shows some drought tolerance, too. Cut the plant back in late summer to reinvigorate it. Hardy zones 3 to 9.
Other great flowering shade ground cover plants include:
Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata or Phlox stolonifera), Coral bells (Heuchera species), and Mazus (Mazus reptans – see photo above).
Top evergreen ground covers for shade
- Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans): This super low-growing evergreen ground cover has deep green leaves or even burgundy or variegated leaves, depending on the cultivar. Bronze-leaved selections are very popular. All varieties are evergreen. In early spring, purple flower spikes appear and are visited by bumble bees. Leaves are glossy and thick. Hardy zones 3 to 10.
- Lilyturf (Liriope muscari or L. spicata): A grass-like evergreen groundcover that forms clumps, lilyturf is a very tough plant. It’s low maintenance and produces lavender flower spikes in the spring with dark green leaves. It tends to look a bit ratty in the spring, so it helps to give it a haircut early in the season. It also tolerates full sun, but I find it does best in partial shade. Hardy zones 5 to 10.
- Dwarf Mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus): This little sweetheart has small strap-like leaves and is clump forming. Part to full shade works great for dwarf Mondo grass. It spreads pretty slowly and stays primarily in clumps, so plant it thickly. The purple flower stalks are small but pretty. Hardy zones 7 to 10.
- European ginger (Asarum europaeum): The glossy green, rounded leaves of European ginger remain evergreen in all but the harshest winters. Inconspicuous flowers appear at ground level in the early spring. This plant is a slow spreader, so don’t expect it to cover ground quickly. Not suitable for the humid South. Hardy zones 4 to 7.
And one bonus shrub ground cover
There’s also a great shade ground cover that is a shrub. Siberian cypress (Microbiota decussata). I’ve written about these feathery shrubs before because I’m so fond of them. This needled evergreen has soft, fan-like sprays of foliage that stay low and arch out close to the ground. Because it is native to a cold-climate region (Siberia/Russia), it struggles in the humid South. Siberian cypress makes a great alternative to junipers for shady areas. Hardy zones 3 to 7.
How to establish your plants
In order to be successful with ground covers in the shade garden, it’s important to keep them well watered until they are established. Optimum soil moisture is key, and a deep, once-a-week watering is essential through the first year.
Also be sure to keep your shade ground cover plants weeded to prevent competition until the desired plants fill in. Trust me; if you don’t keep the area weeded while the groundcovers are filling in, it will become a huge challenge to weed when it becomes a tangled mess in a year or two. Better to keep the weeds in check often and early.
Cover more ground
As you can see, there are plenty of great shade ground cover options. I encourage you to try a mixture of them to see which ones perform the best where you live. If you are looking for a great book replacing your lawn with ground covers, I recommend Groundcover Revolution by Kathy Jentz.
For more low-growing plants, please visit the following articles:
- Low-growing shrubs for the front of the house
- Evergreen groundcovers
- Dwarf flowering shrubs for small gardens
- Small evergreens
- Small tomato plants
- Perennials for small gardens
Pin this article to your Garden Ideas board for future reference!