Shade gardens can be challenging places to cultivate plants. Many flowering perennials and ornamental grasses need several hours of direct sunlight per day to thrive. However, with the right selection of shade-tolerant groundcovers, you can create an inviting garden oasis even in densely shaded spots. This article provides tips for choosing the best groundcovers to brighten up those challenging shady areas.
What Are Groundcovers?
Before diving into specific plant recommendations, let’s review what exactly groundcover plants are and how they differ from other landscape vegetation.
Groundcovers are low-growing plants that spread out to form a dense mat, covering the ground. They are useful for:
- Controlling soil erosion on slopes, hills, or bare patches
- Suppressing weeds
- Replacing turfgrass in difficult-to-mow areas
- Adding year-round greenery to gardens and yards
Unlike turfgrass, most groundcovers only grow a few inches tall. They spread via roots, stolons, rhizomes, or creeping stems rather than forming upright growth. Popular examples include ivy, vinca, sedum, lilyturf, and pachysandra.
Key Benefits of Groundcovers
Groundcover plants offer a range of advantages:
- Low maintenance: Require minimal trimming or mowing once established.
- Curb appeal: Provide year-round greenery and visual interest.
- Erosion control: Hold soil in place on slopes, preventing washouts.
- Weed suppression: Spread to form a dense mat that blocks light from reaching weed seeds.
- Versatility: Useful for beds, borders, around trees/foundations, and as lawn substitutes.
- Wildlife habitat: Can provide food and shelter for pollinators and other beneficial fauna.
Choosing the right groundcovers allows you to tackle problem areas like shady zones, steep slopes, or neglected spaces in your landscape.
Best Groundcovers for Shade
While no plants thrive in extremely dense shade, certain hardy, versatile groundcovers will flourish in partly shaded areas with just a few hours of filtered sunlight per day. Here are some top options:
Periwinkle (Vinca minor)
This popular shade-loving groundcover offers year-round evergreen foliage and pretty blue or white flowers that appear in spring. There are many cultivated varieties available.
![Periwinkle groundcover with blue flowers]
- Tolerates full shade
- Grows 4-6 inches tall
- Spreads 12-18 inches wide
- Does well under trees and shrubs
- Deer resistant and drought tolerant once established
Deadnettle (Lamium maculatum)
Sometimes called spotted nettle, this perennial groundcover blooms in a variety of pinks, whites, and purples from spring to early summer. The attractive silver-marked leaves remain green through winter.
![Deadnettle with purple flowers]
- Handles partial to full shade
- Grows 6-12 inches tall
- Spreads up to 3 feet wide
- Does well around trees and foundations
- Deer and rabbit resistant
Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)
A classic shade plant with whorls of lance-shaped leaves and tiny white springtime flowers, sweet woodruff makes a refined groundcover for shady borders and rock gardens.
![Sweet woodruff in bloom with white flowers]
- Tolerates dense shade
- Grows 6-12 inches tall
- Spreads 1-2 feet wide via rhizomes
- Fragrant leaves and flowers
- Combines well with ferns and hostas
Lilyturf (Liriope spicata)
An attractive grass-like ornamental with arching tufts of strappy foliage. It bears spikes of lilac flowers in late summer followed by dark berry-like fruit.
![Lilyturf foliage and flowers]
- Handles full shade to partial sun
- Grows 6-12 inches tall
- Clumping growth 12-18 inches wide
- Tolerates drought, heat, pests, and poor soils
- Evergreen in warmer zones
Japanese Spurge (Pachysandra terminalis)
A shade garden classic, Japanese spurge has glossy evergreen foliage and inconspicuous white blooms in spring. It spreads via underground rhizomes to form a lush carpet.
![Japanese spurge as lush green groundcover]
- Thrives in deep shade
- Grows 8-12 inches tall
- Spreads steadily to 2 feet wide or more
- Tolerates clay soil, drought, pests, and neglect
- Deer resistant
Hostas are treasured for their bold leaf colors and patterns. While most thrive in part shade, some varieties tolerate dense shade. Look for these shade-loving types:
- Hosta plantaginea – Large glossy leaves with fragrant white blooms
- Hosta sieboldiana – Blue-green leaves, good slug resistance
- Hosta ‘Fortunei Aureomarginata’ – Green leaves edged in gold
- Hosta ‘Stained Glass’ – Yellow leaves with green margins
Design Tips for Shady Groundcovers
When planning and planting groundcovers in shaded areas, follow these tips:
Choose Appropriate Sites
- Focus on planting beds near structures, under tree canopies, along north-facing foundations, and in other partially shaded zones. Most shade plants need 2-4 hours of dappled sunlight.
Improve Soil Quality
- Many sites with dense shade tend to have dry, nutrient-poor soil. Before planting, mix in 2-3 inches of compost or leaf mold to improve moisture retention and nutrition.
Space Plants Properly
- Refer to the expected spread size for each variety and space plants accordingly to allow for future growth. Planting too densely causes overcrowding.
Use Layers for Visual Depth
- Combine lower groundcovers with mid-level ferns or shrubs and taller shade perennials like hostas. This creates a layered look with year-round interest.
Edge with Contrasting Color
- Outline groundcover beds with mulch, gravel, or evergreen shrubs. This helps define the space and makes the greenery pop.
Remove Dead Foliage and Flowers
- Promptly cut back any spent flowers, yellowing leaves, or collapsed stems to maintain a tidy appearance year round.
- Groundcovers spread naturally over time. Allow 1-3 growing seasons for full establishment before judging coverage. Temporary bare patches fill in.
Properly selected and cared for, shade-loving groundcovers can bring life to the most challenging dimly lit areas of your landscape. Try combining several complementary varieties for beautiful, low-maintenance groundcover gardens.
More Groundcover Options for Shade
While this article has highlighted some of the best shade-tolerant groundcovers, many other varieties also perform well in partial shade locations. Here are a few more options to consider:
- Bugleweed (Ajuga) – Carpets of pretty blue flower spikes in spring above dark green foliage. Grows 4-8 inches tall.
- Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) – Heart-shaped leaves with reddish-brown blooms. Grows 6-8 inches tall. Spreads slowly.
- Foamflowers (Tiarella) – Delicate white flowers on mounds of thick green foliage. Grows 8-12 inches tall.
- Epimedium – Wide range of species and cultivars with sprays of open flowers in spring and heart-shaped leaves. Grows 8-15 inches tall.
- Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei) – Evergreen vining groundcover with small leaves. Grows up to 2 feet tall. Can be invasive, so keep contained.
- Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens) – Trailing stems with green leaves edged in white. Tiny flowers. Grows 6 inches tall.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with some lesser-known groundcovers too. That’s half the fun of gardening!