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Ask a Designer: What’s a Good Ground Cover for Shade?

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Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ with Narcissus ‘Thalia’-imp.

When a local (DC-area) Yahoo group was asked for ground cover recommendations for shade, these plants were suggested: Ajuga, Hosta, Pachysandra (native and nonnative), Epimedium, and Lily of the Valley, ferns, Hellebore, “some phlox, some carex,” Dicentra (bleeding heart), Sedum ternatum, Tiarella, Acorus, Asarum canadense (ginger) and “lots of spring ephemerals.”

But hey, isn’t a ground cover a plant that literally covers the ground, and not just part of the year? According to Wikipedia, “Ground cover is any plant that grows over an area of ground. Ground cover provides protection of the topsoil from erosion and drought.” I agree, and to accomplish that task, the plants have to BE there all year, which eliminates Hosta, Lily of the Valley, most ferns, Dicentra, and all spring ephemerals.

Autumn fern

I was still silently ranting about the misinformation being handed out when a very meaty answer came from Carolyn Mullet, a local designer/installer with decades of experience choosing plants for clients. Her advice reinforced my belief that the very best plant-recommenders are the do-ers, especially design/install professionals. Here’s her list of “go-to ground covers for massing in shade that deer tend not to eat” – an extra bonus quality!

  • Athyrium filix-femina (Lady Fern: The best fern for massing in my opinion.  Beautiful and reliable.)
  • Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ (The only Epimedium in my experience that fills in in several years if spaced at 15″ on center. It can even be used under Southern Magnoia…if you keep those giant leaves picked up.)
  • Carex flaca ‘Blue Zinger’; Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance,’ and ‘Silver Sceptre;’ Carex muskingumensis ‘Oehme’ (a bit taller than most ground covers but fills in well in dappled shade); Carex oshimensis Evercolor ‘Everrillo’ (color is less bright in shade but to my eye that’s a plus), and Carex pensylvanica (space 15″ on center).
  • Dennstaedtia punctilobata (Hayscented Fern: Best to use in a difficult naturalized area. Can be a but of a thug and pop up everywhere if you plant it with perennials.)
  • Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’ (Autumn Fern: An evergreen fern that does well in dappled shade.)
  • Iris cristata
  • Hellebore orientalis (This old stand-by fills in beautifully in dappled shade since it seeds in…in a non-thuggish way. Most of the yummy new varieties are sterile, so although they are beautiful, they are less valuable as a massed ground cover.)
  • Liriope muscari ‘Big Blue’ and ‘Royal Purple’ (Deer may nibble this a bit but it still thrives.)
  • Ophiopogon japonicus (This is the Mondo Grass to use as a ground cover spaced at 9″ o.c. (not the dwarf ‘Nana’ which takes forever to grow in.)

And to cover a big slope Carolyn would pass on perennials altogether and use plum yew.

Packera aurea in its first year in this spot.

Great list, but it doesn’t include my own, newly discovered favorites, which I got as passalongs from neighbors growing them on wooded slopes. They’re both evergreen, can handle full shade and some sun (with varying degrees of leaf-crispiness), fill in quickly but stay short, and serve as excellent skirts for azaleas and similar shrubs. Carolyn agreed that in her experience “both are wonderful.”

  • Old-fashioned Comfrey, which Carolyn saw recently in England blooming in very deep blues – “Stunning color.”
  • Golden groundsel (Packera aurea).

Comfrey in bloom.

Of course some ground covers that do their job – spreading – are a problem in the wrong place and end up on one of the many invasive-plants lists that have been published. So one listserv-member urged: “Please do not plant Ajuga or the non-native Pachysandra. You may even regret planting Lily of the Valley. Use natives.” While I agree that planting Lily of the Valley is often regretted (and I sure regret that my next-door neighbor ever planted it in our adjoining border), Ajuga proved to be short-lived in my garden. And the only regret I’ve heard about planting pachysandras is that the native type simply doesn’t fill in, so save your money.

So I have another rant, an old one for me: Shouldn’t the alarming term “invasive” be qualified as to location and conditions? For example, “Don’t plant adjacent to wooded areas,” or “In wet spots, will overcome other plants.” And shouldn’t pleas like “Please don’t plant” at least back up the concern with a link to a local and respected source of information? None of the ground covers mentioned here are on Maryland’s list of invasive plants but they could conceivably be on one of the 23 other sources of invasive-plant information recommended by the state’s Invasive Species Council, most of them national in scope.

No wonder there’s so much misunderstanding, and people are so afraid that adding  plants to their yards will do harm, when in almost every case planting more plants is a net-plus environmentally.

Posted by

Susan Harris
on June 2, 2016 at 10:31 pm, in the category It’s the Plants, Darling.

12 Comments

  1. Love this article! Do you have a good recommendation for shade ground cover where children and dogs also live? :-) I have lots of trees, including a live oak. Can’t get grass to grow. Looking for drought-tolerant shade ground cover that will survive. Maybe too much to hope for?
    Thanks!

  2. Excellent article especially regarding regional conditions and plants. I am always looking for native options for ground covers. Houston’s favourite ground cover, especially under Live Oaks is Asian Jasmine which does its job well but I am tired of it. I have used Mondo as you suggested, great in shade. My newest favorite is Pigeon Berry, likes part shade. For full sun I like the trailing Lantana which bloom 9 months ago year here and handle are infrequent freezes.

  3. Excellent article. I completely agree with your points: use natives, be aware of what is invasive in your area. I am paying a company to get rid of an acre (!) of Vinca minor (Myrtle) that the former owners planted and which is spreading alarmingly. I live in a rural area of SE Michigan near a state recreation area and I do not want to be responsible for this thug spreading into the woods. Wild ginger is a lovely and slowly spreading ground cover here. I have Big leaf aster (Eurybia macrophylla) planted under conifers in dry shade and its big leaves close to the ground are lovely. It is spreading also.

  4. Good information. Here in Boise, I have finally found good soil and area for sweet woodruff to grow thick and flowering with a vanilla scent. I am loving that for my garden.

  5. Agreed, sweet woodruff is one of the best groundcovers for shade (zone 5) – drought-tolerant, generally stays contained to the area you want it in and (apparently) can be used to make sweet teas and May wine!

  6. Susan- Good for you (and the land) for removing all that vinca! Christmas fern, white wood aster and zig zag goldenrod are a few more species to consider. If we can assist in any way let us know. http://www.indigination.com. We’ve been designing and installing all native gardens for nearly twenty years.

  7. In the upper midwest a very good ground cover is wild ginger or its European counterpart. Although I don’t love it, Vinca does do duty as ground cover in my gardens. Iberis does well in some tough spots. Although it doesn’t hang around all summer especially in the hot and dry, but dwarf solomon’s seal is great looking as a marginal ground cover.

  8. Here in S.E. Pennsylvania, Geranium macrorrhizum does a great job of spreading quickly in shade, dense enough to choke out weeds. Its strong fragrance makes this deer repellent, not just resistant. ‘Bevans variety” seems to be more robust than ‘Ingwersens” and even maintains some winter presence.

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