- 10 Ground Covers for Shade
- Dealing With Dry Shade
- Everything I’ve learned about dry-shade gardening has been from experimentation.
- An important role for areas out of the sun.
- Great shade solutions within reach.
- Want to know more about shade tolerant plants?
- Share your favorite shade plant.
10 Ground Covers for Shade
It is often the case that we gardeners find ourselves with a shady corner in our yard where nothing grows. What we long for is one plant that will take to that spot and cover it so we don’t have to think about it again. If that plant happens to be attractive and keep out weeds as well, so much the better. For many years the quintessential American shade ground cover was ivy (Hedera helix and cvs.). It was one of the only trouble-free plants available in nurseries to get the job done. Now, however, we have available a wider selection of plants that can cover large areas of ground without the benefit of a lot of sun. You probably won’t even consider ivy if you first check out these ten outstanding plants for your shady spot.
W. George Schmid is the author of An Encyclopedia of Shade Peren-nials. He gardens in Atlanta, Ga.
Sweet woodruff adds fragrance to the shade
By Christopher Schlosser under the license GDFL and Creative Commons CC-By-SA-2.5 or an older version of the latter license.
While it may look delicate, sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum, USDA Hardiness Zones 5–8) is actually a vigorous spreader. This Eurasian species makes a dense, 15-inch-high ground cover with numerous clusters of fragrant, white, star-shaped flowers, which appear in early summer. The deciduous, emerald green leaves are also star shaped and stay neat well into autumn.
The heat in the South is harmful for sweet wood-ruff, but it can take it if shade and constant moisture are provided. In the North it does much better, and it can cover areas under full shade trees. But keep an eye on it: With plenty of moisture and fertile, acidic soil, it can run rampant in cultivated beds. For good flowering, keep the soil consistently moist with a pH of 5.5 to 7.
Wild ginger can handle drought
Shuttleworth’s wild ginger (Asarum shuttleworthii, Zones 6–9) is a cham-pion, no-care ground cover. The beau-tifully variegated, evergreen leaves stand shoulder to shoulder, creating a close-knit cover. It is low-growing and spreads slowly by creeping rhizomes, forming 4-inch-high mats of leaves, which hide the insignificant “little brown jug” flowers in spring. The 2-inch-diameter leaves have a rich, grayish green color with striking, silvery gray markings.
Native to Virginia, the Carolinas, northern Georgia, and Alabama, Shuttle-worth’s wild ginger requires acidic, well-drained soil. It has deep roots that help it survive drought, but the plant cannot handle consistently dry conditions. Although it can be expensive, it is gener-ally maintenance-free and is easily propagated by division.
Bunchberry doesn’t rely only on foliage for looks
Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis, Zones 2–7), a low-growing member of the dogwood family, makes an outstanding emerald ground cover. In acidic soil of good tilth, bunchberry becomes a magnificent, vigorously spreading, 6- to 8-inch-high ground cover of striking whorled leaves. Large, white flowers (actually bracts) appear in early summer, followed by clusters of bright red berries.
Bunchberry thrives in cool summer climates. It does not like the hot South, and I quickly found out it would not grow in my Atlanta garden. And since bunchberry enjoys friable, acidic woodland soil, it will not grow in clay soils or in soils that are even slightly alkaline.
Dwarf solomon’s seal is worth showing off
Dwarf Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum humile, Zones 5–8) creates a plush cover wonderful for prominent shady spots.
It produces a forest of deciduous, 6- to 8-inch-tall stems clothed in soft green leaves. In spring, small, bell-shaped flowers emerge in clusters in the leaf axils followed by small, bluish black, ball-shaped fruit.
It grows loosely at first and the earth can be seen under it. But when it matures (and is planted in fertile, acidic woodland soil), its rhizomes will spread fast and wide, providing quick coverage. It does well in considerable shade and tolerates tree-root competition. It will become ragged and go dormant early unless supplied with plenty of water during hot, dry summers.
Lilyturf can grow anywhere
A superb, dense, evergreen ground cover, lilyturf (Liriope muscari, Zones 6–10) offers attractive, grasslike, dark green leaves that form an expanding 8- to 10-inch-high clump. The midsummer flowers are small, bluish violet, and tightly clustered on a stalk that rises above the foliage. Cultivars with variegated leaves, white flowers, or curly, twisted leaves are worth seeking out.
Lilyturf is barely hardy in Zone 6a. Farther south, it spreads vigorously. It cares little how hot or dry it gets, what soil it grows in, or how much or little sun or shade it gets. Only stagnant water in the ground will harm it. Initially, it can be a slow grower, but an application of slow-release fertilizers will provide a faster start.
Mother of thousands doesn’t need attention
The same quality that earned mother of thousands (Saxifraga stolonifera, Zones 6–9) its name makes it a superb ground cover: its prodigious ability to produce offspring. Carpets of round, silver-veined leaves send out thin, red stolons to steadily capture new ground. The result is a tight, ground-level cover that brightens the shade with
2-foot-high plumes of small, white flowers in late spring.
This plant requires little care. It is suited to acidic woodland soils but will grow just as well in heavy, acidic clay soil. In the South, it endures long, hot summers and is a wonderful pass-along plant.
Golden Star blooms bright and spreads steadily
Goldenstar (Chrysogonum virginianum, Zones 5–8) is an elegant, long-lived, native ground cover with dazzling yellow blossoms scattered over a rich, green carpet of leaves. It spreads into a tight, low-growing ground cover that is 4 to 6 inches high. Spring brings many bright, yellow, daisylike flowers, which reappear in late summer.
Native to our eastern deciduous forests, golden star likes a bit of morning sun for better blooms but will adapt to medium to full shade. It is hardy in the North and grows well in the South, tolerating hot and dry summers. A moist, slightly acidic to neutral soil is best. A slow but deliberate spreader, it is well worth the wait and is suitable for gardens where delicate perennials and wildflowers will be its neighbors.
Wild cranesbill stands tall and spreads fast
Wild cranesbill (Geranium maculatum, Zones 4–8) has flocks of leaves on tall stems. It makes a bushy cover crowned with long-lasting, attractive purplish flowers. It spreads both by seeding itself widely and by rhizomes. The result is an 18- to 24-inch-tall ground cover of grayish green, deeply lobed, deciduous leaves. In early spring, the up-facing flowers appear in loose clusters above the leaves.
Easily grown in acid, always-moist woodland shade in the South and some sun and light shade in the North, it is an insect-resistant, fast-spreading, attractive ground cover.
Vancouveria offers an understated, graceful look
Vancouveria (Vancouveria spp., Zones 5–9) is a well-behaved, classy cover for moist shade. This West Coast native is becoming a popular evergreen ground cover in the East. There, it is not as exuberant as in its western habitat, but it is a tough plant that keeps coming back. The masses of pale green leaflets make an elegant cover, up to 16 inches high. Tiny, white flowers top the foliage in early summer.
In the hot South, profuse watering and planting in medium to deep shade is required. With moist shade and deep, acidic woodland soil of good tilth, it will form
a tight ground cover. Farther north, it can take increasing sunlight.
Yellow archangel has colorful leaves and flowers
Yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon, ‘Hermann’s Pride’, Zones 4–8) is one of the fastest-growing ground covers. It forms a dense, 8- to 12-inch-high mat of silver-speckled leaves. The plant covers itself in yellow flowers in early spring.
In the hot South, it needs medium to full shade and tends to become leggy if it gets too dry. If that happens, cut it back once or twice a season to 4 to 8 inches tall. Farther north, it tolerates considerable sun and grows much stronger. It may be too rambunctious for areas with delicate perennials and wildflowers. Wherever you are, it will require a soil pH close to neutral.
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Dealing With Dry Shade
Everything I’ve learned about dry-shade gardening has been from experimentation.
When my husband and I bought our home in Fairview, Tennessee, 20 years ago, I had never gardened before. Our acre was surrounded by mature hickory and oak trees, otherwise known as “water suckers.” But I love my trees, so it never crossed my mind to get rid of them to make it easier to have a garden. Adding to my dry-shade condition was my chert soil. For those unfamiliar with chert, just imagine using a pickax to dig your holes (really, I’m serious). There is no humus and it’s a little like concrete, so “dry” might not be a strong enough word to describe it.
I quickly began to understand why people say that “dry” and “shade”—when used in tandem—are two of the dirtiest words in gardening. There is, arguably, nothing worse to deal with if you’re interested in creating a beautiful landscape. Through the years, however, I’ve developed some tricks to make my garden look just as good as any full-sun, moist bed. And, no, my garden’s transformation didn’t involve the installation of an expensive irrigation system. With some soil amendment, a little bit of hardscaping, and special attention to plant placement, my garden began looking more like the ones I drooled over in magazines.
Use hardscaping to slow down runoff and create seep-down pockets
At first, I wanted to use stonework throughout the garden purely for the beauty of it. I started to notice, however, that wherever I added hardscaping, the plants in that area seemed happier. I quickly realized that the various stone walls and pathways created pockets where water would pool and then seep down slowly into the dry soil. That realization led me to do some terracing throughout the garden. The property was slightly sloped, so the small walls helped stop the water from running off. As a bonus, the terracing was pretty and it helped create microclimates, which expanded my plant choices.
Finding a way to slow runoff is essential in any dry-shade garden so that precious rainfall has time to soak into the ground instead of flowing into the street or a neighbor’s yard. You might be thinking that all of that stone must have cost a fortune. I initially had the same fear, but I installed the hardscaping one piece at a time over the course of 20 years. I first concentrated on the driest areas of the garden or where runoff was the biggest problem. To alleviate costs further, I utilized native stone, which was less expensive.
Plant placement or nonplacement is essential for success
There are some rules I live by with my plant selection. First, the plants need to be somewhat drought tolerant. I manage a garden center, where I drag a hose for a living, so the last thing I want to do when I get home is more of the same. Still, in July and August, my garden can look less than stellar. I use this time to do my garden editing. If a plant needs too much water, staking, or maintenance at this time of year, I edit it out. Also, plants with bright foliage stand out more in shade, and tall shrubs are must-have items for bridging the gap between the surrounding trees and the 2- to 3-foot-tall perennials.
My next rule is an age-old adage: right plant, right place. I divide my garden into zones. In areas that might get a bit more sun or stay a little more protected from drying winds, I can get away with planting something a bit more finicky, like ‘Annabelle’ smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’, USDA Hardiness Zones 4–9). The areas that hold more moisture near the hardscaping are planted with plants that prefer a regular drink, like heuchera (Heuchera spp. and cvs., Zones 3–8). I pack a lot of plants into those small areas because it’s as close to an ideal spot as I get in my garden. After 10 years or so, I finally started paying attention to what plants really wanted and not what I hoped they would like. I don’t care how cool a plant is—if it’s struggling, it’s always going to look pitiful.
Inevitably, though, there are always those spots that are truly hellish. For those less-than-hospitable areas (like directly at the base of a hickory tree), I like to plant something that might not be stylish or exciting but will withstand the worst conditions imaginable, such as ‘Nana’ juniper (Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’, Zones 3–9). These indestructible plants help fill in obvious gaps, making the landscape look lush and full. Finally, I’ll put some plants in pots and nestle them into the garden. This ensures that certain plants will stick around and look good, despite the soil conditions. A great example is hosta (Hosta spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9), which will grow in my garden but will be three times larger in a container. Potted plants fill in bare spots in my most problematic areas, too.
By following my self-imposed rules for dry shade, I can now say that I have a beautiful, low-maintenance garden—one I never dreamed was possible.
Robyn Brown is the manager of Moore & Moore Garden Center and, in her spare time, plants obsessively in Fairview, Tennessee.
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Shady gardens don’t have to be dreary or uninspiring | Pacific Nurseries
In the golden state of California, it’s sometimes hard to believe that every garden isn’t blessed with daily, bright, warm sunshine.
The reality is that Bay Area landscapes have plenty of areas that only get limited or no direct sunshine. If that sounds like your challenge, it doesn’t mean that a shady garden has to be dreary or uninspiring.
Shade tolerant plants can be an attractive addition to many Bay Area landscapes. You just have to know about the wide variety of plant options that can make a sun starved garden both attractive and beautiful.
An important role for areas out of the sun.
Shade tolerant plants play an important role in providing needed contrast, texture and interest in garden areas that can sometimes be neglected or overlooked. Many shade plants also provide aesthetic design benefits of dramatic structural forms, colorful blooms and unusual leaf sizes.
According to the California Native Plant Society | CNPS, there are wide variety of native California plants that are perfect for a shady or mostly shady location. CNPS points out that there are important questions that you need to answer about your particular site and location before you plant anything. They include:
What to know before you plant in the shade
With this important information at hand, it makes sense to consider some of the many options and benefits of shade tolerant plants for your next installation. At Pacific Nurseries, we have a wide selection of plants that prefer shade in our over 36 acres of inventory. And we offer them in many container sizes—from 4” to 15 gallon and even larger for some items.
Great shade solutions within reach.
Check out these featured specimens below that may be particularly attractive and inspiring for the shady areas in your project.
Acanthus mollis | Pacific Nurseries
Acanthus mollis has basal clusters of deeply lobed and cut, shiny dark green leaves that are soft to the touch. The leaf forms grow to 12–32” high and over 12” wide. This plant has an inflorescence bloom which is a cylindrical spike 12–16” long that can produce hundreds of flowers. The flowers are tubular, whitish, and lilac or rose in color.
This dramatic, big leaf, shade-lover grows in dry areas and does well in rocky and bushy places too. The large leaves and dramatic flower spike offer great contrast to many background or small leaf hedge and screening plants. It’s also drought tolerant.
Fuchsia thymifolia | Pacific Nurseries
Fuchsia thymifolia is in the Encliandra group of fuchsias that come from the cool, evergreen, cloud forests of Mexico and North Guatemala. This specimen also does amazing well in our Bay Area climate in cool costal areas.
This miniature fuchsia produces a profusion of pink and red mini-flowers with glossy dark green mini-leaves from early spring until early winter. It prefers partial shade but it will also grow in more shady areas. It can grow to +60” in height in the right location but looks better if it’s trimmed up to be more condensed and less leggy. And if you’re looking for a pollinator magnet, Hummingbirds especially love this plant.
Ribes viburnifolium | Pacific Nurseries
This great California native plant, Evergreen currant, grows in shade to part shade and is deer resistant. Originating from Santa Catalina Island and Baja California, this evergreen perennial shrub grows 2-3’ tall and up to 8’ wide. It features heavily scented dark green foliage with waxy and shiny leaves. The stems are red and the leaf venation is also reddish so the plant has a contrasting red brick with green trim appearance.
Evergreen currant will survive dry to moderate water as long as it has good drainage. It is extremely drought tolerant in clay and is a great ground cover for dry shady areas.
CA native plants that are perfect for a shady location | Pacific Nurseries #tips #shade #plants
Lomandra longifolia Breeze
Lomandra longifolia Breeze | Pacific Nurseries
Lomandra, common name Matt Rush, is a genus with many varieties of tufted dioecious perennial herbs with long narrow blade-like leaves that arise from a central stemless base. Lomandra varieties vary in size, leaf color and leaf blade width. All varieties are mounding plants with strap like leaves of green or blue-green. The varieties range in size from 1 foot tall to 3 feet tall. A few of the many great attributes of this versatile plant is the ability to do well near the seacoast and to grow well in both sun or shade.
Originally from the diverse habitats of rainforests to arid areas in Australia, Lomandra has very low water requirements and is considered drought tolerant. It also grows more rapidly with regular watering. This very flexible and versatile plant appreciates being cut back hard to tight mounds no more than 6 inches tall. This aggressive cutting back cleans up older foliage and promotes new growth. ‘Nyalla’, ‘Seascape’, ‘Tropic Bell’, ‘Little Con’ are all varieties worth a look over.
Clivia miniata | Pacific Nurseries
Clivia plants are native to South Africa and have always been quite popular in Bay Area gardens. These unusual plants derived their name from the Lady Florentina Clive and are slow growing stars in shady gardens.
Clivia’s feature stunning blooms, which vary in color from pale orange to electric red. The fragrant, trumpet-like flowers are similar to that of amaryllis but smaller. And unlike amaryllis, clivias retain their foliage year round. They prefer somewhat moist soil and do best when they are slightly dry between deep watering’s. Fertilizing once a month is also a good idea.
Woodwardia fimbriata | Pacific Nurseries
This large coarse terrestrial fern is a California native plant. It usually grows to 4’ tall and wide and can reach to 7’ in the right lush setting. Woodwardia usually develops multiple clumps of leaves with age and looks best when older dried out leaves are removed.
These dramatic beauties also do well with some sunlight especially in the cooler costal areas. They are hardy when the temperature drops in the winter and they appreciate well-drained soil and constant moisture.
Helleborus | Pacific Nurseries
This genus of perennials with toothed, leathery leaves and distinctive blooms makes an elegant addition to a garden. The often long-lasting flowers emerge in early spring and they are available in variety of colors from white, green, pink, purple, cream, and even spotted.
They look best when planted in groups in a shady area or woodland setting. Their distinctive foliage persists throughout the year and the flowers and foliage are fairly deer resistant. Heleborus blooms in early spring and tolerates a wide range of soils from neutral to acidic.
Pieris japonica | Pacific Nurseries
This showy, cascading shrub is a perfect plant solution for a woodland setting, rock garden, container, or for use as a foundation plant. With a common name of Lily-of-the-Valley, Pieris japonica, sometimes referred to as ‘Andromeda’, blooms with profuse, cascading flowers followed by colorful new foliage growth that can be bronze, brilliant pink to scarlet. As the new evergreen leaves mature, they turn bright dark green. It grows to 12’ tall and 10’ wide and produces flower buds in late autumn which cover the plant until they burst into bloom in early spring.
Pieris shrubs will grow in full shade but generally don’t flower as well there. In addition, new foliage growth is usually not as brilliant. Some partial sun with shade provides a better environment to make this plant thrive. Pieris shrubs also prefer soil with good drainage and rich in organic humus.
What to know before you plant in the shade | Pacific Nurseries #tips #shade #plants
Sedum makinoi Ogon
Sedum makinoi Ogon | Pacific Nurseries
This beautiful, fast spreading succulent hates full sun and thrives in light to full shade It’s a semi-deciduous, low-growing ground cover that can quickly spread to 18″ wide. From southern Japan, it does best in moist, shady, rocky areas.
With bright gold foliage that turns chartreuse in late Summer, it blooms midsummer with yellow flowers that are nearly unnoticeable against the golden foliage. This plant looks great in rock gardens between crevices and also along a shady border path.
Anemone hybrid | Pacific Nurseries
As a dramatic long-lived plant, Anemone hybrids can be grown in partial shade or full shade. Some stray and ramble. And some varieties enjoy popping up through stonework or paving close to buildings or paths. Japanese anemone are deer-resistant and also look great in a wilder gardens. A. hupehensis and A. tormentors are great varieties of Anemone.
These beauties flower in late summer or autumn producing simple saucers in white and various shades of pink. The flowers open from round, silk-covered buds and pollinators just love them. Japanese anemones, like many Asian plants, prefer good drainage and fertile soil that does not become waterlogged in winter. Once established they can be difficult to eradicate, so consider where you plant them in a landscape.
Geranium cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’
Geranium cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’ | Pacific Nurseries
This hybrid geranium is a spreading, rhizomatous plant that typically grows 6-10” high with aromatic round lobed, medium green foliage that is slightly glossy. Some might consider it a very pale pink geranium. It’s an easy-care perennial that performs best when planted as a border and in containers.
Masses of 5-petaled white flowers (3/4″ diameter) which are tinged with pink at the base of each petal (pink throat-like centers) and pronounced pink stamens appear in late spring through summer. ‘Biokovo’ runners extend to spread this shade tolerant beauty to form a soft foliage carpet. This plant requires occasional watering and can tolerate full sun. But it also does quite well in shade.
Sarcococca | Pacific Nurseries
In the late winter season or very early spring, when most plants are looking sad or asleep, this attractive beauty sports sweetly fragrant, very tiny flowers with dark red 1/4″ berries which ripen to black. Consider locating this small native shrub from China near entry passages, widow openings or where the flower fragrance can be appreciated by those passing by.
Commonly called fragrant sweetbox or fragrant sarcococca, it is a dense, low-growing, broadleaf evergreen shrub with a compact habit that typically grows to 3-4′ tall and as wide. It features sharp-pointed, somewhat leathery, glossy deep green, evergreen leaves that are 2 1/2″ long. Sarcocca stays very green in dense shade and it does well when located in the darkest corners. It prefers acidic, organically rich, moist and well-drained soils. It’s also relatively water-wise once established. Sarcococca ruscifolia, confusa and hookeriana var. humilis are all great options.
Want to know more about shade tolerant plants?
If you want to discuss or learn more about great shade tolerant plants for your project, feel free to contact any of our experts at Pacific Nurseries or call 650.755.2330.
As both a grower and a plant broker, we’re ready to work with you to provide just the right plants that will make your shady landscape location a smashing success. We can also provide an Estimate for any item just by attaching your plant list to our convenient online estimate form.
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Have you recently installed or found a great shade tolerant plant? Share your success with our community of Bay Area landscape pros and leave a comment below. We look forward to hearing from you.