Are you having problems growing grass under your shade tree? Are you tired of looking at bare ground or pulling weeds in those shady areas of you landscape? It may be time to give up on the grass and instead try a groundcover in these difficult areas. Once they are established, groundcovers require less maintenance than turf, they can out compete most weeds, and some have attractive flowers as well. Groundcovers will require more time to establish initially but are worth the effort in the long run.
Bugleweed or Ajuga reptans forms a dense 4- to 6-inch-tall carpet under shade trees. The showy flower spikes of blue, purple, or white appear in late spring. Best flower production occurs in partial shade. The leaves vary from dark green, bronze-purple, or variegated dark green, white, and burgundy. Bugleweed prefers moist, well-drained soils.
Astilbes are great perennials for shady areas in the landscape. They range in height from 8 to 36 inches tall. Because it spreads quickly, Astilbe chinensis 'Pumila' is one of the best astilbes for groundcover use. The 8-inch-tall lavender-pink flower spikes of 'Pumila' appear in late summer atop dark green foliage. Astilbes prefer moist, rich soil that is well-drained in winter.
For heart-shaped leaves in the shade, try one of the gingers. European Ginger (Asarum europaeum) has leathery, glossy, semi-evergreen leaves. Canadian or Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) has larger, leaves that are not as glossy as European Ginger. Canadian Ginger is hardier than the European species. Both gingers are 5 to 6 inches tall. While their flowers are not showy, gingers produce unique maroon to brown, bell-shaped flowers just above the soil surface. Gingers are slow growing and require partial to full shade with moist, well-drained soils.
For a more aggressive groundcover, Bishop's Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria 'Variegatum') spreads rapidly. This 8- to 10-inch-tall groundcover is noted for its green and white variegated leaves and tolerance of poor sites. Creamy white flowers appear in early summer but are not normally showy. Because of its aggressive nature, Bishop's Goutweed should be planted only in those areas where it can be confined.
Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis) is another fast-growing groundcover with distinctive bell-shaped, fragrant, white or pale-pink flowers in spring. The dark green leaves reach 8 inches tall and can become unsightly by late summer. Lily-of-the-Valley can become invasive in some sites if not contained.
Barrenwort (Epimedium sp.) is a delicate 10- to 12-inch-tall groundcover with small white, yellow, or dark pink, columbine-shaped flowers in late spring. The medium-green, heart-shaped foliage on thin stems often persists into winter. New leaves are sometimes tinted red.
The fragrant foliage of Sweet Woodruff or Galium odoratum is often used in springtime drinks. The bright green leaves encircle the stems and are fragrant when crushed. The stems are topped with clusters of fragrant, white flowers in late spring. This perennial groundcover reaches 6 to 8 inches tall and prefers moist, shady areas under deep-rooted trees and shrubs.
Hostas are available in a wide range of sizes (3 inches to 3 feet tall) and make excellent perennial groundcovers for shade. The leaves can be green, blue, gold, white, or various combinations. The thousands of available varieties vary in foliage color, height, spread, and flower color. Flowering occurs in summer and flowers are normally white or lavender.
English Ivy (Hedera helix) is a semi-evergreen groundcover noted for its lustrous, dark green leaves. The plant reaches 6 -10 inches in height and prefers partial shade to full shade. The flowers are not noticeable. This groundcover is not reliably hardy in northern Iowa and may require protection from the wind and sun in winter.
Spotted Dead Nettle (Lamium maculatum) is noted for its foliage and flowers. The leaves are either a medium green with silver markings, silver-white with green margins, or chartreuse. The flowers are white or pink and appear in early summer. This groundcover can become aggressive once established. Spotted Dead Nettle prefers part to full shade with moist soils. Their leaves will scorch in full sun.
Japanese Spurge (Pachysandra terminalis) is an evergreen groundcover with lustrous green foliage. The plant reaches 6 to 12 inches tall and prefers partial to full shade. The whitish flowers, though not showy, appear at the ends of the stems in spring. Japanese Spruge requires protection from winter winds and sun.
Foam Flower (Tiarella cordifolia) is another groundcover noted for its distinctive foliage and flowers. This North American native has medium to dark green, maple or oak-shaped leaves that often have dark brown or burgundy markings. The 6 inch flower racemes are pinkish-white and appear in spring.
Periwinkle or Vinca minor is an excellent groundcover for partial to full shade. The species and most varieties possess glossy dark green leaves. A few varieties have green and white variegated foliage. White or lilac-blue flowers appear in spring and continue intermittently throughout the summer. Plant height is approximately 6 inches. Periwinkle does not tolerate wet sites.
Groundcovers are valuable additions to the landscape. Groundcovers that are carefully selected, planted, and cared for properly offer reliable beauty and low maintenance for years.
This article originally appeared in the March 19, 1999 issue, pp. 27-29.