Attempting to grow grass under large shade trees often is difficult and frustrating. Because of the poor growing conditions, lawns in shady areas are often little more than bare soil and a few weeds. Home gardeners may want to consider replacing the sparse turf with shade tolerant groundcovers. Several attractive groundcovers grow well in the shade. Most of these shade tolerant groundcovers require less maintenance than turfgrasses.
Bugleweed (Ajuga spp.) is a low-growing, spreading plant that develops into a dense groundcover. Leaves are typically dark green. However, the varieties that are most commonly grown in the home landscape possess more colorful foliage. The leaves of these colorful varieties may be combinations of bronze, purple, gray, burgundy, and white. Flowers are usually violet-blue, but may be pink or white. Bugleweeds perform best in well-drained soils in partial shade.
Canadian wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is a native woodland wildflower. It often forms large colonies in moist woodland areas. Each plant usually consists of two heart-shaped leaves. A single flower is produced in April or May. The flower, usually hidden beneath the foliage, is bell-shaped and maroon to brown in color. The common name, wild ginger, refers to the ginger-like aroma produced when the leaves or rhizomes are crushed.
European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum) is another excellent groundcover with glossy, dark green foliage. Both gingers prefer moist, well-drained soils that contain large amounts of organic matter. Sites in partial to heavy shade are best.
Though it spreads slowly, barrenwort (Epimedium spp.) is an excellent groundcover for partial to heavy shade. Plants commonly grow 8 to 12 inches tall and have green, heart-shaped leaves. In spring, the leaves often are tinted red. Barrenwort produces small, columbine-like flowers in spring. Flowers may be white, pink, red, or yellow. Barrenwort will tolerate dry, shaded conditions. However, the best growing sites are those with moist, well-drained soils (containing large amounts of organic matter) in partial shade.
Growing 6 to 8 inches tall, sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) has leaves arranged in whorls around the stem. In spring, plants produce clusters of small, white flowers. As the scientific name suggests, sweet woodruff produces an attractive fragrance (similar to newly cut hay) when dried or crushed. The fragrant plant material often is used in potpourri and sachets. It also can be used to flavor wines and other drinks.
Hostas (Hosta spp.) can be used as groundcover or specimen plants. They are long-lived, easy to grow, and have few serious problems. Hundreds of varieties are available. Varieties differ in leaf color, texture, and shape. The foliage may be green, blue, gold, or variegated. Leaf textures include smooth, glossy, dull, seersuckered, or leathery. The leaves may be long and narrow, nearly round, or heart-shaped. Hosta varieties also exhibit diversity in plant height and flower characteristics. Varieties range in height from 2 inches to 4 feet. Flowers may be white, blue, or purple. The flowers of some varieties are highly fragrant. Hostas grow best in moist, well-drained soils. Most varieties prefer partial to heavy shade.
Yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon) is an adaptable groundcover that grows well in dry, shady areas. The varieties 'Variegatum' and 'Herman's Pride' have green leaves with silver markings. The 12 to 15 inch plants produce yellow flowers in spring.
Several varieties of spotted deadnettle (Lamium maculatum) are excellent groundcovers with attractive foliage and flowers. 'Beacon Silver,' 'Pink Pewter,' and 'White Nancy' have silver leaves with narrow green margins and pinkish purple, soft pink, and white flowers, respectively. Plants bloom from late spring to mid-summer. Spotted deadnettle grows 8 to 12 inches tall. It performs best in moist, well-drained soils in partial shade.
For those fond of grass, creeping lily-turf (Liriope spicata) may be the answer. Creeping lily-turf possesses grass-like foliage. Plants grow 8 to 12 inches tall. Creeping lily-turf produces small white to pale violet flowers in mid-summer followed by blue-black, berry-like fruit. The grass-like foliage of creeping lily-turf persists through the winter. However, by late winter it often looks rather scruffy. To promote new growth, remove the damaged foliage with a mower or grass shears in early spring.
Lungworts (Pulmonaria spp.) are clump-flowering perennials with distinctly spotted foliage. The foliage of most species and varieties is green with white or silver spots. However, some of the newer varieties have essentially silver leaves with green margins. In addition to the attractive foliage, lungworts also produce colorful flowers in spring. Flowers may be white, pink, or blue. Lungworts can be grown as a groundcover or specimen in partial to full shade.
Other groundcovers suitable for shady areas include Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis), creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera), foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia), and vinca (Vinca minor).
Two other widely grown groundcovers are bishop's goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria 'Variegatum') and lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis). Bishop's goutweed and lily-of-the-valley are very adaptable plants and will grow in very difficult sites. Unfortunately, they both spread rapidly and often become invasive. These aggressive spreaders should not be planted in beds with other perennials as they will quickly crowd them out. Bishop's goutweed and lily-of-the-valley should be planted only in areas where they can be confined or allowed to spread freely.
In shady lawn areas, gardeners do have choices. One option would be to continue the rather futile attempts to grow grass. A lush, attractive groundcover would be another possibility. When you think about, it's not a hard decision.
This article originally appeared in the 5/28/2004 issue.