Attempting to grow grass under large shade trees is difficult and frustrating. Because of unfavorable growing conditions, grass doesn’t grow well in shady areas. A shade tolerant groundcover is an excellent alternative to turfgrass in shady areas. A partial list of groundcovers that grow well in partial to heavy shade is provided below.
Bugleweed (Ajuga spp.) is a low-growing, spreading plant that develops into a dense groundcover. Leaves are typically dark green. However, cultivars with colorful foliage are most often grown in home landscapes. The leaves of these colorful cultivars 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 are often 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 is often used in potpourri and sachets. It can also be used to flavor wines and other drinks.
Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) is another native woodland wildflower. Plants grow 2 feet tall and bloom in spring. The five-petaled flowers are 1 to 1½ inches across and pink to lilac in color. The deeply cut, palmately lobed leaves may be up to 6 inches across. Wild geranium prefers moist, well-drained soils and partial shade.
Hostas (Hosta spp.) can be used as a groundcover or specimen plants. They are long-lived, easy to grow, and have few serious problems. Hundreds of cultivars are available. Cultivars 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 cultivars also exhibit diversity in plant height and flower characteristics. Cultivars range in height from 2 inches to 4 feet. Flowers may be white, blue, or purple. The flowers of some cultivars are highly fragrant. Some hostas, such as Hosta clausa, have a stoloniferous growth habit, making them ideal as groundcovers. Hostas grow best in moist, well-drained soils. Most cultivars prefer partial to heavy shade.
Yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon) is an adaptable groundcover that grows well in dry, shady areas. The cultivars ‘Variegatum’ and ‘Herman’s Pride’ have green leaves with silver markings. The 12- to 15-inch-tall plants produce yellow flowers in spring.
Several cultivars 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.
Creeping lily-turf (Liriope spicata) is a grass-like, rhizomatous perennial. Plants grow 8 to 12 inches tall. Creeping lily-turf has narrow, dark green foliage and produces small, white to pale violet flowers (partially hidden amongst the foliage) 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 cultivars is green with white or silver spots. However, some cultivars have essentially silver leaves with green margins. In addition to the attractive foliage, lungworts 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).
Bishop's goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegatum’) and lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) are two easy-to-grow groundcovers. Unfortunately, both spread rapidly and often become invasive. Once established, they are difficult to eliminate or destroy. These aggressive spreaders are not suitable for mixed plantings. They should only be planted in areas where they can be confined or allowed to spread freely.