Ground covers are low-growing plants that spread quickly to form a dense cover. They add beauty to the landscape and at the same time help prevent soil erosion. Grass is the best known ground cover, but grass is not suited to all locations. Other ground cover plants should be used where grass is difficult to grow or maintain.
Unlike grass, most ground cover plants cannot be walked on. They can be used effectively to reduce maintenance work and to put the finishing touch on any landscaping project.
Ground covers can be found to fit many conditions, but they are used most frequently for the following locations:
- Steep banks or slopes.
- Shady areas under trees and next to buildings.
- Underplantings in shrub borders and beds.
- Areas where tree roots grow close to the surface and prevent grass from growing.
- Locations that are very wet or very dry.
When planted under trees, ground covers reduce the possibility of mower damage to the base of the tree. Some ground covers may be used to protect the roots of shallow-rooted trees. They shade the soil and keep it from drying out rapidly. Some ground covers don’t require as much moisture and nutrients as grass. Therefore, they are in less competition with trees and shrubs.
Selection of a suitable plant for ground cover depends on the area where it will be grown. Some ground cover plants prefer partial shade, others thrive in deep shade or full sun; a few grow well in either sun or shade. The selected ground cover plants listed here grow well in a wide variety of soil types. Some, however, prefer moist soil while others need dry or well-drained soil. All the ground covers discussed are reliably cold hardy throughout Missouri.
First, select types best suited to the conditions existing where the ground cover is needed. From these selected types, choose one that ornamentally blends best with surrounding plantings.
Everything about you is low-maintenance — from the way you style your hair to your clothes. So it makes sense you’d want an easy-to-care-for lawn and garden.
One way to do this is by installing ground cover plants. They’re great grass substitutes: They don’t need mowing, and they add a bit of texture and color to your garden spaces. But which ones will look and grow best in the shady areas of your yard?
To help with your selection, we’ve compiled a list of the best ground cover plants for shade.
A well-prepared planting bed is necessary to develop a dense, healthy ground cover planting. The soil should be worked to a depth of 6 to 8 inches. Take care to eliminate perennial weeds and grass that might compete with the ground cover during establishment.
Organic materials such as peatmoss, leaf mold, compost or well-rotted manure lighten clay soils and improve the water-holding capacity of sandy soils. Eight to 10 bushels of organic materials per 100 square feet incorporated to a depth of 6 to 8 inches may be necessary in very poor or heavy soils.
A soil test provides the best guidance for fertilizer usage. Without this information, a general rule would be to use three pounds of a commercial fertilizer such as 5-10-5 per 100 square feet. Mix the fertilizer into the soil to a depth of 6 to 8 inches.
Most ground cover plants can be planted any time during the growing season, but either spring or fall is preferred.
The arrangement and spacing of plants in the planting bed depends on the growth characteristics of the plant. Space plants so they will develop a uniformly covered area in a relatively short period of time.
Plants that spread rapidly may be spaced much wider than slow-spreading types. Spacing also depends on funds available and how quickly a complete cover is wanted. Spacings from 1 to 2 feet apart are most frequently used. Table 1 suggests the area that approximately 100 plants will cover when set at various distances. For example, if plants are spaced 4 inches apart, 100 plants will cover about 11 square feet. A staggered row planting pattern usually will result in the quickest cover of the planting bed.
Watering, weeding, mulching and feeding will be the main requirements of the new ground cover planting. Water during dry periods. An occasional thorough soil soaking is better than frequent light waterings. Occasional hand weeding with a minimum disturbance of the soil may be necessary. A one-inch mulch layer of peatmoss, compost or similar organic material applied between plants will conserve soil moisture and reduce weed growth. An annual spring application of a 5-10-5 or similar analysis fertilizer at the rate of 3 pounds per 100 square feet is recommended to maintain vigorous growth.
Best Ground Cover Plants for Shade
1. Bunchberry (cornus canadensis)
Need something to fill in the bare areas under your shade trees where sun-loving plants won’t grow? Bunchberry is perfect. Also known as “creeping dogwood,” this low-growing plant, with its bright green leaves, red berries, and white or green flowers, prefers cooler climates and cool, moist soil. It’s also rabbit- and deer-resistant while being attractive to pollinators.
USDA Hardiness Zones: 2 to 6 Bunchberry cultivars: No known cultivars Care: Low; needs full to partial shade and mulch to maintain moisture and a weekly dose of water. Flowering: Yes. It produces white or green flowers in spring and summer. Spread: Spreads slowly via rhizomes (or underground stems), reaching a height of 8 inches. Cost: Purchase one live plant for about $15.
2. Sweet woodruff (galium odoratum)
Named for the sweet-smelling aroma it emits, sweet woodruff is an easy-to-grow, deer- and rabbit-resistant spreader. In addition to being a ground cover, you can use this plant in potpourri and perfumes. Sweet woodruff pairs well with coral bells and rhododendrons.
USDA Hardiness Zones: 4 to 8 Sweet woodruff cultivars: No known cultivars Care: Low-maintenance. Plant in full shade or partial shade. Doesn’t need much water. Flowering: Yes. White flowers pop up in spring. Spread: Slow to medium growth rate; spreads via stolons to a height of 10 inches. Cost: Buy 200 seeds for around $7 or a large, potted plant for around $20.
3. Yellow archangel (lamium galeobdolon)
Named for its appearance — bright yellow blooms with angel-esque “wings” — this perennial ground cover grows swiftly to blanket any area you’d like. It’s also known as golden deadnettle.
A word of warning: The stems in its root system can embed themselves as soon as they hit the ground. If not kept in check, this plant can become invasive. Plant in full or partial shade and space 12 to 18 inches apart.
USDA Hardiness Zones: 4 to 9 Yellow archangel cultivars: Hermann’s pride, variegatum, and silver frost Care: Tolerates a variety of soils. Prune to 6 inches and water regularly until established. No fertilization needed. Flowering: Yes. Yellow flowers appear in spring and early summer. Spread: Fast; spreads via stem fragments. Cost: A live plant will cost you about $5 at most home improvement stores.
4. Vancouveria (vancouveria hexandra)
The white blooms of vancouveria give this plant its nickname: inside-out flower. The petals grow backward. A deciduous, low-growing perennial, vancouveria grows best in full shade and nutrient-rich, moist soil.
USDA Hardiness Zones: 5 to 7 Vancouveria cultivars: No known cultivars Care: Low-maintenance. Water to keep the soil moist and prune any damaged leaves to encourage new growth. Flowering: Yes. Small white flowers appear in spring and summer. Spread: Low-growing spread via underground stems called rhizomes. Cost: A 1-gallon, potted live plant can cost around $13.
5. Bishop’s hat (epimedium)
Bishop’s hat plants produce heart-shaped or arrowhead-like leaves and bold blooms that come in white, red, purple, yellow, pink, orange, or bicolored. Available as deciduous or evergreen plants, these perennials are perfect as a ground cover or ornamental accent.
USDA Hardiness Zones: 5 to 8 Bishop’s hat cultivars: Royal flush, pink champagne, and rubrum Care: Low-maintenance and drought-tolerant; plant in partial to full shade. Flowering: Yes. You’ll see two-toned, white, red, pink, yellow, orange, or purple flowers in spring and summer. Spread: Individual plants spread about 18 inches via rhizomes. Cost: Live plants will run you about $20 each.
6. Wild ginger (asarum)
Not to be confused with the ginger you use in stir-fried dishes, this plant merely smells of ginger when its leaves and roots are crushed. Unlike most flowering plants, the jar-shaped blooms of this one grow at ground-level and may be hidden by stems. Leaves are evergreen, and resistant to deer.
USDA Hardiness Zones: 4 to 8 Wild ginger cultivars: Canadian, Chinese, and European wild ginger Care: Low maintenance. Water regularly to keep the soil moist. Flowering: Yes. It produces white, green, or purple flowers in early spring and summer. Spread: Slow-growing via rhizomes Cost: Live plants cost about $5 each.
7. Japanese pachysandra (pachysandra terminalis)
Resistant to drought, deer, and rabbits, this evergreen ground cover flourishes in dry shade. In fact, if Japanese pachysandra receives too much sun, its leaves may burn. Plant it along slopes and underneath trees and shrubs for a beautiful, dark green, weed-free, carpeted lawn.
USDA Hardiness Zones: 4 to 9 Japanese pachysandra cultivars: green carpet, green sheen, variegata Care: Low maintenance. This plant can grow well in poor soil conditions. Space plants 6 to 12 inches apart to accommodate spread. Flowering: Yes. White, aromatic blooms appear in spring. Spread: Via underground stems called rhizomes. Cost: Spend around $15 (for one tray) to $80 (for 100 bare-root plants).
8. Bugleweed (ajuga reptans)
A fast-growing ground cover, bugleweed can quickly fill in large, outdoor spaces where grass won’t grow. Its colorful flowers and evergreen foliage will help boost curb appeal, and it’s versatile. You can plant it just about anywhere, including in full shade. It also stands up well to foot traffic and is resistant to deer and rabbits.
USDA Hardiness Zones: 3 to 10 Bugleweed varieties: bronze beauty, chocolate chip, black scallop Care: Low maintenance. No need to fertilize and regular rainfall should provide enough water. Flowering: Yes. Purple, white, or blue flowers bloom in spring and summer. Spread: With runners along the surface of the ground, bugleweed reaches a height of 3 to 6 inches. Cost: Prices range from about $4 to more than $400 for seeds. Or, get a tray of plants for around $12.
9. Green and gold (chrysogonum virginianum)
This fast-growing perennial is also called “goldenstar” because of its star-shaped, yellow leaves. In addition to the bursts of color and greenery it lends to your landscape, this ground cover has no issues with pests or disease. Plant it in deep shade or partial shade and watch as it attracts a host of butterflies, bees, and other pollinators.
USDA Hardiness Zones: 5 to 9 Green and gold cultivars: Eco lacquered spider and superstar Care: Needs full or partial shade and nutrient-rich, well-drained soil. Water regularly. Flowering: Yes. Showy yellow blooms appear in spring and summer. Spread: Low-growing; reaches 1 to 2 inches in height and at least 18 inches in width. Spreads by self-seeding or by rhizomes (underground stems). Cost: Live plants cost around $11.
10. Lungwort (Pulmonaria)
Pulmonarias as a group are easy-to-grow, low-growing perennials that are useful as ground covers in shade. They have interesting, mottled foliage and attractive clusters of blue, purple, pink or white flowers in spring. They spread gradually from the crown, forming large clumps. One popular cultivar, Pulmonaria sacharata ‘Mrs. Moon’, has distinct silvery spots on the leaves and magenta flower buds with flowers turning blue at maturity (Figure 3).
Since they tolerate shade well, pulmonarias are well suited to planting in mulched beds under trees where grass is difficult to grow. When used in this way, regular irrigation may be necessary to help the ground cover compete with shallow tree roots.