You know the feeling: you’re excited to meet with your client, who’s looking to you to design and create a gorgeous, lush oasis. You pull up for the initial meeting, your brain filled with images of fabulous, bright blooms and sun-loving shrubs, only to be greeted with—trees. Dozens of huge, stately trees with nearly-bare soil underneath, and perhaps—to make it even more interesting—a slope or two with exposed roots from erosion. You quickly reset your brain before chatting with your new client, filing away the sun-loving design you anticipated for a calming, serene shade landscape. But what to do about that slope and those bare spots under the trees? No worries! We’re here to help you fill in those shady blank spots. Take a look at our favorite low-maintenance shade groundcovers for your landscape designs!
Japanese Spurge (Pachysandra terminalis)
If you’re looking for the perfect groundcover for dry shade, Japanese spurge will save your sanity. The 6- to 8-inch evergreen groundcover produces white flowers in spring and thrives in sun-dappled shade under large trees. (Japanese spurge tolerates full shade but may not produce flowers.) The shrubby, evergreen plants with rich, dark green foliage create a beautiful carpet, spreading by rhizomes. Plant them in masses on slopes to prevent soil erosion. USDA Zone 5-9.
Sweet Box (Sarcococca hookeriana-humilis)
If you’re looking for a gorgeous dense, evergreen groundcover that prevents weeds, sweet box provides a perfect choice. The 12- to 15-inch tall plants spread slowly but create a dense groundcover to keep the space weed-free. Leathery, lanceolate, dark green foliage tolerates temperatures down to -10 degrees F, plus it’s drought tolerant once established. Best of all, fragrant white flowers appear in late winter/early spring, making sweet box a lovely choice for multi-season interest. Part to full shade. USDA Zone 6-8.
Barrenwort (Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’)
Spreading more quickly than many epimediums, ‘Sulphureum’ provides multi-season interest in the garden or woodland settings. With evergreen foliage in mild climates, the new leaves emerge reddish-tinged in spring, mature to green, then turn red in autumn. Yellow flowers appear in early spring to brighten shady spaces. Growing 12 to 15 inches tall, the plants tolerate drought but appreciate some supplemental water during the very driest periods. USDA Zone 5-9.
Wild Ginger (Asarum)
Whether you prefer the northwest native Asarum caudatum or Chinese wild ginger Asarum splenden, such as ‘Quick Silver’, wild ginger creates a lovely texture as a groundcover for partial or full shade gardens. Native varieties tolerate drier growing conditions, while Chinese wild ginger prefers moist, humusy soil. ‘Quick Silver’ spreads more quickly than many varieties. Its heart-shaped, 4-inch long and 3.5-inch wide dark green leaves sport silvery white variegation, brightening shady spaces. The plants remain evergreen in mild climates but die back when temperatures drop to 10 degrees F. USDA Zone 5-9.
Spotted Deadnettle (Lamium maculatum)
With varieties sporting spring blooms in pink, purple, or white, the variegated, evergreen foliage of spotted deadnettle looks lovely as a “spiller” in container arrangements or hanging baskets, but it’s also a great groundcover for tricky shady spaces. Preferring moist, well-drained soil, the plants form dense mats that cover shady spaces and slopes to choke out weeds. It grows 6 to 9 inches tall and spreads quickly in the right conditions—but it’s easy to control. Pollinators appreciate the blooms. NOTE: Considered slightly invasive in the northeast and northwest. USDA Zone 3-8.
Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis)
Soft green leaves of lady’s mantle create a pretty mat, spreading steadily but not aggressively. The clumping perennial forms mounds 6- to 12-inches tall and produces chartreuse flowers in late summer, adding a bit of brightness to shady sites. A vigorous self-seeding plant, deadheading helps control abundant spread and may encourage a fall rebloom. Lady’s mantle tolerates full sun to full shade and prefers average, medium moist, well-drained soil. USDA Zone 3-8.
Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum)
Although its appearance may be delicate, sweet woodruff is tough and well-suited for shady slopes and woodland spaces. White spring flowers last for several weeks, and the leaves add a pleasant aroma. Sweet woodruff prefers moist soil for best performance, with the plants growing 6 to 12 inches tall. If you have a client with Black Walnut trees, this is the groundcover for you! USDA Zone 4-8.
Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum)
Awarded “Perennial Plant of the Year” in 2004 and for good reason: Japanese painted ferns look lovely in shade gardens in a wide range of zones. The soft, gray-green fronds with a silvery overlay and contrasting dark burgundy midrib brighten shady gardens while also providing great texture and contrast. The ferns naturalize well in humusy, organically rich soil that’s moist but well-drained. USDA Zone 2-10.
Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis)
A dogwood relative, this low-growing (4 to 9 inches), native deciduous shrub makes an excellent groundcover for partial shade sites. Bunchberry spreads by creeping rhizomes and prefers slightly acidic, medium moist, well-drained soil. White flowers appear in late spring through summer, followed by red edible drupes. Bunchberry performs well in northern climates but dislikes the heat of the south. Add this to your clients’ gardens, especially if they enjoy wildlife—butterflies love the blooms, and the drupes attract birds. USDA Zone 2-6.
Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-usi)
Do you have a difficult site that’s rocky, filled with sandy soil, and partly shady? Thank goodness for bearberry! This hardy, low-growing evergreen produces white flowers with a hint of pink in the spring, followed by clusters of dark red berries beloved by birds. The creeping, slow growing plant reaches 6 to 12 inches tall, making it a great groundcover that anchors soil and combats erosion on hills and slopes. ‘Massachussets’ provides good disease resistance and blooms prolifically, also producing abundant fruit for wildlife. Bearberry prefers cooler climates. USDA Zone 2-6.
Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei)
This dense, woody-stemmed trailing broadleaf evergreen spreads easily and tolerates a wide variety of soils and conditions, including urban settings, growing well in full sun to full shade. Wintercreeper reaches 6 to 12 inches tall and produces small, greenish-white flowers in June.While some forms of wintercreeper may be invasive in certain climates, variegated forms like ‘Variegatus’, ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’, and ‘Gold Splash’ are not as aggressive. This shady groundcover works well in urban settings. USDA Zone 4-9.
Let those challenging shady sites beware—you’re armed with a plan for creating a great design and landscape, and we’ve got the shade-loving groundcovers you need to suppress weeds, prevent erosion, keep the soil moist, and benefit wildlife.