From the Ground Up – Choosing the Right Ground Cover for Shade

Stone bridge covered with grass

I recently toured a gorgeous private garden that is stunning for it’s beauty and classic garden design.  I enjoyed strolling through the woodland gardens that were peaking with spring color and was struck by the innovative use of ground covers. No overly used big three –  pachysandra, vinca, or ivy to be seen!

With all these choices available, I can’t understand anyone who sticks with the common ordinary big three. If you are a fan of the color blue, you will love these. So read on, and pick the best for you!

Spanish bluebells

Bluebell Wood

Who ever thought about using Bluebells as a ground cover? It blooms beautifully and then disappears for another late comer to cover up.

Spanish Bluebells, Hyacinthoides hispanica, is a great mid spring bloomer that spans the gap between the early arrivals of spring bulbs such as snowdrops, to the later arrival of mid summer perennials. Their best feature, other than the beautiful blue color, is that they will bloom in deep shade as well as in full sunlight. You can naturalize them in a shady woodland underneath evergreen or deciduous trees and they will steadily increase over the years to carpet the ground in an azure swath.

Spanish Bluebells

Bluebells are a bulb and come in pink and white as well, but the blue is my favorite by far. They are easy to grow in any woodland condition but will thrive where it is well-drained and with ample moisture. I grow them in my perennial borders with no special care and the foliage will disappear by midsummer.  Because of this feature, you can underplant it with another creeping ground cover such as ajuga or sweet woodruff that can will take over once the foliage has died down.

Virginia Bluebells –  A Native

Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica, is the native version of Spanish Bluebells.  Instead of the strap like foliage of Spanish Bluebells, the leaves are very broad and tissue like in texture. The flower color is an intense cornflower blue.

Virginia Bluebells
Virginia Bluebells (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Virginia Bluebells are a spring ephemeral like so many early woodland bloomers, dying back to the ground. So be sure to have something else like the native woodland phlox to take its place.

Native Virginia Bluebells in full bloom
Lamiastrum with Bluebells

Woodland Phlox

Woodland Phlox, Phlox divaricata, is a native about 9 inches tall that comes in pastel blue, pink, and white.  I love it, but find that it is a very short-lived plant, only two or three seasons. Who knew that there were so many kinds of phloxes?  This plant comes in a creeping, woodland, tall garden, and miniature alpine varieties, and some variations in between. Most people are not familiar with the range of varieties available. The Woodland Phlox is a very beautiful member of the family.

Woodland Phlox

Crested Wood Iris

Crested Wood Iris ground cover

Another underused ground cover is the Crested Wood Iris, or Iris cristata. This diminutive little Iris is only about 6 inches tall and blooms with a miniature azure colored Iris bloom and will spread steadily but not aggressively.  It is perfectly adorable! The deer ignore it also. Wood Iris will bloom in very deep shade.

Flower of Crested Iris

 Solomans Seal

Solomans Seal, Polygonatum variegatum, is a workhorse perennial for me.  Plant a small colony of a dozen, and after splitting it up regularly for several years, you will end up with a large swath of nodding white bells! Be warned – Deer do like to browse on them.  This perennial will not thrive amongst others as it covers the ground  with underground tubers and lasts all season long. Nothing else will grow where Solomans Seal takes over but a large drift is a sight to behold.  Yellow fall foliage is a bonus, something that surprises me every year!

Solomans Seal


Just about everyone knows and grows hostas.  A tough plant that is hard to kill, it is a deer magnet for browsing.  But if bambi doesn’t roam nearby, try planting large colonies of the same variety for a great looking ground cover.  I prefer planting the same variety together, as mixing different ones tends to look busy.  Hostas have so many colorations and sizes that when you combine many varieties, it just doesn’t work.

Blue Cadet Hosta

Kabitan Hosta
Kabitan Hosta closeup

Green and Gold

Another golden ground cover that will brighten a shady area is Green and Gold, Chrysogonum virginianum, or Golden Star.  A native also, it is known for its star like flowers and creeping hairy leaves.  Green and Gold loves moisture and will thrive in a boggy area.   I grow it in ordinary garden conditions and it does just fine.  It does need some shade or will burn in full sun.

Green and Gold embracing a tree

 Hellebores or Lenten Roses

I have been advocating the use of Lenten Roses or Hellebores, as an evergreen, long blooming, deer resistant ground cover for years.  The plants are a little pricey but will slowly fill in and throw off seedlings that will cover your ground before you know it. Did I mention that it blooms for three months, sometimes longer? Everyone who has a shady garden should grow these.

A flock of Hellebores!
Beautiful coloration of a Hellebore flower

Japanese Maples as a Ground Cover?

Who would have thought of using Japanese Maples as a ground cover?  Expensive, yes, but it works beautifully! Japanese Maples are an understory tree and the cut leaf weeping ones certainly cover the ground nicely.  Also, the fall coloration is fantastic!

Japanese Maple ground cover

Golden Ragwort

I really hate that name! Golden Ragwort, Senecio aurea, is another native which I like to use in shady or semi-shady conditions.  Senecio blooms with a cheerful daisy-like flower for weeks in the spring. The rosettes of deep shiny heart-shaped leaves are attractive the rest of the growing season. This ground cover will spread steadily and you might have to restrain it a bit, but it is definitely not a garden thug!

Golden Ragwort native ground cover

Yellow Wax Bells

Yellow Wax Bells, or Kirengeshoma palmata is a showy shade loving ground cover or accent plant. The yellow bell-like flowers nod on the branches in late summer and the foliage is a maple look-alike. It is a beautiful plant, especially when it blooms.

Yellow Wax Bells
Kirengoshoma flower

Forget Me Not

Another deer resistant ground cover which I recommend is Brunnera or Forget-me-not. This is the perennial Forget-me-not, not to be confused with Myosotis which is a biennial. Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’  is the perennial plant of the year for 2012 and deservedly so because of it’s beauty and toughness.  Deer give it a wide berth because of the fuzzy foliage and it will hide early spring bulb foliage because it emerges right when the bulbs are dying back.  ‘Jack Frost’ is a great cultivar with silver to white webbing on the leaf surface that shines in the shade. The plant is topped off with airy panicles of true blue tiny flowers.

Jack Frost Brunnera


The last shade ground cover plant that I want to highlight is Euphorbia amygdaloides or Spurge.  Evergreen and deer resistant, spurge is topped with lime green flowers in the spring.  I am a sucker for lime green flowers! The color really brightens a dark area.  This euphorbia easily grows in shade or sun and sports rosettes of leathery leaves all season long.

Euphorbia flowers

17 Replies to “From the Ground Up – Choosing the Right Ground Cover for Shade”

  1. Yes, I do undersatnd your problems with shade.. I have 2 trees, they can’t be more than a half mile north of me on the high ground too my north!

    Happy shade gardening..

  2. This is the most awesome information i’ve seen on shade ground covers. I have a place in the woods thats completely shaded. I am anxious to do something with my surrounding area. I would like to plant some of these in a large area under some large trees. Just dont know where to start. Is there some sort of order you would plant them? are they all compatible? I sure could use some help to get started. I live in East TN zone 7. Thanks

    1. I am also in zone 7, but a little further north, in 7a. These are all compatible and you could use them in large drifts for a bigger impact. I don’t like to put 1 or 2 of something and then change the variety in ground covers. Use groupings of at least 5 to 7, more if you can afford it. Find a nursery online that will sell you “plugs”, very small started plants that you can get a lot cheaper so you can buy more. Some are tougher than others. The Epimedium is one of the toughest for dry shade under trees where there is a lot of competition with tree roots. Hellebores are also a good choice but slow growers. Look for my post on Hellebores that I did a couple weeks ago. I am also very successful with Hostas under trees, but deer like them.Good luck!

      1. In checking out a number of sites I have not read about a shade ground cover we have had for 5 years. I am talking about Yellow Archangels. They spread out nicely, grow to about 12″ tall.

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