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

At the Boedel Reserve near Seattle
Combine two or more varieties of ground cover to form interesting patterns; Hosta and Begonia grandis were used here

This spring I 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! There is a time and place for the big three, but consider the options before settling on the mundane.

Good use of Vinca on a hillside

Why use a ground cover? Simply, it reduces the empty space around plants that will require weeding. Ground covers crowd out weed seeds that can migrate into the soil spaces between plants, germinate, and start the process of invading garden space. Plus it adds a finishing touch to the landscape. It is similar to putting on your jewelry once you are dressed.

Interesting colors and textures make a good ground cover

In practical terms,  ground covers usually refers to any one of a group of low-lying plants with a creeping, spreading habit that are used to cover sections of ground  which require minimal maintenance. Ornamentals such as hydrangeas could be used as a ground cover but more commonly low maintenance perennials like ferns are used to cover large expanses or slopes.

Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium nipponicum, used under a tree
Newly planted Japanese Painted Ferns will fill in completely in 3 -4 years

Usually chosen for practical purposes, such as an area where it is too shady for turf to grow or too steep to mow, the selections are many. My favorite selections are for shady spots with some even performing well in dry shade.

Moss makes a great ground cover for deep shade

There are so many more interesting and attractive options, you just need to arm yourself with these choices and visit a good plant nursery. In addition, if you are a fan of the color blue, you will love these. So read on, and pick the best for your situation.

Spanish bluebells

Bluebell Wood

Who ever thought about using Bluebells as a ground cover? It blooms beautifully and then disappears for another late comer like lamium or hostas 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 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 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. Later flowering annuals could be plugged into the spot that is empty when they die back or a perennial like late appearing hostas can do the job.

Bluebells bloom in May and then disappear
Native Virginia Bluebells in full bloom


Lamium or Dead Nettle has been mentioned several times already as it is a perfect little ground cover for bulbs to sprout though in the spring. A ground hugging creeper with silvered variegated foliage and some really pretty colored flowers,  Dead Nettles are an ideal choice for gardeners who want a tough plant with a variety of foliage colors and textures.

In the same family, Lamiastrum galeodolon is a tough, more upright ground cover with yellow flowers

Tolerating a variety of light conditions, Lamium makes a good transition plant between shady and sunnier areas. The cultural adaptability of this great plant makes it a valuable tool in the gardeners planting palette.

Lamium with Bluebells
Lamium ground cover likes partial shade to full shade
Lamium underplanted in a tree ring

Woodland Phlox

Woodland Phlox, Phlox divartica, 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 three or four seasons. Who knew that there were so many kinds of phlox?  Available in 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 that blooms in April with a punch of color.

Woodland Phlox
Woodland Phlox



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-Polygonatum variegatum
There are several different kinds of Solomans Seal; this is Polygonatum biflorum
Polygonatum multiflorum


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. Or vary your planting scheme for interesting textures and hues. I find that hostas play well with other shade perennials and like to add clumps of them along with other ground covers.

Drifts of hostas
Edging a pathway with different hostas is an effective use of color
Blue Cadet Hosta makes a uniform ground cover
Kabitan Hosta to lighten up shade with gold color
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. Deer leave this one alone!

Chrysogonum is behind the bench; the pink is creeping thyme

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. Tough as nails, this plant will gradually increase in size every year. For more information, read my post, Hellebores-Deer Resistant, Low Maintenance, Shade Loving Perennial.

The foliage of some Hellebores has a variegation which adds interest


A flock of Hellebores!
Double flowered Hellebore

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

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’  was 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


Perennial Geranium does well in part shade to shade and many of the varieties are deer resistant. Blooming with delicate flowers in the spring, these are tough perennials that will form nice weed smothering clumps.

Delicate flowers are the trademark of Geraniums
Unnamed Purple Geranium
This is Geraranium macrorhizzum, Bevans Variety and Ingwersens, both deer resistant
Geranium ‘Bevans Variety’ has a beautiful fuschia color
Unnamed perennial Geranium
Happy to cascade over walls, perennial geraniums have beautiful foliage


Mazus is a low-growing ground cover that spreads by creeping stems which root at the nodes as they spread. Growing only 2″ tall, this tiny creeper can spread pretty fast forming a dense, steppable cute ground cover. The foliage stays green for at least 9 months of the year and explodes in spring with purple tubular beautiful flowers. There is a white version also. One of my favorite ground covers, I use Mazus whenever I have a smaller area like between stepping stones to cover.

Mazus becomes covered with tiny purple flowers
When not blooming, Mazus forms a tight grass green carpet


Euphorbia or Spurge is rarely seen as a ground cover and should be used as it can tolerate dry shade.  Evergreen and deer resistant, spurge is topped with lime green flowers in the spring.  I am a sucker for the color lime. The color really brightens a dark area.  Euphorbia robbiae easily grows in shade or sun and sports rosettes of handsome leathery leaves all season long.

Euphorbia robbiae is deer resistant
Euphorbia myrsinites allows spring bulbs to punch through

Few More For Shade

A different type of  Forget me not-Brunnera macrophylla variegata
The ultimate in ground covers-Ladyslippers!
Hardy Cyclamen
Uvularia or Merry Bells
Trillium cuneatum
E$pimedium ‘Frohnleiten’

Happy Hollow- Hosta Mecca

Hosta Heaven
Hosta Heaven

Do you want a  garden trip to a run of the mill big box store? Or do you want personal attention? And do you have shady areas in your garden that need TLC and need the ideal plant for that perfect spot? Look no further than Happy Hollow nursery in Cockeysville, MD. Specializing in hostas and other shade loving plants, Sue Bloodgood grows the most extensive collection of hostas around and can share excellent advice on plantings in difficult shady areas that you are scratching your head about.

Selections of miniature Hostas at Happy Hollow
Selections of miniature Hostas at Happy Hollow

Carrying over 200 hosta varieties, Happy Hollow nursery is tucked away in a suburban neighborhood in Cockeysville, MD, and a great place to see the many varieties of Hostas. These can vary from tiny plants suitable for troughs or rock gardens to massive 4-foot clumps with heart-shape leaves almost 2 feet long that are puckered, wavy-edged, white or green variegated, blue-gray, chartreuse, emerald-edged — the variations are virtually endless. This tough, shade-loving perennial, also known as plaintain lily, blooms with white or purplish lavender funnel-shape or flared flowers in summer which are attractive to pollinators.

Sue Bloodgood surveying her dizzying array of hostas
Sue Bloodgood surveying her dizzying array of hostas
A tray of miniature hostas showing the variety that the 'littles' come in
A tray of miniature hostas showing the variety that the ‘littles’ come in

Two large greenhouses full to the brim with hostas and other shade companion plants, like Brunnera, Pulmonaria, Tricyrtus, and shade grasses, Sue carries many unusual and hard to find plants, like “Praying Hands” Hosta.

Praying Hands Hosta
Praying Hands Hosta

Praying Hands is a 2′ wide clump composed of strangely folded, dark green crinkled leaves, each with a narrow, creamy yellow border which resembles a multitude of hands folded in prayer.

Praying Hands Hosta
Praying Hands Hosta

I went to Happy Hollow when I needed some miniature hostas for some clients. My local wholesaler carried about 3 varieties of minis and I needed more. Sue Bloodgood carried at least 2 dozen varieties of minis and it was hard to choose from them all.

I was designing plantings for a boulder garden in the shade and wanted miniature hostas
I was designing plantings for a boulder garden in the shade and wanted miniature hostas

I fell in love with one of her hostas, called ‘Striptease’ and had to take one home.

Hosta ‘Striptease”
Hostas are the perfect foil for so many plants
Hostas are the perfect foil for so many plants

Boutique nurseries are becoming more and more popular when you are looking for something unusual and the selection at the big box stores can be limited. I haven’t seen miniature hostas other than ‘Mouse Ears’ or the one pictured above called ‘Striptease’ anywhere before, and I do a lot of plant shopping. Catering to a small segment of the discerning buying public, boutique nurseries are struggling to stay in business and are competing with larger nurseries that carry a little bit of everything. But Happy Hollow doesn’t sell fertilizer, pots, or bird houses – they simply sell the best hostas anywhere. And for personal attention and advice for gardening in the shade, stop in at Happy Hollow Nursery. Their contact number is 410-252-4026.

Hosta "Mouse Ears" is adorable!
Hosta “Mouse Ears” is adorable!

For more ideas on shady ground covers, go to my post “From the Ground Up-Choosing the Right Ground Cover For Shade “.

A simple ground cover of hostas can be very effective-Blue Cadet
A simple ground cover of hostas can be very effective-Blue Cadet
Millbourne 176
This one is Kabitan

For more info on Happy Hollow Nursery, go to  Happy Hollow on Facebook.

Lawn Alternatives-Moss, Sedge, and Creeping Thyme

A creeping thyme lawn is springy and fragrant to walk on
A creeping thyme lawn is springy and fragrant to walk on

Everywhere you look in suburbia, there is at least some space devoted to the ubiquitous lawn. The main focus of U.S. gardening is the lawn which ironically was inspired by  British landscape gardening. Still, mown grass dominates public and private spaces but is a water hog, is laden with chemicals, and pollutes the air with engine driven lawn mowers and weed eaters.

To add to this love affair with lawns, many localities still have “lawn ordinances”, which effectively make any other form of front garden illegal, and prosecution for growing anything else is common.

Progressive gardeners often wage a war against lawns and the public perception that lawn is the only way to go is slowly changing. There is even a campaign website:  On this website are great pictures of a variety of sedges that are suitable for lawns.

 “Kerb-appeal” – a desire to appeal to future buyers or to show off the home is an American way of life and we are creatures of habit when it comes to our landscapes.  Americans want “low maintenance and evergreen” which translates to boring, cookie cutter landscapes with no connection to the architecture of the house.

There is nothing cookie cutter about English gardening!
There is nothing cookie cutter about English gardening!

On the other end of the spectrum, English gardeners express themselves through gardening and if you travel through an English neighborhood, each landscape is different. The pictures below came from a tiny village called Blockley in the Cotswolds where each house had their own personally unique  gardens, with very little or no lawn.

IMG_3306 English landscape English landscape

More and more people are ripping out parts, or their entire lawn and replacing with plants that require less water and care, most notably less cutting. In more arid parts of the country, there are incentives to replace lawns with alternatives like gravel or water sipping plantings.

Using arid loving plants doesn't mean boring- seen in front yard in California
Using arid loving plants doesn’t mean boring- seen in front yard in California


With our constant rain this summer in the mid-Atlantic region, we are cutting our lawn at least every 4-5 days which requires a lot of time and produces a copious amounts of dirty exhaust and burns fossil fuel. Not to mention that a lawn is a sterile “desert” with poor underlying  soil with little to no biological action of microbial life and earth worms that make a soil healthy.

PA Sedge, Carex pensylvanica is a great alternative to fescue
PA Sedge, Carex pensylvanica is a great alternative to fescue


But there are alternatives like creeping thyme for sunny locations and moss for shady moist locations. If you really want grass, you can plant a sedge that hardly ever needs cutting. Pennsylvania Sedge or Carex pensylvanica doesn’t look as neat and tidy as a fescue but it rarely needs cutting. It does need sun to grow in thick like the above picture.


A mossy "lawn" is not as manicured as a fescue lawn but is perfect for shady locations
A mossy “lawn” is not as manicured as a fescue lawn but is perfect for shady locations

Moss wouldn’t work in low moisture climates but is an alternative in shady locations. Designers and designers who are looking for sustainable, shade loving options, either as a lawn replacement or a sculptural backdrop as accents, have discovered moss.

Moss can accent sculptural pieces
Moss can accent sculptural pieces

Think Smooth

To start your own moss garden you need to first remove any existing plants, especially grass and weeds. Apply a pre-emergent like Preen to discourage germination of any existing seeds. Smooth out the soil, which can be loam or clay, but not too sandy. Any dips or undulations in the soil will be visible once the moss starts growing. Sandy soils won’t hold the moisture needed for good moss growth. Moss is a great soil stabilizer but must be mature to channel water for runoff.Bulbs and primroses growing up through moss

Bulbs and primroses growing up through moss

Preparing really smooth soil speeds up rhizome (underground stems) attachment and encourages faster branching so be sure to remove any debris, sticks stones, and leaves.


I was always under the impression that moss grows in only acidic soil, in ranges below 7 which is neutral on the Ph scale. But doing my research on moss culture, they aren’t really particular about Ph because the rhizomes do not feed on the soil. Plant any companion plants before you introduce the moss, smoothing the soil after planting.

Moss lawns are easy in the Pacific Northwest
Moss lawns are easy in the Pacific Northwest

You can scrape up patches of moss from the woods or other parts of your property and place them on top of your smooth soil. Scratch the surface very slightly before laying the patches down so that they will adhere and press the patches firmly into the soil, preferably by stepping on them. Contact is crucial between the bottom of the patch and the top of the soil for the moss to start growing. The transplanted mosses need some time for the moss to acclimate and become established while the moss adjusts to new sunlight, water, and substrate.

Selecting patches of moss
Selecting patches of moss
Placing patches of moss together to form a blanket of moss
Placing patches of moss together to form a blanket of moss

Water, Water, Water

Mist the moss thoroughly every day, making sure to saturate until the moss starts to grow. This might be 6 weeks or more. You can taper off slightly as the moss starts to fill in but your moss will go dormant when it dries out. The higher the temperature, the more water required to keep the moss verdant. If you remove leaves by raking or blowing, it is a good idea to pin the moss down with soil staples, or fern pins, or use a netting to keep the moss in place.

Creating a mossy fairy garden by transplanting patches of moss and pressing them into the soil and saturating with water
Creating a mossy fairy garden by transplanting patches of moss and pressing them into the soil and saturating with water
Mossy fairy garden
Mossy fairy garden


Established moss is naturally weed resistant but juvenile moss may have patches of soil and still be thin. Controlling weeds with hand removal is important until the moss is spongy and thick. A daily misting helps greatly in getting your moss established.

Moss garden at Mt Cuba
Moss garden at Mt Cuba


Plants at Your Fingertips!

Planted table ready to go
Planted table ready to go

Planted Furniture for the Patio

I went to a cocktail party at a plant lovers house, saw his planted table and was enthralled! I was sure that I could create one just as good, if not better.

I looked around for a table that I could buy and convert to a planted table, but it just wasn’t practical.

As I create drawings and plans of gardens for a living, I drew what I wanted to scale and took the drawing to a carpenter friend and explained what I was going to do. He made a beautiful table out of treated wood for me with very sturdy legs to carry the weight of soil and plants.  I told him that I needed at least 3 inches of soil in the top for root growth and he created the perfect table.  I stained it and made sure there were plenty of drainage holes in the bottom and set to work.

Drainage holes were drilled into the bottom
Drainage holes were drilled into the bottom

I lined the whole thing with landscape cloth and filled it with soil.

Lined with landscape cloth
Lined with landscape cloth

After adding a good quality potting soil with plenty of vermiculite to lighten the load, I added fertilizer and leveled the mixture into the table top about an inch and a half below the top of the sides.

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I let the soil settle over the course of a week and then started the fun part of planting.

Since the table was to be placed on a patio in partial shade, I selected shade plants with beautiful foliage and some seasonal pansies for lots of color.  The pansies can be rotated out later in the spring when the weather warms up.

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Ferns, pansies, lamium, polka dot plants, mazus, and forget me nots were all planted

I placed flat stones to set drinks on and then covered all the soil with moss mounds from a local florist.

Moss adds the finishing touch
Moss and a glass ball adds the finishing touch

I have had it for 6 weeks now, and the plants are growing and filling in.  I keep it misted with water about every 3 to 4 days and the moss is holding up fine.

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All grown in 6 weeks later
All grown in 6 weeks later