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’

MANTS Show – Part 2

Proven Winners’ Goji Berries- The Next Super Food

Goji berry exhibit at MANTS
Goji berry exhibit

I checked out the Proven Winners’ introductions at Spring Meadow Nursery at the latest MANTS show, to see what is the latest and greatest in shrubbery! Goji Berries are the new berry bush that is being promoted as a healthy and tasty berry addition to the landscape. I know that I have increased my berry consumption in the past couple of years, and am always looking for new varieties and ways to include them in my landscape.

English: Goji berries Svenska: Gojibär
English: Goji berries Svenska: Gojibär (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I learned that Gojis, Lycium barbarum, are hardy, easy to grow shrubs that bear bright red berries that resemble little red hot peppers. You can eat them fresh or dried and they have become popular in Europe, and have been grown in Japan and China for years.

Goji berries have been called the latest superfood because they contain:

Wolfberry Farm Berries Closeup Ningxia 174
Goji Berries ready to pick
  1. Super Dose Of Vitamin C: It is estimated that a handful of goji berries have more vitamin C than a whole orange. So, these berries alone can provide all the vitamin C you need in a day.
  2. Vegan Amino Acids: It is usually very difficult for vegetarians to get proteins. But these healthy berries pack a punch of 18 different amino acids in them. So if you are a vegan, you must have these berries as a part of your diet.
  3. Anti ageing -Goji berries are a well kept Chinese secret to anti-ageing.
  4. High anti-oxidant content -Ancient Chinese beauty treatments makes use of these berries to make face pack due to their high anti-oxidant content.
  5. Omega-6-fatty acids are the new mantra for health and are abundant in Goji berries.
  6. Vitamin E: Have you ever heard of fruit that contains vitamin E?  Vitamin E is usually present in nuts and oils. Goji berries are probably the only fruits on the planet to contain vitamin E.
  7. Trace Minerals: Some very rare minerals are also present in these berries. Zinc and selenium are called trace minerals because only traces of these are found in different foods.
  8. Anti-Infection: Goji berries have both anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. So, they can give you protection against infections in general.
  9. More Carotene Than Carrots: Would you believe it, these berries have more beta-carotene than carrots! That makes these berries a must have for your eyes and skin.

A lot of nutritional punch for such a small berry!

Culture of Goji’s

Goji Berry display
Goji Berry display

Grow Goji berries in full sun but they will tolerate a little bit of shade, and are hardy to USDA zone 5 (We are 7a here in most of MD). The habit of the shrub is to sprawl along the ground so it is suggested that you bundle the largest  3 to 5 canes together around a sturdy 6 to 8 foot high stake. The berries begin to ripen in early summer and should be picked when bright red and sweet.  The berries should be on the shrub for several weeks before they turn sweet. Taste test before you pick. Unlike some berries, you don’t need more than one for pollination. I read that they do good in containers, but for such a large shrub you would need quite a large container.

I got 2 Goji berry plants at the MANTS show and will be very interested in how they perform.

Floating Aquatic Plants

Aquatic plants in styrofoam rings
Aquatic plants in styrofoam rings

If you have a pond and want to add some interesting plants to the mix, you can try these styrofoam floating planting rings. I visited MD Aquatic Nurseries and really liked these planting rings that can include one or several plants.

You plant your aquatic plant in a plastic pot and stick it into the styrofoam holder that can hold just one or several plants and plop that into your pond to float. The roots extend out of the pot into the water.

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Pizza Oven

I have always wanted an outdoor pizza oven in my back yard, and when I visited Belgard Pavers I saw a way I could incorporate one into a wall that I am planning on building. You can buy the cement shell of the oven that  has a vent, door, and hearth. The oven is then covered with stone to make it part of your hardscape.  You build the fire inside of the oven and once it is very hot, you push the coals to the side, slide your pizza in and cook it in minutes to get that brick oven flavor. It makes for a great pizza party!

PicMonkey Collage2

Other Interesting Tidbits

  • Cryptomeria cristata

I was very intrigued to see a plant that was incorporated into an arrangement, that I didn’t recognize and looked like cockscomb.  It turned out to be Cryptomeria cristata and it is beautiful in flower arrangements and I am interested in growing it for that reason.

Crpytomeria cristata used in an arrangement to display different types of woodies grown at Foxborough Nursery
Crpytomeria cristata used in an arrangement to display different types of woodies grown at Foxborough Nursery

Also known as the Japanese Crested Cedar, it grows to be a loosely limbed small tree known for it’s fasciated branches that looks like common cockscomb. I have put this on my list to look for in my travels. It isn’t new, but I have never seen it before.

  • New Plant Introductions

Brunnera 'Silver Heart'
Brunnera ‘Silver Heart’

The variegated Brunneras, or Forget Me Nots, tend to melt in heat and humidity, and there are two new ones that are supposed to tolerate those conditions better.  They are ‘Silver Heart’ and ‘Sea Heart’ and Babikow Nursery had beautiful ones on display.  The leaves felt very leathery and tough and they looked so healthy, I am going to try a few this year.

Elevated Raised Bed
Elevated Raised Bed

For handicapped or elderly gardeners, I thought this raised bed was the perfect solution to grow veggies and flowers in.  The only improvement that I could see would be to add casters or wheels on it so you could roll it around on a hard surface like a deck or patio. It looks simple enough that a handyman could throw this together in an afternoon too.

  • Troughs

Troughs are always popular
Troughs are always popular

Troughs are pretty mainstream now and you can buy some very nice pre-made ones that are different sizes and shapes.  I still like to make my own though. I thought these troughs were well made and I liked that they had a large drainage hole.

Kurt Bluemel’s Booth- I love the textures and colors of the grasses and bamboos!
  • Take Home !!

At the end of the show, most vendors want to sell the contents of their booth because they don’t want to take it home. Many are sold as a unit, but others will sell their wares piecemeal very inexpensively, and that is what I was interested in doing –  picking up flats or single plants. It is always a mad rush as the show is so spread out, and you can’t get to all the vendors in the last hour. So I made sure that I tagged a lot of plants ahead of time to pick up later.  I had so much to pick up that I brought a wagon and a huge tote bag but still had to make several trips to the car. I picked up a flat of hardy Cyclamen and heaths and heathers, as well as some beautiful Hellebores, Orchids, and miniature conifers. It was a good haul!

Heaths and heathers flat, hardy cyclamens, and assorted small conifers - I brought all these home for almost nothing!
Heaths and heathers flat, hardy cyclamens, and assorted small conifers – I brought all these home for almost nothing!

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