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

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

Hostas

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

Geranium

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

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

Spurge

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.

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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.

It’s a Small, Small, World-Mini Hostas

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Mini hostas spilling out of a strawberry jar

A shade workhorse, hostas, according to the Perennial Plant Association are the most widely planted perennial in the world. Easily tucked into small places in the garden, and a perfect accent in trough and other miniature garden containers, these diminutive hostas are becoming a crowd favorite.

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Hosta ‘Mini Skirt’

On the pricey side, these adorable plants are being snatched up everywhere. They can run from $18 too $30 a piece.

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Planted into the garden, miniature hostas stay low to the ground and form a tapestry of color, making a great ground cover, seen at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens

Usually less than 6 inches high, miniature hostas should be placed carefully in a garden bed so you don’t lose sight of them when other plants encroach. That is why I like to use them in trough gardens. You are placing this little gem in a highly visible location for maximum impact in a container. But try planting a rainbow of them in a garden bed for a great little ground cover in the shade. Recently I made a trip to Carolyn’s Shade Gardens in Media, Pennsylvania and was impressed with the variety available.

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A trough with ‘Frosted Mouse Ears’ backed by potted miniature hostas at  Carolyn’s Shade Garden

And the names!! Mini Skirt, Lemon Lime, Blue Mouse Ears, Neutrino, Cracker Crumbs, Dew Drop, Shiny Penny, Appletini, Baby Blue Eyes, Little Red Rooster, Tears of Joy, Sunlight Child, Curley, Sun Mouse, Church Mouse, Kiwi Golden Thimble- the list goes on and on. Marketing a plant is all about finding that perfect name and these minis take the prize for catchy names.

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Irresistible with sculptural leaves and charming textures make it difficult to stop at one, and you’ll be tempted to fill a garden with them. Taking up less space in a space challenged property, and ideally suited to container growing, these little minis are perfect on their own or as a companion plant.

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‘Blue Mouse Ears’ tucked into a boulder crevice

Easily grown like all the larger widely known large hostas, they are pretty indestructible. For the best care of hostas, plant them in rich organic soil with a slightly acidic pH.

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Flowering like champs, the minis perform like their larger relatives

Drainage, like with so many plants, is most important. Dormant season crown rot is one of the few diseases that attack these plants.  With this in mind, when newly planted, keep the roots moist, not wet. Once established, hosta plants aren’t fussy and are very tolerant of summer drought and last for years.

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Perfect for fairy gardens, this one is ‘Blue Mouse Ears’

One of deer’s favorite food, plant hostas in containers if you have a property overrun with these pests.

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Planted next to a ‘Jack Frost’ Brunnera, adds some contrast to this mini

For my post on a hosta nursery, go to Happy Hollow-Hosta Mecca to see more varieties or Carolyn’s Shade Gardens.

New Patio-Old House

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Old houses are so picturesque and have lots of charm inside, but outside can be a different story. I got a call for a job for an early 1800’s house that had been decorated to the nines inside but lacked the same appeal on the outside.

Stone Work

There were several obstacles-one was the imposing curved brick wall around the sun room with the steep drop down to the lower level (lower blue arrow). The other was the very small exit from the brick surround to the grassy area, only 2 1/2 feet wide (upper blue arrow).

Adding an upper patio and cutting out a new wider entrance
Adding an upper patio and cutting out a new wider entrance

The first order of business was to add a mortared blue stone patio behind the mud room (small off-set room), replacing the old brick pavers next to the house. Adding six or seven large four to five feet wide guillotined steps curving down the slope took care of the steep drop from the patio.

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We filled in the old narrow opening with new brick and removed old brick to create a wider five foot wide opening making for easier access. At the bottom of the steps, large steppers curved around the imposing brick wall.

Large steppers curve around brick wall
Large steppers curve around brick wall

A small water feature was installed on the upper patio.

Placing the base of the water feature
Placing the base of the water feature

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Right outside the mudroom door we built a small entrance patio to the larger patio. A sitting wall encircled the larger patio to give additional seating room. Lighting was installed around the patio and down the steps.

Small entrance patio
Small entrance patio
Sitting wall
Sitting wall

Plantings

The lighting was partial shade and I didn’t have to worry with deer as the house was surrounded by farm fields that interested the deer more. Between the wall and the steps, I planted Serbian Cypress, Microbiota decussata, an evergreen ground cover that stays low to the ground and is quite beautiful. It looks like juniper but has a softer texture and doesn’t have the disease problems that junipers can get.

Serbian Cypress is next to the brick wall
Serbian Cypress is next to the brick wall

 

Serbian Cypress
Serbian Cypress

On the right side of the steps, I planted pink drift roses which bloom all summer long and stay low and mound like. The gold perennial between the steps is ‘Angelina’ Sedum.

Base of the steps plantings
Base of the steps plantings

Around the base of the steps, I planted ‘Guacamole’ Hosta, ‘Patriot’ Hosta, variegated ‘Solomans Seal’, Japanese Painted Fern, and ‘Limelight’ Hydrangea for some height.

Frances Williams Hosta
Frances Williams Hosta

Down on the existing patio there was a foot wide strip of soil that needed plantings and I chose ‘Frances Williams’ Hosta for its spectacular size and leaf markings.

Japanese Painted Fern 'Ghost'
Japanese Painted Fern ‘Ghost’
A tricolor beech brightens up the border next to the house
A tricolor beech brightens up the border next to the house

Additional plantings were added around the house to spruce it up when the rear patio and plantings were completed. A tri-color Beech gives the shady side planting bed a pop of color and and vertical element.

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Kousa Dogwood in full bloom set in the lawn
Kousa Dogwood in full bloom set in the lawn