Question: What will grow in shade, where lawn grasses don’t thrive?
Answer: Shade groundcovers

Grass is a plant adapted to grow in sun. While there are selections that will tolerate some shade, areas of relatively deep shade are simply not suited to growing a lawn. There are options for gardeners who like a clean, smooth palette in their landscape and are looking for alternatives to grass in a shaded area.

There are several low growing shade groundcovers which can be used to produce a green covering to the earth under trees. Most will not tolerate foot traffic, as turf will, so it is a good idea to place steppingstones or create pathways if the area is going to encounter frequent foot traffic.

Planting Shade Groundcovers

Groundcovers are usually sold as individual small plants or in flats. The spacing for planting will be determined by how fast you want to create dense cover. Spacing the plants further apart will still result in full coverage but it will take longer to achieve. The recommended spacing for most of the listed groundcovers in 6”-12” apart at planting. While most of these groundcovers are robust enough to compete with weeds once fully established, the gardener should still be prepared to weed and mulch the bed through the first two or three growing seasons.

If you can accommodate a bit more height, there are also several fantastic taller growing groundcovers for shady sites.

Bugleweed (Ajuga)

shade groundcovers planting perennial ground cover flowers instead of grass lawn ajuga chocolate chip

Ajuga is a dense, rapidly spreading, mat-forming ground cover with glossy, heavy substance leaves in a range of colors from green to bronze to near black. Abundant compressed whorls of 3”-6” blue flowers cover the plant in spring and are quiet eye catching en masse. Ajuga grows densely enough to choke out weeds and has the potential to compete with lawn so is not recommended for use in an area immediately adjoining lawn. Ajuga spreads by rhizomes and is shallow rooted, which makes it susceptible to freezing out in low lying areas that are icy in winter months.  Due to its resilience and rapid growth, however, it will quickly fill in again in spring.

Dead Nettle (Lamium)

shade groundcovers planting perennial ground cover flowers instead of grass lawn lamium with geranium bronze angel statue

Lamium is a member of the mint family and, as such, is an eager grower with a spreading habit. There are several varieties that are mostly grown for their foliage, which can be silver, frosted, or attractively mottled. My favorite of this group is Lamium ‘Chequers’. It is a robust grower that will thrive even in the most inhospitable conditions, including dry shade. The foliage is green with subtle silver markings. It has a truly remarkable blooming season, bearing hooded rosy-purple snapdragon-like flowers from May through November, even blooming through the snow. It mounds to a height of about 8”-10”.  ‘Chequers’ has astonishing vigor and should not be planted anywhere that it is not going to be given free reign. For a difficult site, though, it is a perfect choice.

Periwinkle (Vinca)

shade groundcovers planting perennial ground cover flowers instead of grass lawn periwinkle vinca bowles

Vinca is an evergreen vining groundcover that spreads by sending out long, rooting, runners. In spring it produces an abundance of periwinkle blue flowers and, when in full bloom, can be quite stunning. It has small glossy green leaves and is an enthusiastic spreader. It is essentially ground hugging and won’t exceed 3”-6” in height.

Japanese Spurge (Pachysandra)

shade groundcovers planting perennial ground cover flowers instead of grass lawn pachysandra terminalis green carpet

Pachysandra is an upright evergreen ground cover which grows 8”-10″ tall and spreads by rhizomes to form a dense carpet. It produces insignificant white flowers in early summer but is grown exclusively for its foliage. Pachysandra prefers acid soil so, in our alkaline southern Wisconsin soils, will benefit from fertilizer formulated for acid loving plants.

Sweet Woodruff (Galium)

shade groundcovers planting perennial ground cover flowers instead of grass lawn galium odoratum with fern

Brilliant green, sweetly fragrant foliage is the hallmark of Sweet Woodruff. Its whorled leaves are topped by masses of tiny fragrant white flowers in late spring. The fragrance intensifies as the foliage dries and this plant was used historically to stuff mattresses and is used commercially today in perfumes and potpourris. The fresh leaves and flowers are an essential ingredient in traditional May Wine, a spring beverage made with white wine, sweet woodruff and fruit. Woodruff grows 6”-8” tall.

Irish Moss (Sagina subulata)

shade groundcovers planting perennial ground cover flowers instead of grass lawn sagina subulata irish moss

Irish moss forms a lush emerald green moss-like carpet. It grows completely flat and is an excellent choice for between steppingstones in a woodland setting. There is also a lighter colored form that will be chartreuse color in full shade and brilliant yellow in partial sun.