Beautify Your Shade Garden with Ground Covers

Creating a lush garden on a shaded site can be a challenge. One reason is that many shade-loving perennials require rich, moist, well-drained soil to grow. The dry soil conditions existing in many shade gardens are caused by tree roots as well as overhead tree branches or buildings that block rainfall. Fortunately, careful plant selection, a bit of site investigation, and some basic soil improvement can make all the difference between success and failure on such sites.

Before Landscaping, Study Your Site

If buildings block rainfall on your shaded site, install soaker hoses. If tree roots completely clog your site, you may want to reconsider planting a garden there. Maple trees (Acer species) are especially notorious for creating dense mats of roots that don’t allow any space for other plants. If tree roots are a major problem, consider mulching over the site, then grow shade perennials and annuals in large containers set on top of the mulch. Removing tree roots to make space for planting isn’t a solution, because the roots quickly grow back and out-compete the ground covers.

If your site has some roots, but not a dense mat of them, look for open areas between major roots. Develop these as planting pockets by working plenty of well-rotted compost into the soil, then plant with ground covers that thrive in dry shade. Once you have planted, be sure to keep the soil mulched as well. Compost and mulch both help increase the amount of moisture held in the soil and available to plants. You may also want to install soaker hoses to provide water to plants with a minimum of waste: Snake the hoses through the bed once plants are in the ground but before the mulch has been spread. Soaker hoses can be left in place under the mulch through the winter—just disconnect the hose that runs to them.

Ground Covers for Dry Shade

Depend on plants that grow well in dry soil, including the ground covers listed below, to transform barren shady sites into gardens. In addition to tolerating dry shade, all of the plants listed here will thrive in rich, moist, well-drained soil. For best results, water newly planted perennials and ground covers regularly until they are established.

Dwarf plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) is a tough, long-lived ground cover that is 6 to 10 inches tall and spreads indefinitely. Green leaves are topped by gentian blue flowers from midsummer to fall. The foliage is semi-evergreen, and new leaves emerge late in spring. The red fall foliage is simply outstanding. This species thrives in sun to partial shade and is very vigorous. Use it around shrubs and other strong-growing perennials. Hardy from Zones 5 or 6 to 9.

Epimediums or barrenworts (Epimedium species) are premier ground covers for partial to full shade. Plants are 8 to 16 inches tall and spread to 3 feet or more. They bear small, showy flowers in mid to late spring and form handsome, dense clumps of leaves. For best results, water newly planted epimediums regularly until they are well established. Cut the foliage back to the ground in late winter before bloom stalks appear to highlight the flowers. The best epimediums for covering ground include E. grandiflorum, E. perralderianum, and E. warleyense.

Bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum) is a 1½-foot-tall ground cover that spreads to 2 feet or more. Plants bear loose clusters of pink to purplish pink flowers in spring to early summer. They bloom best in bright or dappled shade but flower in shade as well. Hardy in Zones 3 to 8, depending on the species.

Hellebores or Lenten roses, (Helleborus × hybridus) are 1 to 1½-foot-tall perennials that form dense, 2-foot-wide clumps. Plants bear leathery evergreen leaves and clusters of showy, saucer-shaped flowers from late winter to mid spring in shades of creamy white, greenish, pink, maroon, or purple. Cut old foliage to the ground in late winter to better display the flowers. Hardy in Zones 5 to 9.

Lilyturfs (Liriope species) – these grassy-leaved perennials range from 8 to 24 inches tall and spread to 2 feet. The clumps of leathery, evergreen leaves make them perfect for edging beds, and plants produce spikes of lilac-purple or white flowers from late summer to fall. Creeping lilyturf (L. spicata) is hardy in zones 5 to 10, while big blue lilyturf (Liriope muscari) is hardy in Zones 6 to 9.

Male fern (Dryopteris felix-mas) is a 2- to 4-foot tall fern that spreads to 3 feet or more. Plants are semi-evergreen in the north, evergreen in warm climates. Unlike most ferns, male fern tolerates poor, sandy, and dry soil. Plants are hardy in Zones 4 to 8.

Plan Ground Cover Plantings to Reduce Landscaping Chores

In addition to helping you create a beautiful garden, perennials and ground covers that thrive in dry shade can also save landscape maintenance. Using ground cover plantings to replace lawn helps reduce lawn mowing, and designing large beds of ground covers creates a unified, pleasing garden design.

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