Ground Covers for Shade

3 to Plant, 7 to Be Wary Of

Note carefully that, just because certain plants qualify as ground covers for shade, that doesn't necessarily mean you'd want to grow them. I list ten qualifying plants below, but I do so only as a springboard for you to use to further research (research that you can begin by following the links I provide). In fact, part of my purpose in this article is to alert you to plants that many of you probably should not grow, such as lily-of-the-valley, a plant found growing (and still...MORE spreading) on many an old homestead in eastern North America.

Let me explain by starting from square one. Why does one seek a ground cover for shade? Well, in some cases, we have shady spots in our yards where we'd like to grow a "filler," something that will look pretty while, simultaneously, choking out ugly weeds (because, just to spite those of us who crave well-manicured landscaping, weeds often seem the one thing that will flourish in shady conditions!).

But to choke out weeds, a ground cover must be vigorous. Therein lies the dilemma: vigor is a double-edged sword. In trying to please us with their vigor, some plants overdo it. Yes, I'm talking about those dreaded invasive plants.

They say all politics is local, and a similar principle must inform this discussion. Some of the ground covers for shade on my list are invasive in some areas. If you're interested in a plant I've identified below as being potentially invasive, contact your local extension office to determine whether it's invasive in your particular region.

I begin by talking about three ground covers for shade that, in my experience, are relatively safe to grow (i.e., they won't spread out of control). I then proceed to the more questionable selections. But I wish to emphasize that this division is based merely on my own assessment and is not intended to be a hard-and-fast bifurcation of these plants into "good" and "bad" camps.

Finally, note that "shade" here means "partial shade," not deep shade (few plants that you'd be interested in growing do well in deep shade).

  • 01 of 10
    As my photo shows, bunchberry (a type of dogwood) is a short plant, not a tree or shrub.
    Underdog: bunchberry is a sub-shrub in the Cornus genus. David Beaulieu

    Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is a native plant here in New England. It is showier (when in bloom, at least) than some of the other native choices in this region, such as spotted wintergreen. I am very familiar with bunchberry from my jaunts through the woods. Based on its diminutive stature alone, you might do a double-take to see it classified as a type of dogwood (Cornus). But one glance at its flowers and leaves will leave no doubt as to its pedigree in the minds of plant geeks.

    Want to...MORE learn more about this ground cover for shade? For this and for every entry on my list, I encourage you to click on the link to access the full article on the plant in question.


  • 02 of 10
    Plantain lily (Hosta) El Nino
    Photos Lamontagne/Photolibrary/Getty Images

    When you hear mention of ground covers for shade, ​hosta may immediately come to mind. Do understand, though, that some types of hosta need a bit more sun to achieve optimal color. In general, hostas with green leaves, as well as blue-leaved types such as Halcyon hosta, are ideal choices for shady spots. Gold-leaved types and those with variegated leaves, such as Patriot hosta and the similar 'Minuteman' (shown in my picture), should be given a little more light.


  • 03 of 10
    Red Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)
    Joshua McCullough/Photolibrary/Getty Images

    This is another ground cover for shade that sometimes offers variegated leaves as a selling point. But unlike many hostas, its beauty is further enhanced by pretty flowers. Spotted deadnettle (Lamium maculatum) is considered slightly invasive, but I personally have never had problems with it. The next entry, however -- a relative of spotted deadnettle's -- is known to be much more vigorous (and therefore should raise some red flags).


  • 04 of 10
    Lamiastrum galeobdolon var. variegata (Yellow archangel)
    David Q. Cavagnaro/Photolibrary/Getty Images

    What a shame that yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon) is invasive. As you can see from my photo, those bright yellow flowers would go a long way toward brightening a shady spot in one's landscaping. But don't be deceived by its good looks! I explore this theme further in my photo gallery of attractive invasive plants, specimens I've dubbed "beautiful barbarians."


    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10
    Liriope in the pine forest
    penboy/Moment Open/Getty Images

    Liriope spicata is another potentially invasive ground cover for shade. Like Liriope muscari and Ophiopogon spp. such as black mondo grass, it is commonly called "monkey grass." Although all three function as if they were ornamental grasses, none of them really are (botanically speaking).


  • 06 of 10
    Woodruff plant
    Image Souce/Getty Images

    Shade created by a structure is quite different from shade cast by trees when it comes to planting. What makes the latter scenario different is that there are roots involved. The roots of an enormous tree draw up a lot of water -- water that would otherwise be going to what's trying to grow under the tree.

    The salient point here is that, in such growing conditions, you need not just ground covers for shade, but plants for dry shade. Happily, several of the entries on this page are tough...MORE enough to grow in such circumstances. Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is one of these plants to grow under trees.

    While this entry lies in the "potentially invasive" portion of my list, a mitigating factor to consider is that sweet woodruff won't spread much unless the conditions are ideal for it. So if you don't want it to spread, simply deprive it of those conditions (as I explain in the article linked to above).

  • 07 of 10
    USA, Massachusetts, Newton, Pachysandra plant carpet and tree trunk
    WIN-Initiative/Getty Images

    Pachysandra may sound like a rather ponderous name, but consider the alternative: the common name, "spurge." Using the common name, in this case, would be an open invitation to confuse Pachysandra with a totally different plant: namely, wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides 'Purpurea').

    Coincidentally, though, I do treat wood spurge as a ground cover for shade in my own landscaping. Both are capable of spreading out of control if you don't keep an eye on them.


  • 08 of 10
    VOISIN/PHANIE/Getty Images

    I grew up with Vinca minor in the yard of my parents' home. The previous owners (or someone who lived there even prior to them) had planted it in the shade of a huge pine tree (well, at least the tree was huge by the time I came along). Because my dad gardened in that part of the yard, the Vinca minor never had a chance to spread out of control. In fact, I never even noticed it that much.

    Years later, after my dad had passed away (meaning there was little upkeep going on in that part of the...MORE property now), I noticed that, little by little, the Vinca minor was starting to extend its hegemony. The lesson to glean from this observation? Yes, Vinca minor is invasive, but the degree to which this quality emerges as a problem depends, to some degree, on how active you are with your landscape maintenance. This isn't a ground cover that you can plant and forget.


    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10
    Bugle (Ajuga reptans), May
    Francois De Heel/Photolibrary/Getty Images

    Bugleweed (Ajuga) is another matter altogether. No matter how fastidious I am in my landscape maintenance, I find that I can never stay ahead of this vigorous spreader. Along with the next entry (English ivy), I have few, if any reservations about saying, "Don't plant this one!"


  • 10 of 10
    Ivy wall
    Yusuke Murata/DigitalVision/Getty Images

    You've probably heard of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, in which the patriot of the American Revolution famously warned about the coming of the British. The more pleasant British Invasion centuries later notwithstanding, it's still a good idea to be somewhat circumspect about one thing that's English. I'm talking about that long-used ground cover for shade, English ivy (Hedera helix).

    Yes, English ivy has been used for a long time in North America in problem areas, including...MORE shady spots -- long enough for people to realize that the ivy, itself, can become a big problem! English ivy will even scale trees, making it, in a sense, more problematic than the other invasives discussed in this article.

    Need help selecting other types of plants for shady spots? Please start with the following: