Groundcovers for Shade

Last week I posted about groundcovers for sun. This week is all about groundcovers for shade. This all stemmed from my presentation to the Master Gardeners of Columbia County in September. The request was for a talk about groundcovers, which is a rather large topic so I created an overview of appropriate plants for either situation -- sun or shade -- and I wish now to share the basics of that talk by presenting these two blog posts.

What makes a plant a groundcover? I think of them as broad, spreading plants. Some are spreaders and others have a more clumping habit. It's a bit subjective, so what I've tried to put together here are a group of plants that I think of as the shortest, most spreading plants that I have experience growing in my own garden and in the gardens at Joy Creek Nursery.

The benefits of groundcovers? They serve as a living mulch, preserving water in the soil by shading it. They add texture and tie a garden together visually. Many have benefits for wildlife including flowers, cover and fruits. Many are dense enough to act as weed suppressors. They also allow for another layer in your garden, the base layer, so why not have fun and get creative with what is often overlooked? 

A mix of groundcovers in my shade garden. When working with groundcovers I focus on foliage color and texture to create a tapestry. 

Waldsteinia ternata, commonly known as barren strawberry is a low-growing, evergreen groundcover. It grows somewhat slowly and the runners are easy to dig up and are not deep, so not at all aggressive or a thug. It is more of a tough perennial groundcover for shade (or sun if you give it enough water) and has cheerful yellow flowers in spring.

Leptinella squalida 'Platt's Black' is an evergreen, ferny ground cover for part-shade to sun, though we always sold it in the shade section at Joy Creek Nursery. I have not grown this myself but it is quite popular as a lawn alternative if given enough summer water.

A rather sweet saxifrage, Saxifraga primuloides is an evergreen slow spreader. Its wiry stems with small star-shaped flowers are so charming. It likes shade and good drainage and is easy to propagate from cuttings.

The same saxifrage in a pot at Joy Creek Nursery. There is a pot under there, the plant has grown over the sides and onto the ground below. This is the north side of a large tree with a bit of winter sun on it, but it is primarily in shade most of the year.

S. urbium ‘Aureopunctata' is yet another evergreen saxifrage for shade to part sun. Its leaves are considerably larger than most of the other species I grow.

Saxifraga stolonifera 'Maroon Beauty' is another lovely saxifrage, this with beautiful maroon stems and under leaves. It spreads like strawberries on runners and is a lovely accent for moist soil in a woodland setting.

Evergreen Saxifraga x geum 'Dentata' with fresh spring growth. This is the same saxifrage pictured in the first photo and will colonize if happy in a shady setting.

One more saxifrage! I love these plants, they are so forgiving and colonize if happy. This is S. macnabiana, a dazzler with white leaf margins. It has not been as prolific as other saxifrages but is just as charming. It can easily get swallowed up by other plants so keeping its area free of debris is important.

Veronica umbrosa 'Georgia Blue' is a go-to groundcover in my garden. Its cheerful blue flowers are a favorite and its foliage is pretty much evergreen in my climate. I have it in full sun and part shade and it always looks much more lush in part shade. For the front of the border, it is a work horse.

Umbilicus (syn. Chiastophyllum) oppositifolium 'Jim's Pride' is an evergreen succulent (sedum relative) that likes shade. The straight species, which is not variegated, is also lovely and a lot more vigorous. This one is a slow-spreader. Evergreen and has stems of dangling yellow flowers that are quite captivating. I think it appreciates alkaline soil, it has grown considerably for me once I top-dressed its site with crushed gravel.

Oxalis oregana, our native redwood sorrel, is a vigorous spreader for the forest floor. It is primarily evergreen but will go dormant in extreme winter weather as well as in dry hot summers. When in a rich garden environment it spreads quickly, but under fir trees and other dry areas it stays in check. This is also in the first photo of this post in the back of the garden bed.

Oxalis oregana 'Klamath Ruby' is not as vigorous as the species and has beautiful red undersides to its leaves.

Combination of Geranium x cantabrigiense, Pachyphragma macrophyllum (white flowers, blooms earlier than about anything else in February) and Oxalis oregana forms a tapestry under fir trees.

Sweet evergreen Cardamine trifolia in bloom. A small-scale groundcover that is slow to spread, it is a definite favorite for the front of shady borders.

Anemone nemorosa 'Vestal' in the gardens at the Miller Botanical Gardens. What a charming woodland flower that has naturalized many areas of this amazing place.

Impatiens omeiana is a beautiful foliage plant, although it does require moist soil which sadly I cannot provide. It emerges in spring looking fresh and by July it's basically dormant for me. If you can give it regular summer moisture it will form colonies in time.

Vancouveria chrysantha is a native to southern Oregon and is mostly evergreen for me. It is more tolerant than our locally native Vancouveria hexandra (which I also have and love) of drier soils, so does well for me under thirsty fir trees. Yellow flowers atop wiry stems add to its charm.

Another evergreen vancoveria, this is V. planipetala, native to Southwest Oregon and California, this one will tolerate drier soils and sun more than our Willamette Valley species. It is slow-growing in my garden but it is so charming that if I had it everywhere it still wouldn't be enough.

Alchemilla ellenbeckii, also known as carpet lady's mantle, is an evergreen mat forming groundcover for shade to part sun. A sweet small leaf with red stems, it is quite charming and I'm told great for between pavers and in a variety of soil types. I haven't grown it but my friend Gina does. Here's a blog post about her garden from a few years ago.

Another plant that is featured in the first photo of this post, Austroblechnum penna-marina (syn. Blechnum penna-marina) is a spreading, low-growing evergreen fern. It loves shade but will tolerate some sun when given enough water. Bronze foliage emerges in spring then turns dark green as the growing season progresses.

There are many grass-like plants for shade and one of my favorites is Ophiopogon or mondo grass, although it is not a true grass. It is an evergreen, spreading plant, pictured is Ophoipogon planiscapus, a green version of the more widely used Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens'. Evergreen short foliage pictured here with blue black fruit give a little shine and texture to the front of the border, especially in winter.

Ophiopogon japonicus 'Hakuryu' ('Pam Harper') has lovely white margins on green foliage. Slower growing than others in my experience, nonetheless it is a bright spot in a shady garden and totally worth growing.

Acorus gramineus 'Ogon' is another evergreen spreader for the shade garden with taller foliage than Ophiopogon species. It has a golden green color and appreciates really wet soil, although it grows fine in my very dry shade garden, although not very fast. It is such a great plant for the winter garden, pictured here it is at Joy Creek Nursery and was always a go-to photograph in winter months for a little brightness.

Adiantum venustum is a colonizing fern at about 6" high. It is pretty much evergreen, that is to say it has a presence in the winter garden although it's much more lush in the warmer months. This photo is from a patch at Joy Creek Nursery along the driveway that has been there for years.

Someone on my blog suggested cyclamen as a groundcover and although I only have a small patch of it myself, this lovely Cyclamen hederifolium in the gardens at Joy Creek Nursery deserves mention. 

The solitary flowers rise on short stems in the autumn before the leaves develop. 
They disappear but the leaves persist throughout the winter filling a very important role in the winter garden. We grow these under conifers and rhododendrons. A Great Plant Picks selection.

Galium odoratum, sweet woodruff, is a creeping perennial that tolerates a wide range of conditions. I have it in two areas of my garden and it definitely looks prettier in shade. Plants can grow up through it which is a bonus and I've been told it's rabbit-proof. It does spread so keep it in check if space is an issue. It is not invasive but many are hesitant to plant it due to its spreading tendencies. Evergreen to semi-evergreen with small white flowers in spring.

Geranium macrorrhizum, big root geranium is a perennial favorite for under large trees. Scented foliage, evergreen presence and purple pink flowers make it a year-round favorite and incredibly useful. It spreads politely, forming colonies and is drought tolerant once established.

Ardisia japonica is an evergreen woody spreading sub-shrub or groundcover for shade. It is said to be a good spreader; however, under fir trees in my garden it has been slow to establish. Given more summer moisture I'm sure it would be happier, but as it is, it's a lovely plant.

Epimediums are a go-to for shade gardeners. Pictured is Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphureum' showing its old and new leaves simultaneously with yellow flowers. This is a spreading epimedium, some spread and some are more prone to clumping. A bonus for me is that they tolerate dry shade. There are so many species and varieties, it's fun to shop for the perfect epimedium.

Tellima grandiflora is a native woodland plant that forms colonies in time. It is pretty much deciduous although I note traces of basal foliage in winter. It attracts pollinators and is charming in my woodland garden.

Of course, our native sword fern, Polystichum munitum, colonizes to form large-scale but gorgeous groundcovers in Pacific Northwest woodlands.

A scene in the Miller Botanical Garden last April with Adiantum venustum, epimedium, anemone, trillium and more.

In my garden with Geranium macrorrhizum, Veronica 'Georgia Blue', Pachyphragma macrophylla and more.

There are so many other great groundcovers for shade out there, these are just a few I grow. My shade garden is especially challenging because of dry shade - the fir trees take up any available moisture with extensive roots so if I can get it to thrive here, it's a keeper.

As I mentioned earlier, it's all about texture, color, leaf shape and size rather than flowers for my shade garden. Flowers are a definite bonus, but with such a range of foliage plants available it never gets dull to me. Variegation in yellow or white, some dark plum- or bronze-colored foliage, fat leaves, tiny leaves, scalloped and round, it's a feast for the eyes. So there you have it, from the ground up, a variety of plant material to carpet the garden.

That's a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens. As always thank you so much for reading and commenting, I love hearing from you! And do let me know what you are interested in for future posts. This is my 400th and I can always use a few ideas!


  1. You have some beautiful combinations. I love the Himalayan maidenhair fern as a ground cover and also use our native one (Adiantum pedatum) as a groundcover here in WI.

    1. Oh, I adore Adiantum pedatum! So pretty....thanks for pointing this one out!

  2. Great post, I appreciate the detail about the plants' tolerance for tree competition especially.

    Do you know if there are nursery cultivars of Polystichum munitum? (A quick googling didn't say) I have seen great variety of size and habit between garden sword ferns and wild ones and I'm wondering if that's due to breeding or just light conditions. They can look very cute and tight or like big gangly dinosaur plants.

    1. Hi Teuth, you bet, glad you found it helpful. Hmmm...I don't think there are any cultivars of Polystichum munitum (I've never seen any, but never say never!). I think that their size all depends on conditions as you point out. Also I note when we have a very wet winter and spring they are HUGE the next year.

  3. How I wish I could grow Saxifraga and Epimedium! Sword ferns were the only one on your shade list that thrives in the conditions provided by my garden; however, Erigeron karvinskianus, generally viewed as a sun lover, spreads readily in shade here, even if it flowers better in full sun. Although I've never deliberately planted it, clover runs wild in light shade here when it hitchhikes in with compost deliveries - I admit I've let it do its thing on occasion.

    1. I'm actually surprised sword ferns do well in your climate, but if anyone can grow them there, you can! Equally surprised Erigeron k. grows in shade for you. I think I let it seed where it will as you do with clover.

  4. I love ground covers, thanks for all the good info. The last photo of your shade garden is stunning.

    1. Thank you, Tracy! I love ground covers too!

  5. Anonymous8:17 AM PST

    Fantastic post, I enjoyed it greatly... read it twice. I ofter do, as unfamiliar plants require research. I'm a HUGE fan of Saxifraga... I have many: they are the work horses of my shady garden and rabbit proof: I never imagined it would become a consideration when choosing plants. Saxifraga stolonifera is on my shopping list.
    You identified Vancoveria planipetala for me: I fell in love with it on a visit to the Bellevue Botanical garden... I don't remember it in nurseries.
    The last photo depicts my absolute favorite garden setting: it's all about the understory planting.

    1. Hi Chavli, and thank you! I am a big fan of research, especially when adding something new. Every garden is different. Yes, saxifrages are FAB, aren't they? Good to know about being rabbit proof, something more and more gardeners in our area are concerned with. Vancoveria planipetala is such a sweet plant and you are right, rare in nurseries. If it gets to a decent size in my garden I will divide it and sell it in 4" pots. If you ever find one, grab it! A treasure for sure.

  6. Two groundcovers I wish I could grow but I cannot find a space where they're happy in my garden: Leptinella squalida 'Platt's Black' and Acaena inermis ‘Purpurea’. And my garden is probably the only one that actually had Galium odoratum give up and die back completely. Ha. Great post, I really enjoyed this one and the sunny version. I have a question for you, have you ever cut back Adiantum venustum to the ground in the spring? (or seen it done) I never have, but my patch looks so ratty right now that I am considering it. I just fear that I won't get the solid coverage that I count on, that it will grow back kinda patchy.

    1. So interesting, Danger. We've talked about Acaena 'Purpurea' in your garden before, I remember. I wonder why? So curious. Also interesting about Galium! Every garden is, moisture, organic content in soil,'s a puzzle. As far as your Adiantum question, no I have never cut it back but I doubt it would hurt - new spring growth is a consistent for mine and the one at Joy Creek - so I'd say it will pull out of it. Go for it and report back!

  7. Ground covers do seem to be the unsung heroes of the garden. I always equate them to indoor accent throw rugs. So much better with them. My goal for this year is to up my game with groundcovers. And as such received a new book by Gary Lewis for Christmas: Timber Press The Complete Book of Ground Covers. Another collectible group of plants.

    1. I agree 100%, Elaine. Great analogy, by the way. I would love to get a copy of that book, it sounds like a valuable addition to the ol' library. Cheers!

  8. I felt myself transported to your shady fir path reading this post, T! Glorious, lush color and texture everywhere you look. So many good ones, depicted and described beautifully. In the early days of my gardening experimentation, I planted Gallium odoratum. Now it pops up everywhere, so I will second that it's a happy spreader. I remove it here and there, but mostly I don't mind it one bit. :)

    1. Aw, thank you Anna! Gallium is kind of fun, I do like it though as I mentioned not everyone feels the same way. In fact I think I got a small patch from you on a Fothergilla you gave me several years ago. I love it!


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