The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Uncovering Ground Covers for Shade

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

Lawns are the ultimate ground cover. Grass takes foot traffic well, stays green most of the time, holds soil against erosion and gives us a great place to watch the clouds go by on a summer's day. However, there are times when an alternative to lawns is appropriate. Alternative sites might be places you don't want to mow or perhaps in an area where its difficult to mow or in shady areas where grass doesn't grow well. Ground covers also soften the look of landscaped areas.

First, a reality check. Ground cover areas do not mean you can plant them and forget them. During the first year they should be watered periodically if rain doesn't provide at least an inch of water a week. Some weeding will be needed, especially until they cover the soil. After the ground covers are established, scouting for weeds and problems is always a good idea.

Like planting anything else, prepare the soil properly first. Add organic mater such as compost and work the soil to 8 to 10 inches deep. Get rid of any perennial weeds before planting. After planting, apply mulch and water plants thoroughly.

The following table will help you to figure out how many plants you will need to buy. The closer the spacing the more quickly the ground cover fills in, but the more plants you will need to buy. Stagger plants in rows to give a more uniform cover.

  Spacing in and between rows (in inches)
Sq. ft. of planting area 6 8 9 l2 l8 24
100 400 225 178 100 45 25
200 800 450 356 200 90 50
300 200 678 534 300 135 75
400 1600 900 712 400 180 100
500 2000 1125 890 500 225 125
600 2400 1350 1068 600 270 150
700 2800 1575 1246 700 315 175
800 3200 1800 1425 800 360 200
900 3600 2025 1602 900 405 225

Here is just a small sample of the many groundcovers for shady sites. Keep in mind these groundcovers will not take heavy foot traffic.

Bugleweed, Ajuga reptans, has low-growing, attractive leaves in rosettes. It spreads by above ground stolons. It prefers moist, well-drained soils in heavy shade to full-sun. Protect bugleweed from winter winds. It tends to die out when plants get crowded. However, there are usually enough plants left to repopulate the area. There are many different cultivars.

Canada Wild Ginger, Asarum canadense, has heart shaped leaves and forms a mass up to six inches tall. Wild Ginger is a native plant excellent for partial to deep shade. European Ginger has a glossier leaf.

Sweet Woodruff, Galium odoratum, is a delicate deciduous groundcover that forms a mat of bright green leaves. It has small, white flowers in late spring and prefers moist, well-drained soils in medium to deep shade. It is not aggressive and forms a nice collar around other plants. It is often sold as an herb.

Japanese Spurge, Pachysandra terminalis, is evergreen with whorled leaves on upright stems. It's best in full shade in moist, well-drained soils with lots of organic matter. It performs best if it is protected from winter winds. Japanese spurge does well in heavily shaded areas under shallow rooted trees.

Barren Strawberry, Waldsteinia ternata, forms mats of strawberry-like evergreen foliage with glossy, bright green leaves and yellow flowers. It's easy care in partial shade to full-sun.

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