Rudyard Kipling was right when he said, “Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, How Beautiful’ and sitting in the shade.” But there are times when gardens are in the shade: spaces at the forest’s edge, under trees, or in dappled light. These locations are ideal for the many shade-loving groundcovers.
- Moss: Moss in the garden is either a problem or an opportunity! Non-flowering and lacking a root structure, moss gets its nutrients from air and water rather than soil and spreads by spores, not seeds. If it is thriving, it means that the soil is acidic, lacking fertility, shaded, moist, and/or compacted. You can spend time and money trying to change the soil conditions to grow other plants, which may or may not work. A more economical and equally satisfying option is to take a page from the ancient Japanese gardening tradition of landscaping with moss.
Pros. Beautiful in rock gardens and along pathways, moss provides year-round color, with varieties ranging from blue-green to emerald green to yellow-green. Its velvety texture is particularly striking around tree roots and between stepping stones. Moss absorbs water quickly, helping to reduce stormwater run-off and erosion.
Cons. Moss can be a slow grower, challenging a gardener’s patience, and picky about its environment—different species demand different conditions. A common misconception is that moss only grows in the shade, so check with your trusted garden center or native plant purveyor to find species that do best in your garden conditions.
- Foam flower (Tiarella): This cousin of coral bells (Heuchera), another shade garden favorite, features “foamy” pink or white spring blossoms. Tiarella prefers well drained, “humusy” soil. Dappled sunlight brings out the best in its stunning foliage, but it also performs well in full shade. The Missouri Botanical Garden recommends planting Tiarella in shaded rock gardens, woodland gardens, border fronts, wild gardens, naturalistic plantings, or moist areas along stream banks.
- Dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata): This petite (3 to 6 inches) North Carolina native iris spreads quickly, producing a spectacular drift of color in early spring. It is an excellent addition to rock gardens, perennial borders, or woodland gardens. White, pale blue, lilac, or lavender flowers with gold falls appear on very short stems. Following bloom, the foliage provides a strong, green groundcover for the remainder of the year. Hummingbirds and bumblebees like it—deer don’t!
- Barrenwort, fairy wings, Bishop’s hat (Epimedium): There are many lovely varieties of Epimedium, all of them well-suited to shade. These small perennials (6 to 8 inches) feature red-tinged, heart-shaped leaves and, in the spring, delicate blossoms on wiry stems. Epimedium thrives in organically rich, moist, well-drained soil.
- Wild ginger (Hexastylis ): North Carolina is the epicenter of Hexastylis, boasting 10 species, sometimes called “little brown jug.” Hexastylis arifolia, with its beautiful evergreen heart-shaped leaves and small brown jug-shaped flower, is a wonderful shade groundcover in woodland gardens. It prefers rich, moist soil where it grows slowly in isolated clusters of six to eight inches.
Putting it all together
Shade-loving groundcovers are fitting partners for other shade plants, such as ferns, hostas, Japanese anemone, trillium, and hellebores, and shrubs—including evergreen Japanese plum yew, for example, which works beautifully in partial shade. Together they create a serene beauty that few gardeners (or admirers) can resist.
Groundcovers aplenty for shade, sun, and in between
When it comes to groundcovers, we have a multitude of choices well-adapted to sun, part sun, or shade. Check back through this five-part series on groundcovers to get more ideas.
There are aesthetic as well as practical reasons to invest in groundcovers. These often-humble plants bring texture and beauty to our gardens. Perhaps Alison Arnold, Buncombe County’s Extension Agent for Agriculture and Consumer Horticulture, said it best when she described them as “the fine linens of landscaping.”
Article written by Janet Moore, Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer.
Common Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians
Book by McKnight, Rohrer, Ward, and Perdrizet (Princeton University Press, 2013)
The Magical World of Moss Gardening
Book by Annie Martin (Timber Press, August 2015)
Managing Moss in the Landscape
by Paige Burns, NCSU Extension Agent, Richmond County, NC
Foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia)
by Missouri Botanical Garden
Plant Files by NC State Extension
Iris cristata (Dwarf crested iris)
Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ (Bicolor barrenwort)
Epimedium sempervirens (Bishop’s hat)
Epimedium x youngianum ‘Niveum’ (White epimedium)
Hexastylis arifolia (Wild ginger or little brown jug)
by North Carolina Native Plant Society, Native Plant Gallery