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Shade-loving groundcovers perfect for sun deprived gardens

Finding plants that thrive in shady area and under trees is a problem but not impossible. If that’s a dilemma for you, I have some helpful ideas.

QUESTION: “I love reading your column each week! You have great advice on plants. I recently read your column that mentioned vinca minor and pachysandra terminalis for shady areas.

“We have a backyard that faces woods to the north and the yard portion is only about 30' wide between the deck and the woods. About half of the western side of this backyard is totally shaded due to trees and is bare dirt. “We have three boys (as well as other neighbor boys) who run around a lot in the yard and we haven't been able to get any grass to grow successfully in that area. It grows in May and June and then once the tree leaves come in the grass dies due to lack of sunlight! We have tried all types of grass and none work. “During the rainy season other backyards drain through our yard to the creek in the woods, so the area it gets pretty muddy but it does drain and there is no standing water. “I am so tired of this ugly look that is so hard on bare feet as well! Can you recommend any low-growing or appropriate groundcover that would work in such a shady area?” – Lisa Knapp

ANSWER: Thanks for the compliments and for being a reader to the column.

As a reminder to you and other readers, I’ll mention a few suitable groundcovers, below. It is fairly easy to work with any of these shade-tolerant groundcovers but you will have to establish for at least one growing season before the area can suffer a lot of traffic.

As always, the best first step is to establish the area where you want to plant your groundcover. Regular readers know that I recommend using a garden hose that you place on the ground and move around and indicate the perimeter of the area you intend to plant. Step back and take a look. Not quite satisfied yet? Simply move the hose a little (or a lot) until you see the desired outline of the proposed area. This is the landscaper’s equivalent of the carpenter’s motto, “Measure twice, cut once.” Moving a hose now is easy; moving plants later isn’t.

Once you have determined the shape, fill in the area with top soil, compost or plantable mulch. Keep in mind that during the rainy season you have to have a way for the water to travel so do not block the natural flow. You might then want to put some type of edging around the perimeter to establish a boundary. Then you can plant your groundcover in early spring. You can also plant groundcover in the fall, but if you do, make sure you mulch in the roots for winter and then let it go until the following spring.

Here are some shade-loving groundcovers that are worth investigating:

Pachysandra Green Sheen
This is the most reliable cold-season groundcover for shaded areas and is ideal for planting under the canopies of established trees where little else grows. It’s also good for planting by on the north side of wall or on north-facing slopes. Green Sheen has extremely glossy foliage that sometimes looks too good to be real!

Pachysandra, variegated Japanese
An alternative (or addition) to the Green Sheen, the variegated Japanese thrives even in the dense shade of evergreens. It is low-growing and compact, retaining its beauty with white tinged leaves even in adverse conditions.

Dicentra Candy Hearts
This is a relatively new Bleeding Heart variety that produces masses of pendulous bright pink candy-like flowers. I would recommend that Candy Hearts be planted where they’ll get some partial sun for part of the day but they are shade-tolerant.

Ajuga Reptans “Burgundy Glow”
A creeping, mat-forming evergreen perennial that does well in shady area. It spreads rapidly to a width of 24 to 36 inches and a height of only six inches. The cream and maroon variegated leaves make a pleasant contrast in any garden.

The Plant Man is here to help. Send your questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to [email protected] and for resources and additional information, or to subscribe to Steve’s free e-mailed newsletter, visit www.landsteward.org