Well-Mannered Groundcovers for Shade

Foamflower is a highly desirable native flowering groundcover for shade.

Back when one-size-fits-all gardening was a thing, ground covers for shade were seemingly as easy as one-two-three: creeping myrtle (Vinca minor), English ivy (Hedera helix), and Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis). That is before they all began invading wildlands. All were neatly arrayed under an equally ubiquitous Norway maple or Bradford pear– both equally invasive and troublesome.

It was bound to happen. Introduce lots of vigorous, spreading plant species, and you increase the likelihood they will become pests themselves by invading local native plant communities. It did not take long for all three non-native, go-to ground covers to be added to the invasive plant lists of many U.S. states, particularly in the American Southeast and Northwest.

Unfortunately, going ubiquitous presented additional problems in the garden. As anyone who has ever tried to maintain the “perfect” lawn and garden can attest, mass plantings are easy pickings for mass invasions of pests and diseases. Japanese spurge loses a lot of its allure when it’s riddled with Volutella blight, as is all too common these days.

Well-Mannered Groundcovers for Shade

Fortunately, excellent (and arguably superior) ground cover alternatives abound, many of them native. Feeding the soil with quality compost, such as Fafard Premium Garden Compost Blend, at planting time will encourage good establishment from the start.

Twilight Aster

Twilight aster blooms for a long period in summer and fall.

Who says ground covers have to hug the ground? Some situations call for something taller. Twilight Aster (Aster x herveyi ‘Twilight’ (aka Eurybia x herveyi)) spreads by rhizomes into large swards of broad-leaved rosettes that give rise in summer to leafy 2-foot-tall stems. Plants are crowned with clusters of pale lavender flowers for many weeks in late summer and fall. An incredibly adaptable thing, ‘Twilight’ can handle situations from dry shade to damp sun. This eastern U.S. native goes dormant in winter.


Many native sedges are evergreen and make lush groundcovers for shade.

Botanically speaking, they’re not grasses, but sedges provide much the same look for shade with their clumps of narrow-bladed leaves. Masses of low sedges such as Carex pensylvanica and Carex rosea (both eastern U.S. natives) make excellent low-foot-traffic lawn substitutes. For a bolder look, try a clump of seersucker sedge (Carex plantaginea), whose strappy puckered evergreen leaves contrast effectively with lacier shade subjects such as ferns.


Green-and-gold is semi-evergreen and bears loads of bright golden blooms in spring that attract native bees.

Green-and-gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) is a hardy, attractive woodland native. “Green” references the dense spreading rosettes of fuzzy, crinkled, heart-shaped leaves that hold their color and substance through much of winter. The “gold” is provided by the numerous little yellow “daisies” that spangle the plants in spring and repeat sporadically until fall. Native to woodlands in the Southeast U.S., Chrysogonum virginianum is hardy well north of that, to Zone 5.

Robin’s Plantain

This is one of those rare plants you can plug into the garden just about anywhere – sun or shade.

Often occurring as a rather doughty lawn weed, this plantain (Erigeron pulchellus) is a nearly evergreen eastern U.S. native that occasionally assumes much more pulchritudinous forms. The cultivar ‘Lynnhaven Carpet’, for example, grows into handsome carpets of broad fuzzy gray-green leaves that are decorated in spring with pink daisies on 18-inch stems. It’s one of those rare plants you can plug into the garden just about anywhere – sun or shade. Another delightful selection of robin’s plantain is ‘Meadow Muffin’, with contorted leaves that give its rosettes a bit of a cow-pie look.

Allegheny Spurge

Allegheny spurge has leaves that are elegantly splashed with silver mottling, lending the plant a distinguished look totally lacking in Pachysandra terminalis. (Photo by Zen Sutherland)

Although not a rapid runner like the aforementioned Japanese spurge, our Southeast native Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens) far outdistances it as a desirable ornamental. The whorled evergreen leaves – arrayed in mounded 6-inch-tall clumps – are elegantly splashed with silver mottling, lending the plant a distinguished look totally lacking in Pachysandra terminalis. Things get even splashier in spring when conical clusters of frilly white flowers push from the ground, along with the fresh-green new leaves, as the previous year’s foliage fades. It’s one of those early-season garden scenes that makes your heart leap up. Allegheny spurge thrives in moist humus-rich soil, so give it a dose of Fafard compost if your soil is overly sandy or heavy.


Golden flowers light up this native naturalizer in late spring.

Golden ragwort (Packera aurea) and its near look-alike roundleaf ragwort (Packera obovata) provide quick cover for more informal garden areas. Low swaths of bright green rounded leaves emerge from their rapidly spreading roots in early spring, followed a few weeks later by heads of small yellow “daisies” on 2-foot stems. Use golden ragwort in moist garden situations, and roundleaf ragwort in moist to dry niches. They’re both native to much of central and eastern North America.

Creeping Phlox

This evergreen woodland creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) from eastern North America will expand into a ground-hugging carpet.

Don’t let its rather dainty appearance deceive you: this evergreen woodland creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) from eastern North America will expand into a ground-hugging carpet of small spoon-shaped leaves. It also provides a spring garden highlight when it opens its clusters of proportionately large round-lobed flowers, poised on 6-inch stems. Blue-, pink-, violet-, and white-flowered selections are available, but probably the best for ground cover is the vigorous cultivar ‘Sherwood Purple’.

Whorled Stonecrop

A native sedum that thrives in shade? Yes!

If you think stonecrops are drought-loving sun plants, you’re probably not acquainted with Sedum ternatum. Hailing from moist partly shaded habitats over much of central and eastern North America, it makes an excellent small-scale ground cover in similar garden conditions, although it also succeeds in sunnier, drier sites. Its dense low hummocks of fleshy ear-shaped leaves are studded with sprays of white flowers in spring. This highly effective shade plant is still rather rare in gardens – perhaps because of its family associations.


Frothy 6-inch spikes of white flowers appear in spring above spreading expanses of handsome maple-shaped basal leaves. These features of foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), combined with a tough constitution, make for one of the best and most popular native ground covers for easter U.S. gardens. Its variety collina is a clumper rather than a runner, so it’s a better choice where a less rambunctious ground covering plant is required.

Barren Strawberry

Semi-evergreen leaves and bright golden spring flowers make this handsome bee plant a real winner in the garden.

Dense swaths of strawberry-like leaves expand steadily and tenaciously to provide attractive semi-evergreen ground cover in most any garden niche, from dry shade to full sun. Saucer-shaped yellow flowers dot the plants in spring, with a few repeat blooms later on. Recently moved to the genus Geum, barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides aka Geum fragarioides) is one of the best native ground covers for eastern U.S. gardens – under whatever name.

Garden-Path Fillers: Plants for Cracks and Crevices

Sedums (Sedum spurium shown), thyme, and even a little blue rug juniper act to fill and cover the crevices in this appealing rocky garden path.

Nature abhors bare ground and will happily (and quickly) cover even the smallest bare spaces with weeds.  Keeping those weeds at bay in the cracks and crevices between pavers, stepping stones, or along rock walls can be a perpetual battle. 

It doesn’t have to be that way.

There are plenty of tough, beautiful, neat spreading plants that are small enough to fit into cracks and crevices.  Some have appealing flowers and more than a few sport fragrant foliage. Leaf textures vary from fern-like to fleshy and succulent. 

Depending on the situation, the following plants will beautify those hard-to-fill spaces and end the battle of the crevice weeds.

Soft Greens: Alluring Faux Mosses

Sagina subulata remains pretty and green between these pavers and tolerates foot traffic.

Irish and Scottish mosses (varieties of Sagina subulata and Arenaria verna) are not true mosses at all, but diminutive members of the carnation or Caryophyllaceae family. Thriving in full sun to partial shade, the two moss-like species form mats of thin, creeping stems covered with soft, tiny leaves in green (most often in Irish moss) or golden-green (most often in Scotch moss). In spring, Sagina varieties are adorned with single white flowers, while Arenaria bear their blooms in clusters. Rising to a height of only about one inch tall, the plants tolerate light foot traffic and are generally hardy in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 4-8.

Thyme for Fragrance

Thyme is a very effective evergreen stone crevice filler that bears spring flowers and season-long fragrance.

Some avid gardeners make entire lawns of fragrant thyme species and varieties, but the plants are also great crevice fillers. Many will do the job, but all like excellent drainage and full sunshine. Among the most popular are elfin thyme (Thymus serpyllum) and mother-of-thyme (Thymus praecox), which share other nicknames that include creeping thyme, wild thyme, and others. The European natives belong to the mint, or Lamiaceae family and are related to common culinary thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and are equally edible. Growing only about 1/4 inch tall and spreading up to one foot, each plant features scores of tiny, ovoid leaves, with the characteristic thyme fragrance. 

The flowers, appearing in June or July, are deep pink in Thymus serpylluum and somewhat lighter in Thymus praecox. Thriving in USDA Zones 4 or 5-8, the perennial plants will attract butterflies and pollinators, but not deer, and will withstand foot traffic. In mild climates, thymes are evergreen.

Creeping Speedwells

Turkish speedwell (Veronica liwanensis) becomes covered with violet-blue flowers in spring.

Though not real thyme, thyme-leaf speedwell (Veronica oltensis) shares thyme’s ground-covering nature. The tiny leaves of these snapdragon relatives are evergreen on plants that rise to only 1 inch in height.  Thyme-leaf speedwell’s crowning glory is the tiny blue flowers that cover the plants in spring. Blooming and spreading best in full sun and flourishing in zones 4-9, the plants can withstand low water conditions once they are established. Equally drought-tolerant Turkish speedwell (Veronica liwanensis) is another great solution for cracks between bricks or pavers. The characteristically tiny leaves are glossy green and the plants are quick to establish because the stems root as they travel.  Periwinkle-blue flowers appear in late spring on plants that grow 1 to 2 inches tall and are hardy in zones 3-9.

For something different and cheerful, little Veronica repens, or creeping veronica, is perfect. The foliage is dense and golden on plants that grow 1 to 2 inches tall. Creeping veronica is evergreen in southern gardens and thrives in zones 4-8.

Steppable Sedums

Creeping sedums of all types grow beautifully in crevices. Evergreen forms are most desirable for their year-long coverage.

Always in vogue, some succulent sedums also make excellent crevice-fillers. One terrific choice for larger cracks or spaces is Caucasian stonecrop (Sedum spurium), also known as two-row stonecrop, which grows to about 3 inches tall, with a spread of up to 18 inches. Its leaves are deciduous, but dense roots hold soil between cracks through winter. The fleshy leaves of the popular and somewhat less vigorous ‘Tricolor’ variety are green-tinged with pink, turning red later in the season. Tiny pink flowers add interest in late spring to early summer. The evergreen gray sedum (Sedum pachyclados) is similar in size and spread to Caucasian stonecrop, with miniature blue-green “hen and chick” type leaf rosettes that support pink flowers in mid to late summer. These sedums like relatively dry, well-drained soil as well as lots of sunshine and grow best in zones 4-9.

Other Great Creepers

New Zealand brass buttons looks ferny and spreads nicely between pavers or in gardens.

Creeping mazus (Mazus reptans) is another great perennial creeper, native to the Himalayas and hardy in USDA zones 5-8.  The narrow green leaves stay vibrant into the fall, but the tubular, blue-purple, and white flowers are what set the two-inch-tall grower apart. With its love of damp soil, creeping mazus is perfect for low or wet cracks or crevices 

The fancifully named New Zealand brass buttons (Leptinella squalida) is a creeper that features leaves that look like tiny ferns.  The “brass buttons” of the common name refer to the small yellow flowers that bloom in June or July, but the foliage plays the real starring role for this sun-loving species. ‘Platt’s Black’ is a striking variety with near-black leaves. Flourishing in USDA zones 4-10, New Zealand brass buttons spreads readily by underground rhizomes.

Low Maintenance for Low Growers

There are lots more creepers to consider for the garden, so ask your local garden center specialist for the best creepers for your area.

Once creepers and crevice fillers are established, they generally do not take much maintenance. If soil is lacking in the planting spaces, fill in with a quality product like Fafard Premium Topsoil. Water regularly until the plants are established. The best time to sheer back crack and crevice fillers is right after they bloom. At other times, trim to maintain size and shape. parameters.

What Are Some Low-Maintenance, Noninvasive Groundcovers For Shade?

Pennsylvania Sedge is a lush, grass-like, non-invasive groundcover that grows well beneath trees.

“I need a straight answer. I have read so much, I am confused after reading so many articles. I need a low-maintenance, noninvasive ground cover on a mostly shady hillside. If it is invasive, it will end up causing me issues as I am unable to maintain anything that needs to be dug out by roots to stop it from spreading. I am in zone 6b. Thank you in advance.” Denise of Charleroi, Pennsylvania

Answer: All groundcovers will spread, so expect them to cover the hillside. Even native, noninvasive groundcovers may spread beyond bounds, but generally, it is not a problem when dealing with natives adapted to your region. Here are four excellent options that I recommend for your shady hillside in southwestern, Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania Native Groundcovers for Shade

  1. Allegheny Spurge (Pachysandra procumbens, Zones 4-9) is a handsome native groundcover that is low-growing and will spread to 3 feet or more. It has white spring flowers that feed bees, and deer don’t care for it.
  2. Maple-Leaved Alumroot (Heuchera villosa var. atropurpurea, Zones 4-7) forms mounds of textural, burgundy leaves make this hardy perennial a great groundcover for shaded spots. Any Heuchera can be planted in masses to cover a lot of ground. Warning: Do not cover their crowns with mulch.
  3. American Ginger (Asarum canadensis, Zones 3-8) is a pretty, low-growing, slow-spreading groundcover with bright green, heart-shaped leaves. They produce unusual maroon spring flowers that are beetle pollinated.
  4. Evergreen American Wild Ginger (Asarum arifolium, Zones 5-9) is similar to American ginger but its leaves are evergreen beautifully mottled leaves. It is one of my favorite native groundcovers.
  5. Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica, Zones 3-7) forms fine, grassy clumps of foliage that are very attractive. It will tolerate both dry and moist shade.
  6. Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides, Zones 3-9) is an evergreen fern that grows well in dry shade once established and spreads. Plant multiple specimens to cover a lot of ground. It is my favorite groundcover for shade. (Click here to learn more.)

For a truly beautiful groundcover planting, plant many of these different plants in sweeps. Clear the ground before planting them and give them added water as they are becoming established. Working up the soil before planting and amending with Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost will help the plants grow better from the start. The addition of leaf mulch will help keep weeds away.

Happy gardening!

Jessie Keith

Fafard Horticulturist