The lone voice of horticultural reason

Groundcovers for Shade

On plant geek duty at busy garden centers I am usually approached by at least one homeowner, always male, who hems and haws and looks both ways before mumbling what is apparently a dark and devilish secret: he can’t get grass to grow in shady areas. Excuse me, didn’t catch that, can you speak up? Yah, I was saying, nice summer we’re having, kids have finally all left the nest, that’s my wife over there picking out pansies for the mailbox, Ican’tgetgrasstogrowinthebackyard.

I swear, some men would rather endorse Viagra in local newspaper ads than admit to premature fescue failure. Once he’s audibly admitted defeat, a kind of first step for lawn addiction, the man will usually open up and start spilling his guts. Typically this rambling confession will include a lengthy retelling of the various strategies he has employed over the past five years. The ones I’ve heard for sure are:

I sprayed the ground with moss-killer, but the grass still won’t take.
I sprayed the ground with moss-killer, rented an aerator, but the grass still won’t take.
I sprayed the ground with moss-killer, rented a lawn slitter, over-seeded the area, but the grass still won’t take.
I said to hell with the moss-killer, sprayed the entire earth with Round-up, rototilled the area, laid fresh sod, fertilized it six times, watered it every twelve minutes, but the sod didn’t take.

All eventually leading to the eternal question, please, for the love of god, what can I do to get grass to grow in shade?

I’m not trying to make light of these encounters, but the look of desperation and overall air of depression emanating from these guys—not to mention the flushed cheeks and hyperventilating—can be spooky.

Once in a while compassion comes seemingly from nowhere, and I proffer mutterings about tree trimming to increase light density, perennial rye grass percentage within specialty seed mixes, or moving to what were very recently cornfields in Champlin. But when they catch me early in the morning before I’ve had my coffee, I tend to look my fellow man in the eye and say, “MAYBE GRASS WON’T GROW THERE!”

Most of the time they blink and think but then you quickly see that it came close but didn’t compute, the concept of a man growing something other than a grass lawn not so much dismissed as barred. They turn on their heals and are resumed lost, though happier, sometimes snorting. “Well that was a waste,” they say with their walk, “Mr. Fancy Pants Master Gardener, what does he know, he couldn’t grow algae in a pond, I’ll show him.”

Sometimes, however, a light goes on, the eyes open wide, the lips purse, that’s it, gently, the head tilts, that’s it, easy, he’s seeing through to the other side, come on baby, stay with me, slower, easy, YES! The mind focuses, the eyes narrow, and I am asked the breakthrough question, well, if grass won’t grow there, what will?

These will:

Six Favorite Northern Groundcovers for Shade

All of the following require good woodland soil, that is, soil that has been amended with peat moss, compost, composted manure, all three, etc. Best preparation is to rototill soil to as deep as the tiller goes, then add a two- to four-inch layer of the organic material, and rototill again. Water groundcovers in well, and keep soil moist but not soaked during the first month, until plants are established. Fertilize? Nah.

Lamium (LAY-me-um) (spotted dead nettle) — Essential groundcover, a huge favorite of mine. Member of the mint family, akin to a horizontal catmint. Creates a low, billowy cloud of multi-colored leaves (primarily pale green and silver) with lovely, bell-shaped flowers. Blooms heavy in spring, then comfortably throughout summer. Spreads above ground, quickly. ‘Beacon Silver,’ ‘White Nancy’ and ‘Pink Pewter’ are three trustworthy varieties. Excellent for underneath trees, alongside fences. Prefers partial to full shade. Will tolerate drier areas once established (second year). Reliably hardy to Zone 4, I’ve seen it plenty often in Zone 3, where it should be covered for winter. ‘White Nancy’ is probably the best Zone 3 performer. Plant on 8″ to 1′ grid.
Houttuynia (Ho-TIN-ee-uh) — Dark green leaves, except for that light green part over there, and the yellow there, all edged with metallic red turning purple in the fall … yowzer. The Creator had a real good time designing this one. Most books list it as Zone 5, but remember, plants don’t read the books, it’s hardy as nails to Zone 4, and Zone 3 gardeners should try some and report back. ‘Cameleon’ is a common variety and reaches 1′ in my garden. Spreads by underground stems, invasive, spreads quickly, keep it away from places you don’t want it to be in two years. Flowers white, early summer, insignificant. Partial to full shade. Tolerates dry areas once established. Plant on 8″ to 1′ grid.
Ajuga (uh-JEW-guh) (bugleweed) — Another one I consider essential, the leaf form is like nothing else, leaf colors are in the reddish to bronze range though there’s a new pale green variagated and a grayish/pewter variety also fairly new to the scene. Wonderful for hills and for controlling soil erosion. Very low-growing, good edger, mats up and packs together quickly, likes thorough division every three years resulting in triple the number of plants. Very hardy to Zone 3. Spreads above ground by stringers that root and make new plants. Very attractive, 6″-8″ spikes of rich blue flowers in the spring. Partial shade. Not good to let it dry out for any extended period. Plant on 8″ grid.
Sagina (suh-JEAN-uh) (Corsican Pearlwort, Irish Moss) — Forms a very low, spongy, light green mat resembling moss (it isn’t, really) that will tolerate foot traffic. Great for growing along paths and between stepping stones. Blooms thick with tiny white flowers in summer. Creeps along fairly quickly in soil kept evenly moist. Will tolerate drier conditions once established. Prefers partial shade; will disappoint in full shade. Zone 4. For Zone 3 residents, try the other “Irish Moss,” Arenaria verna, hardy to said Zone.
Thalictrum (thuh-LICK-trum) (Japanese meadow rue) — I credit Jean Heger of Ambergate Gardens for pointing this one out to me. Very low, tiny mat of tiny, circular green leaves, often listed as a full sun plant that does just fine in partial shade. Astonishing presentation of highly visible, spiked, purple/pink flowers sticking straight up on 4″ stems, through a long portion of the summer. You need this in an up-close, small area. Spreads rapidly. Zone 4. Pricey little punk, but worth it.
Cornus canadensis (bunchberry) — This little woodland native (relative of the dogwood) always reminds me of the many wonderful springs I have been fortunate to spend in Ontario. Hardy to Zone 2, bunchberry is great under trees and in the woodland glade. Grows 2″-6″ high, spreads quickly once established. Very soft white flowers in the spring, red, edible berries in the fall. Plant on 1′ grid.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener