Plant Study: Evergreen Groundcovers for Shade

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Evergreen Groundcovers for Shade

In my side yard which is mostly shade, I have tried a variety of perennials that thrive in a woodland setting.

I have found that some can make effective evergreen groundcovers.  

Among my favorites, is the sedge Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold.’

This clump forming perennial is reliably evergreen in Zone 7, but further north the foliage may die back in winter. The grass-like leaves have a cream to white stripe with green edges and it forms clumps, up to 10” tall and 20” across. I plant it under my hydrangeas and a Japanese maple. In the winter it contrasts nicely with the marbled leaves of Arum italicum, also known as Italian Arum. The arum foliage appears in fall and persists through the winter. I have also seen Carex ‘Evergold’  combined with dwarf mondo, Ophiopogon japonicus ‘Nanus,’ hardy to Zone 6. 

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Slow growing, dwarf mondo only reaches 4 to 6 inches tall and forms tidy clumps. Use it to edge beds, between stepping stones or in place of small patches of lawn. The Big Grip Transplantor  is ideal for tucking in dwarf mondo plugs into tight areas. If you divide mature clumps (every 2 to 3 years) make sure each section has roots and top growth.  

While Japanese pachysandra, Pachysandra terminalis, is a popular choice in many regions for an evergreen groundcover, growing 6 to 12 inches tall and offering shiny green foliage, I prefer the native pachysandra, Pachysandra procumbens.  

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Also known as Allegheny spurge, this elegant beauty is hardy from Zone 4 to 9 and is at home in part to full shade. In Zone 7 or warmer, the matte blue-green foliage, often mottled with white, is mostly evergreen.  It makes a lovely carpet for spring wildflowers and also pairs nicely with the native evergreen Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides.

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Christmas fern will grow happily in dry shade. Both Christmas fern and Allegheny spurge make effective cover for slopes or banks.   

Another group of plants that make choice groundcovers are the hardy gingers belonging to the genus Asarum. The native, Asarum shuttleworthii offers glossy heart shaped mottled leaves that persist through the winter. Asarum splendens, Chinese wild ginger has narrow heart shaped leaves that are mottled with silver.  For a contrast, combine it with Acorus ‘Ogon,’ which has chartreuse grass-like foliage and tolerates moist or dry soils.  

In dry shade, especially where there is root competition, Epimediums make choice groundcovers. There are many to choose from but a reliable choice is Epimedium pinnatum colchicum ‘Sulphureum’ which boasts green leaves in spring and summer, then taking on shades of maroon and red in late autumn and winter. Many hold on to their foliage through the winter. If the leaves look tattered in early spring, cut them back and a new set will quickly replace the old ones.  The tiny spurred flowers are a bonus, appearing in spring on wiry stems.

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*A note of caution from the author

When we moved into our current home, about seven years ago, before I could start my garden I had to deal with an overgrown front yard that was consumed by English Ivy. I hired two strong guys to dig it all out and even today I still have to pull out errant pieces that occur here and there. While English Ivy can be an effective groundcover- I do not recommend it. There are so many woods and areas in my part of the country where it is an invasive and destructive pest, crowding out all other plants and growing up the trunks of trees.