Ground covers for shade
Trees provide many benefits to the landscape but, as they become larger, growing grass beneath them becomes increasingly difficult. Therefore, a landscape under trees using ground covers other than grass may provide a more naturalistic and permanent setting. If the shaded area is one that you use for walking, develop paved walks, stepping stones, mulch walks or trails between plantings. If you use the shady area as a playground, it may be better to surface it with mulches or other soft materials rather than using an extensive plant ground cover. Most ground covers, although shade tolerant, are not wear tolerant.
Among the best evergreen plants for shade are Vinca minor, Pachysandra, Liriope, wintercreeper euonymus, English ivy, Canby paxistima and Ajuga. If you prefer non-evergreen plants, hosta, sweet woodruff, goutweed (Aegopodium), wild ginger, mock strawberry, violets, lily-of-the-valley, barrenwort (Epime-dium-see photo, above) and ferns are suitable for shade. Several other possibilities exist for accent but often with a lesser ground-cover effect.
When planting ground covers beneath trees, other factors beside shade also may produce problems for growth and development. Many trees produce roots fairly close to the soil surface. This, in addition to the leaf canopy that sheds water during light rains, can greatly reduce water availability to the plants beneath the trees. Therefore, frequent watering often is necessary to ensure quick establishment. Even after establishment, watering usually continues to be necessary, particularly during dry periods. Good soil preparation and the addition of organic matter during plant preparation also will ease stress for the new plants and help them establish faster.
Another condition that may present a problem for ground covers beneath trees is the accumulation of leaves, particularly beneath large trees. You should never totally cover ground covers with leaves. This especially is important for the evergreen types during fall and winter. While a covering of fallen leaves is not harmful during the winter, the covering should be thin enough so green leaves of the ground cover show through them and light is still able to get to them. You should remove soft leaves, such as maples, that hold moisture and tend to mat down during wet weather. Stiffer leaves, such as oaks, if not too thick, have a lesser tendency to suffocate the plants beneath them as they become wet. Leaf removal from ground covers often is more difficult than from a grass lawn, so a lawn vacuum can help reduce the problem. A few leaves can remain in a ground cover to add organic matter. During the spring and early summer, new growth will cover the leaves.
Most ground covers spread gradually to fill an area. The closer the spacing, the more rapidly they will fill in. Generally, for quick cover, you need to plan t most types about 6 inches apart. For more economy and slower filling, you may choose wider spacing. You can use mulches between plants to make the area more attractive while plants at the wider spacings take time to spread. Under large trees such as maples where soil is filled with tree roots, it may be difficult or impossible to improve the top soil and plant the entire area. In such cases, it may be more practical to develop pockets of improved soil where fewer roots exist. This way, you can care for the plants and stimulate them to become established quickly and then spread into the more heavily rooted areas. Vinca, wintercreeper euonymus, ajuga and English ivy may by handled this way. Because roots of trees also will move quickly into the improved areas, watering and occasional fertilization continues to be important for establishment and continued good growth.
In the early stages, some shade-tolerant weeds may provide competition for a new ground cover, so good weed control is important. Mulching between plants will lessen the problem. If weeds do appear, remove them promptly before they slow the development of the desired ground cover.
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