Because grasses and perennials often struggle in shady locations, those areas of the garden and lawn require special attention to prevent them from becoming sparsely vegetated or barren. Shade-tolerant ground covers can solve the problem, while presenting the opportunity to create a showy oasis.
Ferns and Fern-Like Ground Covers
Most ferns do well in shady locations, and in fact, many species need protection from hot afternoon sun. Their preference for low light conditions and their tendency to spread readily makes many fern species excellent choices for ground covers in spots that don't get much sun.
Japanese Painted Fern
Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum') is a relatively low-growing fern, typically reaching a height of between 1 1/2 and 2 feet, that does well in full or partial shade. It doesn't flower, but its silvery foliage stands out in dim light. Painted fern is winter hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 8.
Alpine Water Fern
Alpine water fern (Blechnum penna-marina) is a diminutive fern that spreads well in locations with light or dappled shade. Its fronds, which are red in the spring and transition to a deep green later in the season, typically reach a height of only about 6 inches. Alpine water fern is hardy in USDA zones 7 through 10.
Brass buttons (Leptinella squalida) is not a true fern, but rather a low-growing flowering plant with fern-like leaves. It spreads via underground runners to form a ground-covering, foot-traffic-tolerant mat only about 2 inches high. It grows well in part shade, but it can also grow in full sun. Brass buttons is hardy in USDA zones 4 through 10.
Vines and Trailing Ground Covers
Vines and trailing ground covers tend to stay low to the ground but are able to cover large areas thanks to their far-reaching growth habits.
Periwinkle (Vinca minor) is an evergreen ground cover that hugs the ground, remaining just 4 to 6 inches high, but spreads with a trailing habit. In addition to its glossy leaves, its blue flowers add springtime color to partially shady areas. Periwinkle is hardy in USDA zones 4 through 10.
Asiatic jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum) is another evergreen ground cover, but its variegated foliage may reach a height of up to 1 foot. It is moderately drought tolerant and is able to grow in part sun or part shade. It is hardy in USDA zones 7 through 11.
Flowering Ground Covers
Ground covers that produce attractive flowers bring color and visual interest to shady areas.
Dead nettle (Lamium maculatum) is notable for both its variegated foliage and its dense clusters of flowers, which may be a variety of colors, including white, pink and purple, depending on the cultivar. It reaches a height of about 8 inches and can grow in part sun if it gets enough water. It is hardy in USDA zones 3 through 8.
Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) grows to a height of between 6 and 12 inches. It blooms prolifically with white flowers in the late spring and summer, and its leaves are fragrant. It prefers partial to full shade, and it is hardy in USDA zones 5 through 9.
Dwarf gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides 'Radicans') is another diminutive, spreading plant that produces white flowers and an appealing fragrance. It grows to between 6 and 12 inches high, and although it blooms best when it gets at least part sun, it can tolerate partial shade. It is hardy in USDA zones 8 to 11.