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Ground cover choices for shade in zones 4-5 come in a mix; some are low-growing, fast-growing, or low-maintenance, and they’re all beautiful. The picks in this post are the best because not only do they thrive in shade, but they are multi-functional plants for you, your ecosystems, and the neighbors’ eyes.
Each description includes more information about where the shade-loving ground cover grows best, and where some are best avoided.
The key to a functioning and thriving garden is understanding a plant’s needs and placing it in a suitable environment.
Shade-tolerant or -loving ground covers can grow under tree canopies, under your shrubs, on the north side of a building or hillside, or wherever shade is cast.
Before planting any of these options check with your local invasive plant council or regional extension office for guidance on plants that may be invasive in your area.
Mushrooms in woodchips are a deliciously edible and shade-loving ground cover.
See: What it Costs to Grow Mushrooms
Hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula)
The hay-scented fern is a fast-growing evergreen perennial in zones 3-8. It can grow in full shade, partial shade, or adapt to full sun (if provided adequate moisture). Any light to heavy soils are suitable as long as its well-drained and kept moist. Poor soil or rocky soil is also tolerated well.
It’s a bright green textural plant that turns to copper in fall.
This is a great option for larger spaces as wildlife turns to hay-scented fern for a habitat when grown in a large area. Deer on the other hand avoid walking through hay-scented ferns.
It can spread to take over a given area quickly as it recovers disturbed or burned areas. Rhizomes endlessly spread to new locations to pop up new plants wherever there is room. It’s a good companion for wildflowers.
A great choice for filling a large area with texture, and bright color, and being done with it!
Mottled Wild Ginger (Asarum shuttleworthii)
This wild ginger is a ginger-tasting low-growing evergreen perennial in zones 5-9. While the flavor isn’t as strong as ginger itself, it makes a good substitute. The leaves also make a good tea substitute.
Wild ginger thrives in full shade or partial shade. Either way, it prefers moist soil and can grow in a wide range of soil types. Light and sand, medium and silty, or heavy and clayey can all work.
The ground cover is suitable for rock gardens and spread rhizomatously. It has a habit of clumping more than spreading. A low-maintenance ground cover with pretty and fragrant foliage.
You’ll usually find this species growing under the shade of deciduous forests in Eastern North America. So leaf litter is likely a wonderful friend and would do love to grow as a cover crop under a shady tree canopy.
Dwarf quince (Chaenomeles x superb)
The dwarf version of quince (Chaenomeles x superb) grows to 3 feet in height and 6 feet wide. It’s a fast-growing deciduous shrub that covers a lot of ground with gnarly wood and gorgeous flower. This will become a hedge that blooms all spring in zones 5-8. The nectar-filled flower attracts plenty of bees.
It grows well in light soils or heavy soils including heavy clay as long as its roots are kept moist and well-drained. It can certainly grow in full shade but will result in fewer or negligible fruit. Partial shade and full sun will yield more fruit but are not required for it to thrive as a ground cover or hedge. Fruit is just a bonus!
Green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum)
‘Green and gold’ is a fast-growing and low-growing herbaceous evergreen perennial in zones 5-9. Plant this in any soil type with good drainage. Dry or moist soil is ideal.
Full shade, partial shade, or no shade are all suitable situations. Dappled shade is ideal. This plant will spread slowly with runners that send up new shoots to cover wider ground. Plenty of wildlife is attracted to this plant as a habitat, even songbirds! Nectar-filled flowers attract bees and butterflies.
Being native to eastern North America makes this a renowned choice for preserving wildlife and essential pollinators. Grow this amongst your forest garden of shrubs, trees, and other perennials as you would typically find this growing naturally within woodlands.
Bigroot Geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum)
This article was originally published on foodforestliving.com. If it is now published on any other site, it was done without permission from the copyright owner.
Bigroot geranium is a fast-growing perennial hardy across zones 4 to 8. They spread into a dense ground cover and easily smother weeds. Flowers bloom from June to august.
This variety can grow in deep shade, partial shade, or full sun. All soil types with good drainage and some amount of organic matter are adequate. When established bigroot geranium is very drought tolerant.
The last thing you want to give this plant is wet soil! It does prefer sun over shade, but is a fast low-maintenance, and clumping ground cover to grow.
Chameleon Plant (Houttuynia cordata)
If you have a shaded area with too much moisture, wet soil, or even a little pool of water where nothing seems to grow, the chameleon plant may be your best choice. This plant requires these conditions under partial shade and it can also grow in full shade. Light or heavy soils are suitable for this fast-growing ground cover.
This perennial is hardy in zones 5-10 and blooms in June. This plant is edible and offers a unique flavor to fresh salads. If you decide to give this plant a taste, try it multiple times throughout the season to find out when it tastes best for you.
This plant can become invasive, especially in ideal boggy conditions. It can also grow in dry soil but is a lot more manageable. This isn’t a bad thing if you want to eat from your landscape, simply pick any unwanted spreading plants up from the roots and cook them for dinner!
This plant is a good companion for ferns and spread rhizomatously without limits. It is not native to North America, no matter where you are, do some further research about your local area in regard to this plant before growing it.
Hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala)
This hydrangea (anomala) is a fast-growing deciduous perennial that climbs up to 40 feet in length in zones 4-8. It grows in full shade, partial shade, and full sun as long as its roots stay moist. Well-drained moist soils of all particle sizes are suitable for growth. It’s a good plant to act as a ground cover in shaded areas.
Its leaves and sap are sweet and edible. The flower color is largely affected by soil acidity and is grown for show.
Hydrangeas are native to Asia but grown all over because it is favorably ornamental. If you’re after a native pollinator garden, consider the green and gold. Or diversify the value of your space with a must-have beauty like this by pairing non-native plants with native ones too!
Creeping Aron’s Beard St. Johnswort (Hypericum calycinum)
This variety of st john’s wort (Hypericum calycinum) is a fast-growing semi-evergreen ground cover shrub for zones 5-10. Its vigorous root systems are great for controlling erosion and covering lots of ground, especially for extreme slopes. It can be very invasive in some areas through root spreading, so check your area using the name in brackets it is okay for you to grow it.
It prefers good drainage and grows in light sandy and nutritionally poor soils and across the board to heavy clay soil. Dry or moist soil is preferred while drought is tolerated. It grows well in full shade, semi-shade, and full sun.
Its yellow flowers attract butterflies and can be used to make yellow dyes or pigments.
Labrador Violet (Viola labradorica)
This horizontally spreading, low-growing, and fast-growing semi-evergreen perennial grows happily in zones 3-8. Violet blooms are from April to May.
Grows well in a variety of soils that are well-drained and moist. Full deep shade, partial shade, or full sun are all suitable for this ground cover. It spreads quickly but takes a season to clump up for weed smothering.
As a dynamic accumulator, it makes for a useful addition to nourishing gardens if it were to get out of hand anywhere. Simply add extra unwanted pop-ups to the compost bin or on the ground to rot and give back nutrients.
Although this spreads quickly and indefinitely by rhizomes, it is native to North America, has attractive foliage, and is great for pollinators. As always, check your location to determine if this plant is a suitable option for you.
This cute plant is native to Northern North America and Greenland.
Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)
Wood sorrel is a fast-growing perennial in zones 3-7. Moisture, humus, and shade are the ideal conditions for this ground cover. Heavy clay and wet soils are not a good environment. Dappled sunlight, partial sun, and full sun are also suitable situations as long as the soil is moist but not waterlogged.
It naturally grows in wooded swamps or moist shaded areas.
The leaves and flowers may be edible in small quantities with refreshing citrus notes. Always do your own research before consuming a plant regarded as “edible.”
Disclaimer: Food Forest Living or its authors take no responsibility for what you consume. It is your responsibility alone to determine what you can or cannot eat.
Chocolate vine (Akebia quinata)
Chocolate vines can sprawl as a ground cover in full shade, partial shade, or no-shade areas. The ideal way to grow this vine, however, is an area it can climb. It’s a fast-growing vine for zones 4-9 with blooms between April to May.
Chocolate vines prefer moist or dry soil and can even tolerate droughts.
You can eat the shoots and fruits or steep the leaves as a tea substitute.
I wanted to throw this on the list because I’ve seen it recommended in other articles. This vine has become invasive in the Eastern United States. Full shade is a great way to control the vigor of this vine, but usually, shade is where it competes best because it does tolerate it better than other species.
So if you’re in an area where chocolate vine poses an ecological threat, consider these alternatives:
- Virginia creeper (pathenocissus quinquefolia) grows in the shade, or sun, and is very beneficial to wildlife.
- Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) prefers full sun but tolerates partial shade
- Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) prefers full sun but tolerates partial shade.
Up Next: 13 Best Ground Covers for Erosion & Slopes (Zone 5)
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