Thursday, June 20, 2024

Gardening with Dr. Joe White: Choose Ground Cover Plants For Shady Places

by BPT Staff
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If you have lived on a well-landscaped property for several years, you likely have seen the young trees that you planted become quite large. These trees by now probably have developed a rather dense canopy which prevents very much sun light from reaching the ground. In the earlier stages of your landscape development there was little or no difficulty in growing and enjoying both warm and cool season flowers along with a variety of shrubs with their own special color in their normal season. But now, you struggle to grow these same plants so your display of color has become very limited as many of our flowering plants require a lot of sun. Others would be pleased just to be able to grow a decent turf grass beneath their mature trees, but typically have very little luck in accomplishing this goal.

Dr. Joe W. White is a retired horticulturist with the LSU AgCenter.

These problems arise due to low levels of light plus very heavy root competition from the trees. There are a couple of solutions for these problems. The first is to sacrifice some of the trees, but most home owners are somewhat reluctant to do that. And the other solution is only temporary at best. This is where the canopies are thinned. Unfortunately, in a matter of only about three or four years the trees will fill back the empty spaces.

So, it appears that using ground cover plants in heavily shaded areas of a landscape may be the best option. Fortunately, there is a category of plants generally referred to as “ground cover plants”. But even here you have to pick and choose carefully as some tolerate more shade than others and certain ones are not suited to shade at all. So, don’t expect iris, day lilies, drift roses or spreading junipers to fare well under shady conditions. However, there are some plants that adapt well to relatively dense shade. These would include aspidistra, monkey grass (mondo) grass, liriope, English ivy,Asian Jasmine, ajuga, hosta (plantain lilies), strawberry geraniums and a variety of ferns. By simply increasing the light intensity a bit more, even a few other plants may be added to this list.

The care of ground cover plants growing in the shade of trees isn’t much different from similar plants growing elsewhere. They need to be fertilized annually (usually in late winter), they need to be watered often enough to keep the soil reasonably moist and they need to be protected from damaging insects and diseases although most are generally free of pests. Since heavy shade is mostly a non-friendly environment for most weeds, there is usually little hand weeding necessary.

 Since many of our ground cover plants are vines, they are best planted on the site with wide spacing between. Ground cover plants that have a bunch type growth need to be planted closely so that when they reach their maximum spread, they will completely cover the ground. With an absence of flowers on so many of these plants, choose those with appealing texture. 

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