Wednesday 1 April 2020

Forest Garden Plants - Ground Cover Plants for Deep Shade

Ground cover plants play an important role in the forest garden, protecting the soil, providing refuge for wildlife at ground layer, preventing unwanted plants from establishing and can provide some food such as berries or leaves. Ground covers are easy to establish and can be very easy to manage. During this post, we'll take a look at some of our favorite ground cover plants with a focus on those that are suitable for deep shade. We'll provide an overview of the plants, how they are used, the wildlife they can attract and how to propagate the plants.

I'm defining deep shade here as those areas of your garden that receive two - three hours of direct sunlight each day. This may be areas on the north sides of buildings and walls (in the northern hemisphere) and under dense tree canopies.

 Bugle -  Ajuga reptans 

Overview: Bugle - Ajuga reptans is a dense, mat forming ground cover, spreading to 0.6m at a medium rate. It is in leaf all year, producing pretty blue-violet flowers from May to July on spikes that rise above the foliage at a height of around 30cm. The foliage can block the light from weeds inhibiting their growth. The plant is hermaphrodite and pollinated by bees and other insects. Easily grown in average, medium moisture and well-drained soils.

Uses: Excellent ground cover for large and shady areas. They spread freely with runners and establish themselves in areas that provide the optimum environmental conditions, ie, fertile well-drained soil in partial to deep shade. Medicinally, Bugle has a long history of use as a wound herb, helpful in stopping bleeding.

Biodiversity: The flowers are highly attractive to bumblebees, some songbirds, and other beneficial insects.

Propagation: Through divisions if the plant becomes too crowded. Also easy to propagate with seeds.

Hosta -  Hosta app.

Overview: Hosta seiboldiana - Siebold's plantain lily - Hosta are herbaceous perennials growing to 0.3 x 1m at a fast rate. Dense, basal leaves that are striking and considered highly attractive, overlap each other and form a rounded and spreading mound of foliage. It is in flower in June - July - bell-shaped blooms growing up shoots, that look lily-like, in pretty shades of purple or white. The plant is hermaphrodite and pollinated mainly by bees. Grows well in evenly moist, well-drained soils.

Uses:  A highly ornamental plant, perfect for shady borders, woodland gardens or shade gardens. Effective in groups or masses. Can be planted as an understory to a shrub layer. The young leaves and leaf stems can be cooked and eaten 

Biodiversity: The pretty flowers open from June to July and are attractive to a wide range of pollinators, including bees. Noted for attracting a wide range of insects. Slugs and snails are attracted to the leaves, but if grown in a shady area near a pond, frogs will appear around the plants attracted by the lure of a snack. Some reports of deer enjoying the foliage.

Propagation:  By division in late summer or early spring. Sow seeds in trays under glass from March to July. After around 2 weeks the seeds will start to germinate and can then be pricked out and grown on. using a half-strength potting compost. Hosta seeds are best sown from March to mid-July.

Spotted Dead Nettle -  Lamium maculatum

Overview: Spotted Dead Nettle - Lamium maculatum is a herbaceous perennial growing to 0.2 -0.9m at a fast rate.  The plant forms a mat of leafy stems with deep green-colored foliage, often with a striking white line forming in the center of each leaf. Flowers are shades of purple and delicate with a long bloom time from April - June, sometimes extending beyond this. The flowers are hermaphrodites and are pollinated by bees. Does well in moist, well-drained soil.

Uses: Shady borders, woodland gardens or shade gardens.  Can be planted as an understory to a shrub layer.  It works well to cover dying bulb foliage and smothers many weeds. Great combined with other plants for textural contrast.

Biodiversity: Nectar-rich pollen that is highly attractive to bees and butterflies.

Propagation: This plant is easy to propagate at any time during the growing season from cuttings of basal stems or by division. It roots where the stems touch the ground and once established these can be cut away from the original plant and moved. It will also self-seed, but bear in mind that the cultivars will not come true from seed, and if volunteers are not removed they may overtake the parents.

Wood Sorrel - Oxalis acetosella

Overview: Wood Sorrel - Oxalis acetosella is a herbaceous perennial growing to 0.1 - 0.3m at a fast rate.  A creeping habit, with long-stalked, trefoil-shaped leaves. The dainty flowers bloom in April - May and are self-pollinating. The flowers do not produce much fertile seed , most of the fertile seed is produced from cleistogamous flowers during the summer The leaves are a light green color and very thin being only a few cells thick. Prefers moist, well-drained soil.

Uses:  Grows well under trees and well in woodland, on hedgerows, banks and in other damp and shady areas. Recognized as a useful plant medicinally. Apparently the juice of the leaves removes iron mold stains from linen!

Biodiversity: Wood Sorrel leaves are tart in flavor and this is due to their oxalic acid content. This protects the plant from predators such as insect grubs and snails. Large amounts are poisonous for humans, but a few Sorrel leaves make a nice addition to the salad bowl. Flowers are attractive to bees and other beneficial insects.

Propagation: Divisions in spring. Larger divisions can be planted out directly into permanent positions. Via seed - best sown as soon as it is ripe in a cold frame. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle and plant them out in their permanent positions in late spring or early summer.

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Lungwort - Pulmonaria saccharata

Overview: Lungwort - Pulmonaria saccharata is a herbaceous perennial of the borage family, growing to 0.3 - 0.6m at a slow rate. The common name of Lungwort was assigned to the plant supposedly because a likeness was made between the mottled leaves and human lungs. The leaves are variegated and hairy to touch and make an attractive display of foliage. The plant is hermaphrodite and pollinated by insects. Flowers bloom in April and May, funnel-shaped and an array of pastel colors of pinks, blues and purples. Spreads very slowly by creeping roots, but is not invasive. A very attractive plant for ground cover. Prefers moist, well-drained soil.

Uses: Excellent ground-cover plants, especially for shady borders. Best grown in groups or massed as a ground cover in shady areas. Also can be an effective edging plant for shady paths. Note that despite its common name, this plant has no known medicinal value in he treatment of pulmonary disease.

Biodiversity: The flowers are known for attracting bees and other pollinators and are nectar rich. Indeed they provide a valuable early source of nectar. Members of this genus are rarely if ever troubled by browsing deer or rabbits.

Propagation: Best through divisions made in spring or autumn, or after flowering in the summer. Larger divisions can be planted straight out into permanent positions, whereas smaller divisions may benefit from being potted up and grown on.

Dewberry - Rubus caesius

Overview: Rubus caesius Dewberry is a prostrate deciduous shrub growing to 0.2 x 1m.  It's a species of flowering plant in the rose family, related to the blackberry and growing in much the same way. Leaves are similar to that of the Blackberry, although they often remain for a long time on the stems and can turn an attractive shade of red.  Bloom time is in March and April when the plants start to grow white flowers.These are hermaphrodite and pollinated by bees and other beneficial insects, eventually giving way to the berries which are a deep purple/blue when ripe. The berries are tasty but a bit fiddly to pick. Succeeds in well drained soil.

Uses Understory ground cover. Fruit may be used in jam and pies, while the leaves may be dried for tea.

Biodiversity: Many garden birds enjoy feasting on the berries if grown in an exposed location.  The leaves are sometimes eaten by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including peach blossom moths. Flowers are attractive to a wide range of pollinators and beneficial insects. 

Propagation:  Seed requires stratification and is best sown in early autumn in a cold frame. Cuttings can be taken of half-ripe wood during the summer. Best through division in early spring or just before leaf fall in the autumn.

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Ground Cover Comfrey - Symphytum grandifolum

Overview: Symphytum grandifolum - Ground Cover Comfrey is a deciduous herbaceous perennial growing to 0.4 x 0.6m at a fast rate.  This rhizomatous perennial is typically grown in borders and shade gardens for its dense attractive and crinkly foliage, and for its spreading nature.  It blooms in April - May, is hermaphrodite and pollinated by bees. Flowers are white and tubular, resembling a bluebell and appearing in clusters. They attract a wide range of interesting insects to the garden. Tolerates most soils and can grow in a moderatly heavy clay soil.

Uses: Shady borders, woodland gardens or shade gardens. There are some named varieties, selected for their ornamental value. Naturalizes in woodland gardens or cottage gardens  where plants can form an attractive ground cover. A dynamic accumulator gathering minerals or nutrients from the soil and storing them in a more bioavailable form - used as fertilizer or to improve mulch.

Biodiversity:  Slugs and snails are attracted to the foliage. An excellent bee plant. Liquid feed can be obtained by soaking the leaves in a small amount of water for a week for an excellent source of potassium to use on other demanding crops.

Propagation: Easy to propagate from root cuttings or division of fleshy roots in spring. Even a small piece of root will result in regrowth.  Can be invasive. May be propagated by seed sown in pots in a cold frame in the autumn or spring.

Periwinkle - Vinca minor

Overview:   Periwinkle - Vinca minor - A herbaceous evergreen perennial growing to 0.2 x 1m. Trailing stems with smooth, attractive evergreen leaves, Periwinkle is one of the most popular and well-known of ground cover plants. Beautiful lavender-blue, phlox-like flowers appear in the leaf axils in early spring and may continue to flower intermittently throughout summer and into autumn. The species is hermaphrodite and is pollinated predominantly by bees. Roots at the nodes as they go along the ground to form an attractive ground cover quickly. Grows well in most soils.

Uses:  Versatile ground cover for shady areas. Good cover for bulbs. Effective on slopes or banks to prevent erosion. Highly valued medicinally. The stems are used in basket making.

Biodiversity: Few predators enjoy the leaves, but the flowers attract a decent amount of interest from insects. The year-round cover provides a good nesting ground and refuge to invertebrates such as spiders and ground beetles 

Propagation: Division recommended in spring just before active growth commences or in the autumn.  Larger divisions can be planted out direct into their permanent positions. Smaller divisions should be potted up. Cuttings of mature wood may also be taken of the current season's growth, 5 - 10 cm long. Generally, they root quickly.

I've hope you have enjoyed the post and please drop a comment below to let us know what are some of your favorite ground plants for deep shade.

Other ground cover plants for deep shade, recommended by readers 

Sweet woodruff  - Galium odoratum
Viola sororia - Common Blue Violet
Allium ursinum - Wild Garlic (Spring Ephemeral) 

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  1. Excellent resource. Thank you.

  2. Looks great! What have u 4 deep shade n dry? Think south tx

  3. I recently stumbled upon this fantastic blog post about forest garden plants and ground cover, and I must say, it's both informative and inspiring. The idea of creating a sustainable and thriving ecosystem within a forest garden is truly fascinating.
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