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 favourite 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 spp. – 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 massed. Can be planted as an understory to a shrub layer.

Biodiversity: The pretty flowers open in 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 deers 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 hermaphrodite 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 colour 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.



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 the 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 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.



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 the 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 forming 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.

Propagation: Division is 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.


Paul Alfrey

Hi I'm Paul, Originally from the UK I moved over to Bulgaria with my family 12 years ago and set up the Balkan Ecology Project. Prior to that, I worked as a freelance Arborist in the UK for 15 years. Balkan Ecology Project is a family project run by myself, Sophie and our two boys Dylan and Archie, and supported by the amazing volunteers we have hosted here over the years. We aim to develop and promote practices that provide nutritious affordable food while enhancing biodiversity and work to achieve this by: - Researching, designing and implementing systems on the ground - Providing working examples of our designs at our sites open for the public to visit - Providing quality education and training to aspiring growers and landscapers - Providing consultancy and design for landowners and farmers across Europe - Practicing an open source policy, whereby we disseminate our results freely and share all aspects of our work - Growing, selling and promoting the use of plants and plant communities that have high ecological and nutritional value Our activities currently include: Biological Plant Nursery, Educational Courses, Local Land Stewardship, Polyculture Research, Market Gardening​, and Consultancy and Design.


  1. Hosta Shoots are edible before they open their leaves! Very tasty too. And I think the Giant Solomon Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) should be mentioned here too. While not exactly a “ground” cover it covers an area of deep shade rapidly at about 75 cm heights. Also here the shoots before they unroll the leaves are edible and delicious (depending on soil it seems) but the rest of the plant is poisonous! Also this is extremely drought tolerant here at my place has even multiplied in the extreme drought years and is one of the few forest floor plants that can withstand drought and deep shade. There are dwarf varieties that only grow 25cm or so tall available to make more traditional ground cover.

    1. Thanks so much for these additions. I gotta get me some giant solamons seal! We have a very old patch, about a quarter acre , of deciduous fruit trees and feijoas, planted by me 30 years ago. A plant related to angelica, Alexanders , has taken over the entire herb layer. Medieval people use to cook it as a vege, I tried it and was not too impressed. Cows and chooks avoid it so to me it is wasted space, and if all my permacultures since planted end up swalped in this stuff, which is quite invasive, I would have been better off leaving it as a grass paddock feeding cows , sheep and chhoks, because they provide us staple nutritius foods. So the issue of what can be grown under trees, that will indirectly or dierctly feed us is vital to figure out . I ve never heard of the ground cover comfrey. Know ordainary comfrey is superb fodder for ducks (who lay eggs) so if this ground cover one does the same it will be great .

  2. Oh I think one plant that is extremely useful and will grow in tree shade is garlic. Goes by the name of Russian, and elephant, it is a wild type that doesnt mind whether it grows in sun or shade , as it grows in the cooler months . Raspberries were tried but did not thrive as yet. Very dry years and ground full of thirsty tree roots so really , in a mediterranean climate only winter active plants or drought and shade tolerant summer growers are going to do any good I feel . Hooray for giant Solomans seal.

  3. I live in Northern California, San Francisco Bay Area, and we have very dry Summers, and mostly only rain in the Winter. I would love to hear about healthy ground covers that do well in DRY SHADE, as it is unsustainable to have to irrigate all of my garden. I am growing lots of edibles, and some favorite flowers who need Summer water. But it would be wonderful to have pretty green ground cover (flowers an added bonus!) that grows happily in the dry shade around my camellias and pittosporums and hardy rose that do fine with no or hardly any summer water. But can handle the winter rains. Our soil has a lot of clay, as we are across the street from a very ancient creek that did flood every hundred years or so. Thanks much for your articles!
    P.S. My Vinca Minor loves the sun, and is trying to take over in my now sunny front yard edible garden, where I had planted it decades ago under a large shade tree that is now gone. We tried to remove it, but not possible as it will regrow from any roots left – and it is!

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