Groundcover – My Go-To Lawn Alternative

By Mary Ellen Ellis | June 3, 2022
by Mary Ellen Ellis
June 3, 2022

I have always preferred a more natural setting to a perfectly manicured lawn, but living in the suburbs with HOA rules, a lawn is a must. This doesn’t mean my entire property has to be grass, though. My favorite alternative to grass is shade-loving groundcovers. 

Where the Groundcover Grows

My lawn is far from perfect. It’s patchy and about half weeds and moss and half actual grass. If it were up to me, I would tear it all out and turn it into a real garden. Unfortunately, I can’t do that where I live now, but I can turn certain areas into garden beds and groundcover havens. 

I have taken a couple of areas of the yard where the grass doesn’t grow well anyway and put in alternatives. These areas are largely shady, and without tolerant plants, they remain mostly dirt and moss with a few scraggly clumps of grass. Shade-tolerant groundcovers have proven to be the ideal plants for these spots. 

My Favorite Shade-Friendly Groundcovers

Efforts to grow plants where grass doesn’t thrive have been hit and miss over the years. In a previous home, I tried to grow lily of the valley, one of my favorite flowers, under a tree. My childhood home had a big patch of lily of the valley that I wanted to replicate. 

I still don’t know what I did wrong””perhaps the soil wasn’t right or the shade was just too deep””but it never took. They didn’t fill in the space and the plants produced very few blooms. 

Despite that failure, I have had a lot of success with other groundcovers when replacing grass in shady areas. These are a few of the plants I have found to grow best in these spots with the least maintenance: 

  • Ferns. Ferns are some of the most shade-loving plants around. You can find low-growing varieties to make a spectacular carpet of fringed foliage. I have a corner full of taller ostrich ferns. After planting about five ferns several years ago, I left them alone and now have over 20 plants. 
  • Hosta. Hostas also do very well in shade. I have some large varieties in beds, but for a shady, grassy spot, I love the short types that fill in the space and act as groundcover. Try ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ for an adorably compact blue variety or ‘Kiwi Golden Thimble’ for striking chartreuse leaves. I also like ‘Lemon Lime,’ ‘Baby Bunting,’ and ‘Little Treasure.’
  • Mayapple. Also known as American mandrake, mayapple is a native woodland flower here in Michigan and one of my favorite wildflowers. The flower isn’t that spectacular, but mayapple makes a striking groundcover. The leaves are like little umbrellas””I’ve actually seen chipmunks sheltering under them in the rain””and they spread out and happily fill shady, wooded areas. The flowers, while not showy, are fun to find as they bloom under the umbrella of leaves in May. 

These aren’t all native species, but they are also not invasive, so I feel good about growing them in my shady, non-lawn areas. They have filled a void in my garden where grass refused to grow, and make the garden a more cheerful place.

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