Before we begin to explore the alternatives to turfgrass let me give you a little history on how the lawns we know today got started. Prior to World War II there were virtually no lawns as we know them today. Urban homes were built on very small lots very close together with really no space to plant a lawn. Folks living in rural areas used pasture grasses such as clovers and ryes for their so-called lawns.
In 1945 the troops that fought in the war began to return home. These former military men would need someplace to live. In Nassau County New York on Long Island Levitt & Sons builders had a new concept for housing on their drawing boards. Returning to the firm after the war's end, Bill Levitt persuaded his father and brother to embrace the utilitarian systems of construction he had learned in the military, and with his architect-brother Alfred, designed a small house on one floor and an unfinished "expansion attic" that could be rapidly constructed and as rapidly sold to returning GIs and their young families. Levitt & Sons built the community with an eye towards speed, efficiency, and cost-effective construction. These homes were built on lots that had sufficient space for a lawn - both a front and back yard.
As the former GI’s moved in and began to “customize” their houses, lawns were planted as well as shade trees. Levittown was the beginning of the subdivisions as we know them today.
Several companies began to perfect and market grass seed tailored to these suburban lots. These seed mixtures were designed for full sun as the majority of the subdivisions were built in areas with no trees. Over the years as the trees matured, the lawns were deprived of the amount of sun sunlight they received each day. As the shade increased the quality of the turf declined. Some shade-tolerant seeds were developed mainly in the fescue family but even these need some sunlight to maintain vigorous healthy growth.
If a lawn doesn't receive at least 4 to 5 hours of sunlight daily it will slowly deteriorate. In this sitution it's time to find a suitable alternative to grass. Although there are many types of groundcovers I will concentrate on only those suited for shady areas.
Groundcover plants provide dense soil cover, retard weed growth, and prevent soil erosion. Groundcovers range in height from an inch to four feet. They can be woody or herbaceous; clumping or running; evergreen or deciduous. There is a broad array of colors and textures to choose from.
The selection of the proper ground cover is essential if the demands of the situation are to be met and a pleasing picture is to result. Some plants are more suited to some locations and situations than other plants. For example, fine textured plants are more suited to small areas than coarse textured plants. Also, some plants require full sunlight—others prefer shade. Rich loamy soils are required for the cultivation of most ground covers but a few grow best in sandy, dry soils.
Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is a plant that flourishes in dense shade. Plant it below trees and shrubs where its tiny white spring flowers will bloom about the same time as crabapples. Reaching 6 to 12 inches tall, sweet woodruff behaves nicely, forming well-behaved clumps of herbaceous green foliage on upright stems. Zones 4 to 8.
Variegated Bishop's Weed (Aegopodium podagraria 'Variegatum') is a plant with a fast, aggressive spread, in fact it can become invasive if not contained. Choose this variegated variety, considered slightly slower-growing, to add brightness to the shade. Bishop's weed reaches about a foot tall and drops its leaves in winter. Zones 4 to 9.
Lamium maculatum comes in many varieties, many of which have lovely silver-marked foliage to brighten a shady area. This groundcover plant reaches 6 to 8 inches tall but spreads twice as wide. Place lamium where you won't be smashing it underfoot. Zones 3 to 8.
Pachysandra is a shrubby, evergreen ground cover that grows 8 to 12 inches high and spreads by rhizomes to form a dense carpet of rich, dark green foliage. Japanese spurge (P. terminalis) is the most commonly available, but search around for its American counterpart, Pachysandra procumbens for a slightly slower-growing and lovely alternative. Zone 5 to 8.
Periwinkle (Vinca minor and V. major) has glossy leaves, blue flowers, quick coverage, making it an ideal coverage for shade. Its only flaw is that it's so popular it's become underappreciated. Zones 4 to 9.
There you have it: five excellent groundcovers that grow well in full shade. Don’t fight the battle of trying to grow a lawn in a shady area. Instead, grow a groundcover!