When it comes to problem spots in the garden, few are more vexing than really dense shade. It might be the space under a maple tree, where roots are close to the surface; or it could be along a deck or porch, or in narrow spaces between buildings, all in constant shadow. The north sides of buildings can be downright gloomy, too.

Tiarella cordifolia

The short flower spikes on Tiarella cordifolia create a “foamy” look in the woodland landscape.

Photo Credit: © 2007 Pennystone Gardens

Bishops Cap

Bishop’s cap is a spring charmer and easy to grow from seed.

Photo Credit: © 2007 Pennystone Gardens

Asarum Canadense

Wild ginger forms a dense groundcover in shady problem areas.

Photo Credit: © 2007 Pennystone Gardens

Pachysandra procumbens

Growing in tidy clumps, Allegheny spurge is an attractive solution to difficult shady sites.

Photo Credit: © 2007 Pennystone Gardens

But before you rush out to embrace English ivy or Japanese pachysandra (and really turn a monster loose), give one of the following great native groundcovers a try. In my wooded garden, there’s no shortage of serious shade and tough habitats – and no time to coddle fussy plants. That’s why I reach for the shade-loving quartet of Tiarella cordifolia (foamflower), Mitella diphylla (bishop’s cap), Asarum canadense (wild ginger) and Pachysandra procumbens (Allegheny spurge).

These four natives of the eastern US have adapted to harsh environments like deep shade and imperfect soils. What’s more, they create gorgeous patches of green, treat us to charming flowers and truly take care of themselves.

The best-known of the lot is Tiarella cordifolia, or foamflower. It expands by sending out runners that root and gently form large colonies in dense shade. A native to cool, rich, moist woods, this groundcover adapts easily to all kinds of environments and can handle prolonged dry spells with ease. Each spring, foamflower rewards gardeners with 8-inch spikes of delicate, white (sometimes tinged pale pink) flowers. When planted in mass, these beauties can make for one stunning display!

Similar with its maple-shaped leaves but a bit more docile is Mitella diphylla, or bishop’s cap. This groundcover shrugs off dry spells and indifferent care better than many plants. Like foamflower, it spreads by runners, but bishop’s cap is much slower, preferring instead to form large clumps. Its springtime flowers are tiny, bell-shaped blossoms that whisper charm. When the blossoms fade, the remainder forms a tiny cup bearing three or four tiny seeds. (If you harvest these when ripe and scatter them in ordinary potting soil in a sunny window, you’ll quickly launch many new plants to expand your stock.)

If you need something to fill in a troublesome area faster, try Asarum canadense. Commonly known as wild ginger, this groundcover methodically spreads over a blanket of rhizomes just under the soil surface. Its best feature is its foliage, which can range from a soft light green to a shiny dark green, depending on exactly how much light it gets from where. Wild ginger’s spring flowers are bashful and lurk close to the ground, inviting pollination by beetles and ants.

Use a sharp spade to slice off chunks of your wild ginger colony at any time of the year for new colonies or to speed up coverage in an existing location. The scent released during dividing will remind you of the real ginger used in cooking (hence the plant’s name). On a final note, this groundcover likes soil that’s barely moist, and it signals thirst by beginning to droop. A quick, light watering quickly puts everything right again.

The last of these tough beauties is Pachysandra procumbens, or Allegheny spurge, which stands up to harsh conditions in spite of its traditional preference for moist, cool woodlands. This is the American cousin to the familiar Japanese pachysandra and a good species to declare your independence from invasive plants. (It’s much better behaved, too.) Like wild ginger, Allegheny spurge lets you know when it really needs water. Its blossoms are a bit bashful as well. Curious flowers are found in the center of clumps in spring, but it’s primarily a foliage plant with strikingly mottled leaves. Periodically divide the clumps to grow more of this terrific plant.

All four of these great groundcovers are commonly available wherever native plants are sold. Once you’ve got two or three of these beauties started, repeated division will give you plenty of stock to work with. Just be sure to give them a good start by spreading a thin coat of rich humus on your problem spots and work in some shredded leaves from last fall to bring the soil pH down to between 5.0 and 7.0. Then come fall, put down a light layer of shredded leaves for winter mulch.

With very little love and care, these attractive plants could be just the shade-loving groundcovers you’ve been dreaming of. So consider planting some wild ginger or foamflower in one of your smooth trouble spots for a striking display. Perhaps tuck some bishop’s cap into shady settings of gentle, round river stone, or accentuate the mounding of Allegheny spurge with larger rocks. It’s easy to create one of these lovely, trouble-free displays and transform your problem spots into garden assets!