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Maryland and Virginia Native Plant Gardens: Shady Slopes

Swap the ivy and periwinkle for plants with sum and substance!

native chleome glabra
Pink Turtlehead Blooming in Late Fall on a Shady Slope

Homes throughout our neighborhoods across the Chesapeake watershed have flat front lawns with a small slope between the front garden and roadside. Many were long ago planted with durable evergreens that need little maintenance -- think English ivy (Hedera helix), periwinkle (Vinca major), Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis), liriope (Liriope muscari) or grass.

These were planted before we learned about the downsides to ivy, vinca and liriope and the relatively low ecological value of ornamental pachysandra and grass. These small areas can be so much more -- more garden interest, more ecological benefit and more welcoming curb appeal!

The Dappled Shade & Drift Slope

native perennial drifts on a slope
Drifts of Natives

This slope in front of a Washington DC home had long been blanketed with ivy. The gardener who lives here worked with the District of Columbia's River Smart program to replace the ivy with drifts of low maintenance natives to add loads of color and lure pollinators. Two types of ferns, pink turtlehead (Chelone lyonni 'hot lips,') blue wood sedge (Carex flaccosperma), and obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) fill the slope. These perennials all grow well in dappled shade below the nearby mature street trees.

Until these plants fill in completely, mulch is used to keep weeds down. After any ivy removal project, it's wise to be on the lookout for ivy regrowth for the first several years. A carpet of ivy or this dynamic duo of pink flowers and ferns? I'd take flowers and ferns any day!

The Sumac Slope

sumac gro-lo on a steep slope
Sumac 'Gro-Low' on a Steep Shady Slope

A cultivar of native fragrant sumac, sumac 'Gro-Low' (Rhus aromatica 'Gro-Low'), a shorter spreading shrub, is a strong choice for stabilizing or covering a slope. This sumac grows two to three feet tall and up to eight feet wide. It's easy to grow in part shade or full sun and does fine in drier soils. The subtle spring flowers and fall colors add interest too. This shrub is usually available at larger garden centers and some native plant nurseries.

The Woodland Slope

native perennials for a shady slope
Native Woodland on a Shady Slope

This slope fronts the row home of an avid native plant gardener in Washington D.C. The selection of natives, nestled in small groups among several stones, all in the dappled shade of mature street trees, make for an enchanting woodland scene. Dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata) bloom in spring; summer sweet (Clethra alnifolia), just out of the photo, adds flowers and fragrance in summer and yellow color in fall; little blue stem grasses (Schizachrium scoparium) add fall color and winter structure; and Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides) add color year round - this small slope has it all!

Streamlined Slopes

If you want to keep it simple, you could cover your slope in one native of choice. Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica), above left in winter, makes a sturdy year round ground cover. Allegheny pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens), is another lush ground cover that flowers in spring and adds year round color. Both are usually available at native plant nurseries.

Shady slopes offer so many options ... these are just a few. If you have favorites, please share them below. Need tips for removing ivy or periwinkle? In winter, when ground is saturated ,but not frozen, is the easiest time. For more information, check out this post.

Thank you for gardening for the Chesapeake!


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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