Pachysandra: Exploding the "Shade-Only" Myth

June 17, 2009


I wonder how many gardeners with sun-kissed gardens have been told by “the experts” that Pachysandra terminalis will only grow in shade? Far too many, I suspect. My 8 beds of pachysandra thrive in full sun, much to the consternation of landscape professionals. Would you like to know my sunny-secret?

The trick, I have found, is to keep root systems cool. Proceed this way in early spring or early autumn:

First, prepare the bed. Loosen the soil by digging the bed to a depth of 8 inches, and then incorporate within it a generous amount of leaf mold, compost, or composted manure.

Next, plant the pachysandra. If you are working with unrooted cuttings, merely poke stems into the ground and lightly firm the soil around them. If you are lucky enough to obtain fully-rooted plants, such as those transferred from an already-established bed, wind the long roots into a tight circle , as pictured above, and then plant. New growth will quickly emerge from the encircled roots. Space stems, rooted or not, 8 inches apart. Water the bed thoroughly.

Mulch. A 3-inch layer of mulch is absolutely necessary, not only to reduce weeds and conserve moisture, but to keep pachysandra’s roots cool. My favorite mulches are salt-hay substitute or finely shredded leaves. A seed-germination-inhibitor, such as Preen, sprinkled both under and on top of the mulch, will further discourage weeds.

Water. Careful attention to watering is vital; keep unrooted cuttings constantly moist until growth is evident. I use an oscillating sprinkler to soak my pachysandra beds twice each week, especially during the high-heat of summer.

A well-prepared bed, deep watering, occasional feeding, and last, but by no means least, a thick layer of mulch — these are the cultural necessities that will keep the roots of pachysandra cool, and thus permit this darling of the shade garden to flourish, quite happily, beneath long hours of direct sunshine.

Questions or comments? Post them below.

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Comments

  1. Justin says:

    Kevin, this is so great to know. I'd like to plant a ground cover at the base of my south-facing garage, but I thought it was too sunny for Pachysandra. Thanks for clearing this up!

  2. Donna says:

    Kevin, thanks for the great article, and the tip about Preen. I'd like to dump a ton of the stuff around my garden! I'm tired of pulling weeds!

  3. Samantha says:

    Yes, you have inspired me to grow pachysandra in full sun. I can use an evergreen ground cover in my gladiolus border.

  4. Samantha, so “glad” that I've inspired you! Stop by again!

  5. Anonymous says:

    So glad I found this info. I have just removed a large shade tree that has been protecting my pachysandra bed (55' x 18') for 30 years. It now receives full sun and I fear it will just burn up in july and august extreen heat we are having. Ann 8/4/10

  6. Ann – Welcome to A Garden for the House. So glad you found this article helpful. Hope to “see” you around here again!

  7. Dan says:

    Thanks Kevin, I planted a pachysandra bed in near full sun last fall because of your column, and it's doing great! I have a question about your Preen recommendation above. I have Preen with Brilliant Blooms Fertilizer, and on the back it warns against applying to pachysandra until it is “well established, as injury may result.” At what point would you call a bed well-established, or should I use a different type of Preen? Thanks!

  8. Dan – glad your pachysandra bed is doing well. When you can no longer see patches of soil between plants, you can consider the bed “well established.”

    I'd eliminate Preen altogether at this point, and focus instead on placing mulch in any bare spots. This will keep the soil cool, and encourage more plants to emerge from spreading roots. Pachysandra will have no difficulty pushing up through 2 inches of shredded leaves or chopped, weed-free straw — my 2 favorite mulches.

    Keep the bed moist, too. Supplemental water will be required until the plants have completely shaded out the soil beneath them. (Hopefully, Nature is handling your watering chores this spring!)

  9. Sally Stolz says:

    We just lost a big shade tree and a huge section of a large bed of very well established pachysandra (15 years – very thick) has whithered and died. The rest of it is alive, but the leaves have become very light-colored. I though about getting a patio unbrella and just sticking it in the ground to give it some shade. We also have had a fungus in a different bed of pachysandra, about 30 feet away from this one, so I'm nervous about over-watering or over-mulching. What do you suggest?

  10. Sally Stolz in Maryland, again says:

    We have another bed of pachysandra in our shady front yard, and it is also very well established and very thick, but when I spread apart the beautiful top leaves, they reveal brown leaves underneath. Is this normal, or do you think it has caught the fungus that the new smaller bed had. (has?) I don't ever remember doing this in the past because I never knew pachysandra could ever get sick until this little bed we planted last year got a fungus. (or came with it. It looked beautiful, but we started noticing the brown spots about two weeks after we planted it.)

  11. Sally Stolz – welcome. So sorry to hear about your pachysandra woes.

    Yes, the shock of sudden sunlight can cause pachysandra to bleach out. But from what you are describing, I wonder if a fungus called Volutella pachysandrae has struck. Can you tell me if the browning of leaves starts out as brown blotches?

  12. Sally Stolz in Maryland, again says:

    There were brown blotches on the new bed that was started last summer. I sprayed it with a fungicide and it seems to have helped. Before I did that I kept picking the spotted leaves off and putting them in the kitchen trash, but it still kept getting worse, so I sprayed it. But the bed that just had the lack-of-shade-shock is about 30 feet from there, and it just got light green, then beige and wilted. But not all of it. More than half of it is still alive, but very light green. There may be a few spots of the fungus in it, too, but nothing compared to what the new bed had. The third bed, which is in the front yard (the other two are in the back) is still in full shade and looks beautiful from the top – perfectly healthy – but when you spread it, there are brown leaves underneath. We are hoping that's normal, and not the fungus.

  13. Sally – The pachysandra in your sun-shocked bed should recover. Deep watering now is essential; accomplish this early in the morning so the foliage has a chance to dry out. Provide a little shade, too, if you can. (Although the pachysandra in my rose garden thrives in full, blazing sun, this is the only life it has known.) More often than not, the yellowing of leaves is the symptom of dry soil, even for pachysandra located in shade.

    As for the plants exhibiting brown leaves beneath green (in your front yard), this is not normal. If the problem isn't fungal, it is probably dryness. Keep in mind that plants in deep shade must compete with the roots of trees for moisture. Consequently, poke your finger two inches into the soil, and if it feels dry — deep watering is in order.

    Finally…if the pachy in your front yard is really thick — consider thinning it out. Air circulation is important for all plants.

    I hope I've been helpful to you in some small way. Do let me know about the condition of the soil in front yard, after the finger test.

  14. Sally Stolz in Maryland, again says:

    Hi, Kevin!
    Yes – you are VERY helpful – THANK YOU!! Well I checked the soil in the patch in the front yard, and it's actually very moist and there is quite a layer of rotted leaves in and around the stalks of the pachysandra. I think the problem is probably the fungus, as there are lots of completely brown and rotted plants and there are leaves with the spots on them, too. ALSO, the sun-shocked patch in the back has leaves with spots, too, so I think its main problem may be the fungus afterall. I sprayed the little new patch that seems to have introduced the fungus to our yard with “Daconil” and it seems to have really helped. I was hesitant to use it because it says it is hazardous to wildlife, and we have lots of birds and bees and squirrels and rabbits. But since they all seem fine, maybe I should also apply it to the patch on the hill (sun-shocked AND fungus ridden) as well as the patch in the front yard (looks great on top, but fungus underneath.) Does this sound like a good course of action? BUT I think you're right, that I should thin out the patches first, as that is probably part of the problem with the fungus. HOW do I thin it? Do I just cut out single stalks and throw them away?

    Also, do you know if it's possible for this same fungus to spread to my vinca minor (Periwinkle). Some of it's leaves have brown spots on them too.

    Again, THANK YOU so much for taking the time to share your wealth of experience and knowledge!!

  15. Sally – I think your Daconil-plan is a good one.

    To thin pachysandra, just cut off stems. (And as you you work, clean out dead leaves from the bed).

    Fortunately, vinca minor is not a host for the pachysandra fungus. It can, however, get its own, special ailments!

  16. sally Stolz in Maryland, again says:

    Thank you so much, Kevin! You have given me good ideas and great peace of mind! Thank you SO MUCH for doing this out of the goodness of your heart! You're wonderful!

  17. Brad says:

    Kevin,

    I gave away some pachysandra that I had struggling under a Serviceberry tree (which itself was suffering from transplant shock) but I'm going to try the pachysandra again after reading this.

    Will regular bark mulch cool the roots, too, or will it be too hard for new growth to push through?

    I really hope it works, because I couldn't find another plant with the color/shape I liked as much, although it was a battle between vinca and chocolate chip ajuga.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  18. Brad – nice to meet you. Best to avoid the chunky bark mulch. Shredded bark is fine. Also good are shredded leaves (my favorite) and chopped straw.

    Stay in touch, okay?

  19. Brad says:

    Kevin,

    Thanks for the reply! However, you've just opened the door to more novice questions: (1) Would you consider the stuff readily available at Home Depot (Scott's NatureScapes) to be shredded or chunky? They call it shredded, but there are definitely some chunks. (2) Where can you get shredded leaves when they're not “in season?” and (3), The once the seedling is planted at soil level, and the mulch is added, isn't that like planting 2 inches too deep? How does it not smother/rot the plant? (4) Do you add more mulch yearly, even when plants cover the area?

    As an experiment, a few weeks ago I relocated some of the pachysandra that had been growing well in the shady spot back into the sun. These plants are a year old and had been doing quite well, so I moved them with a shovel to keep the whole “root ball” intact. Even with a year's worth of rooting, half of the transplants wilted today in the first bit of uncloudy heat we've had since the relocation. The new plants I put in with some added compost, also as a test, look fine so far. Go figure. I think once I figure out the surface mulching thing, it should work out.

  20. Brad – the best time to transplant pachysandra is in fall or early spring. The plants adapt better to sunlight then.

    Not familiar with Scott's NatureScapes; but if the package says shredded, it probably is.

    Not possible to find decayed leaves off season unless you've saved them from your autumn rakings. And you certainly should save them!

    With pachysandra, don't worry about adding too much mulch. They will send their shoots directly through the stuff. And you needn't continue to mulch after the plants have established themselves; their leaves will shade out the soil below, and keep it cool.

  21. Brad says:

    Thanjs, Kevin. I'll give it a whirl!

  22. Brad says:

    er… “Thanks,” that is.

  23. NONA says:

    Don't know how I got to your site-my first time-but reading all the questions about pachysandra-I'll give you a try. I've lived here since 1973 and our very large beds were completely filled in. PREFACE;about 30 years ago I saw a product advertized – a granular item to be broadcast all over the beds you were trying to keep free from invaders. Nothing else as they seem to include now. My Pacy. doesn't need any Nitrogen or anything else. ANOTHER thing to NOTE…WE have landscape gardners who only know how to turn that blasted leaf blower on & off. NO knowlege how to use it. On the patio we have a very large ——-tree that drops it's seeds and a very full “summer lilac” tree – lots of seeds. the “seedlings” in my Pacy. are taller than the Pacy,. O.K… How can we get rid of the trees that have already been growing there for ???????? how many years AND where can I get some more of this de-germination product??????? I have spent days on the web in the commercial products trying to translate those formulas. A PERFECT PRODUCT (ESPECIALLY FOR THOSE WHO ARE WILLING TO ADMIT TO THE 80s). Hahaha!! ever used those nifty little red hand-held broadcasters???? Who needs hightech? I have several net shopping baskets with all kinds of tools to try to get those “trees” out of the Pach. When I saw this new man pointing his jet propelled leaf blower at my Pach. and the leaves blasting into my plants. who knew??? My almost 81yrs. husband, who knows even less than the leaf blowers, tried (at my instruction,of course, 100% right) soaking a sponge paint brush with –oops, a senior moment..you know what I mean..Kills all green thru to the roots. I'd better sign off – my brain's starting to scramble. I'm so sure you'll have all the answers I need…so thanks in advance!!

  24. Nona – Please forgive me for the delayed response. I usually respond to questions within 24 hours — but a trip to the west coast, jet lag, etc., and I fell behind!

    Anyway, as for all those tree-seedlings growing in your pachy bed, you'll need to remove them by hand. Not necessarily your own hand — perhaps you can hire the job out to some industrious teenager (I'll admit such teenagers are rare these days).

    Next, apply a granular weed-inhibitor such as “Preen.” Supposedly Preen should not be used in a pachysandra bed, but I've had success with it in the past. Do not scatter it all over the plants; just at ground level.

  25. brenda cole says:

    Pachysandra has been an absolute godsend to me. I live on a heavily wooded lot. Between the deer and the heavy shade I have trouble growing many things, including grass. I now have HUGE pachysanda beds all over my yard.

    It’s my favorite plant because:
    1). you don’t have to cut it
    2). you don’t have to fertilize it or baby it in anyway whatsoever
    3). it’s evergreen
    4). the deer don’t eat it
    5). it’s “free” (ridiculously easy to propagate just by janking some up and sticking it in the ground somewhere else).
    6). you don’t have to weed it (once established it’s too dense for weeds)
    7). it’s not picky at all about soil (there is some growing up through my asphalt driveway right now)
    8). it spreads FAST (you can have a well established bed with in a year or two)

    I don’t know of one other plant that does all that for you.

    I also have some in a bed that gets about 8 hours of direct sun per day, and it is just as lush as the beds in full shade.

    Love this plant.

  26. Please help me today I have a large hilside of pachysandra the part in the shade is green but has some of those morining glory vines. What do I do with them????? The part in the sun is brown. Would you water it first and then if that did not work use the proper chemical?
    I do not want to rip it out and start all over again the plants have been in there for 18 years with barely any problem. Thank You sooooo much. Mary Jane

  27. Maary Jane Pantzis – The morning glory vine is probably something called “bindweed.” Try to trace the vine back to its roots, and then pull it up. If this is impossible, then just cut the vine down to the ground.. Keep cutting the vine every time it tries to grow, and eventually its roots will give up.

    As for the brown pachysandra, you might find the solution in comments 9-16 above. Let me know if these are helpful to you.

  28. Dick Schneider says:

    Kevin:

    “Occasionally” is spelled with two Cs and one S.

  29. Dick Schneider – Fixed. And thank you.

  30. Trudi Dido says:

    When we lived in Larchmont , I had pachysandra everywhere(although mostly shade ) and it became one of my favorite plants. for all the reasons Brenda Cole states…. plus the best …it smells like honey when it blooms ! The only drawback seemed to be the mosquitos loved it as much as I did and you could not walk “back there” in August without getting eaten alive.
    It does not do as well in my hot Georgia yard .

  31. fran gerding says:

    We have pacysandra in the front of our house that is in full sun and the leaves are yellow.
    How can I correct this? Last year I fertilize it and this helped. Now it is yellow again.

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