Shady lawn - I'm done with grass and need ground cover recommendations.
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Thread: Shady lawn - I'm done with grass and need ground cover recommendations.

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    Shady lawn - I'm done with grass and need ground cover recommendations.

    If you have had success with a shady area ground cover that is:
    • Non-invasive (e.g., not english ivy or virginia creeper)
    • Allows for easy leaf clean up in the fall/spring
    • Grows thick enough in the shade to not require mulching
    • Can be trimmed easily if needed


    I'd love to hear your suggestions. If you're bored and want more details, read on.

    I have a partially wooded lot - many large oak trees. Because of the way the house was situated, there are more trees in the front yard than in the back. The yard slopes down from the back towards the front. About 15 years ago, we constructed a large retaining along the front of the house which basically destroyed most of the front lawn. In general, the front lawn had been doing well in spite of the shade and I decided to reseed. I rented a rockhound for the bobcat and when I was done, the dirt was fine, smooth and free of rocks to about 2" down. Since it was July, I seeded with annual rye and watered it. Two weeks later it was like a carpet. In the fall I overseeded with a quality seed and everything was going well for a few years. It would go dormant during late July and August but would always come back in Sept/Oct and the next spring. Regular feeding with quality fertilizer was applied fall and spring.

    Over the past five or so years I've had trouble with the grass. It started during particularly dry summer. And, we now have less trees. The oaks suffer from brown oak leaf wilt; about ⅓ have been removed. The grass now seems to go dormant in the summer and in the fall it is mostly gone in the shady areas. The roots are shallow. I've aerated, raked in compost and overseeded every year. It doesn't matter if we water or not The sections that get about 50%+ sun are doing okay but the rest is basically dead and the weeds are thriving.

    For example, last fall, I once again cleaned up the yard, aerated and raked in yards of compost in the bare shady areas. I had a soil test done by a lab and took the results to my local "Master gardner." They recommended an expensive seed for the shady area, some expensive amendments for the soil and expensive starter fertilizer. I seeded and fertilized. I watered daily. The grass came up and promptly died as soon as the leaves came off the trees. I contacted the seed vendor and they said "you can grow grass in the shade even though we advertise our product for dense shade." Okay, the said the first half of that sentence; the latter part is from their website. Of course the garden supply won't refund the money because the product was used.

    But wait, there's more. The snow has melted and the leaves are not out, the grass isn't growing and the weeds are exploding. Those weeds are really benefiting from the improved soil and fertilizer.

    My wife and I have decided to end our frustration and start filling in the yard - especially the shady areas - with ground cover. And I'm going to start replacing the trees that have been removed with white oak so there well trees long after we're gone. So, if there are plants that meet the about criteria that you've had success with, I'd love to hear about them. I've been doing some searching so we have a few ideas and want a wide variety.

    Thanks
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    My parent's house in CT had a similar problem with the front lawn. It was partially shaded by the house and partially by 5 or 6 huge oak trees. Went through pretty much the same things you list and they finally gave up (but it took them 30 years to give up!).

    My mom planted Pachysandra terminalis in place of lawn. It grows about 6'"-8" tall, fills in nicely, non-invasive and is pretty much maintenance free.

    Basically you need 1 plant per sq. ft. of surface area to be covered so you'd need to do the math. They don't spread very much so you can do a patch of them and plant other things in with them.
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    Quote Originally Posted by JimR View Post
    My parent's house in CT had a similar problem with the front lawn. It was partially shaded by the house and partially by 5 or 6 huge oak trees. Went through pretty much the same things you list and they finally gave up (but it took them 30 years to give up!).

    My mom planted Pachysandra terminalis in place of lawn. It grows about 6'"-8" tall, fills in nicely, non-invasive and is pretty much maintenance free.

    Basically you need 1 plant per sq. ft. of surface area to be covered so you'd need to do the math. They don't spread very much so you can do a patch of them and plant other things in with them.
    From the link you sent, I followed the "where is this plant invasive" link. Since the OP is from MD, he may want to look at that, since there are parts of MD where it is considered invasive.
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    Periwinkle aka Vinca minor.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Oscar Leroy View Post
    From the link you sent, I followed the "where is this plant invasive" link. Since the OP is from MD, he may want to look at that, since there are parts of MD where it is considered invasive.
    I live in a very wooded lot and this stuff is GREAT in my opinion. Its green in the summer and pretty much winter. If you give it sun it will flower, if you give it water it will grow, if you keep it in shade it will stay green. Love it.
    Then again... I can't grow grass so its a great cover.
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    Upate - Chemistry matters

    Perhaps somebody will find this update helpful.

    It turns out chemistry really matters.

    I started shopping for shade plants based on recommendations from the local ag extension. It was going to cost literally thousands of dollars so we bought a few hundred dollars worth to get started.

    And, I could not let go of my frustration with the seed company so I decided to email them to see what they would say. I politely responded to the "You can't grow grass in the shade" email and pointed out the contradicting advise on their website. They asked me to have a soil test performed and send them the result. When they got the results, my phone rang. "You're pH is way too low" the gentleman said. He then spent about 30 minutes walking me through the issues and made some recommendations. I stated "I'm not buy one more seed of grass until this is fixed." Unexpectedly, he agreed. He promised to send me a packet of information, including a recommended plan to raise the pH from 5.8-6.2 to the recommended 6.8-7.0. He shared "At a pH level of 6.2, the grass absorbs about 20% of the fertilizer you're putting down. That was a shocker. He basically said "your grass is starving to death so the roots don't grow."

    It turns out there's a lot of factors I didn't know about:
    • Rain washes tanic acid off the oak leaves and lowers the pH.
    • Mulching oak leaves lowers the pH.
    • Leave compost can lower the pH.
    • Some fertilizers will lower the pH.
    • Weeds thrive in low pH soil.


    Well, I live on a wooded lot, there are lots of oaks, I mulch leaves until they get too thick, I've been adding compost to the soil, and I fertilize twice a year. Not surprising the pH is low.

    Since we like some lawn and we can't put ground cover everywhere, we decide to have one more go of it. We started adding material to the soil to raise the pH. It took 3 treatments over the summer to get it to 6.6 - 6.7. By the early fall, I could notice an improvement in the sunny part of the yard. The roots were stronger and some of the grass was thicker. But I had a long ways to go.

    I decided to put them to the test by focusing on the front lawn - lots of shade and on the north slope. I spread topsoil to fill in the eroded places. I raked in compost, fertilized an over seeded. Again, some of the grass started to grow, then it got cold. This spring started off with a lot of bare spots. As it warmed up, they have slowly but surely filled in. Its amazing. The roots are strong, and the grass is getting more lush every day. The weeds were back early on but have been choked out. Here's the best part - the back yard that was treated and fertilized, but not seeded, is filling in nicely. Areas that were eroded are growing grass. It's amazing. It still has a ways to go in a few places.

    Anyways, I'm pretty happy. We're still adding ground cover in a few places - I don't need that much grass.
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    The only thing that grows under our oak forest is Poison Oak.

    I'd settle for anything else.

    This crap is horrible.
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    OP, great update!


    It makes perfect sense and a logical reason to remedy a known problem. I see people on these forums constantly talking about their plans to lime and dethatch their lawns. I always ask the same question why????????? Golf courses do not dethatch (except greens but that is a whole different animal with bent) and lime should only be applied if it is indicated by soil tests. Treating for grubs when it is not indicated and when it is, at the wrong time of year and not when the insect is in the 2nd instar which is when the pesticide will be effective.

    Good job.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Firewood Bandit View Post
    OP, great update!


    It makes perfect sense and a logical reason to remedy a known problem. I see people on these forums constantly talking about their plans to lime and dethatch their lawns. I always ask the same question why????????? Golf courses do not dethatch (except greens but that is a whole different animal with bent) and lime should only be applied if it is indicated by soil tests. Treating for grubs when it is not indicated and when it is, at the wrong time of year and not when the insect is in the 2nd instar which is when the pesticide will be effective.

    Good job.
    Golf courses dethatch all the time. Not sure why anyone would think otherwise. They use vertical mowers and combo dethatcher/aerators. Many golf courses have now moved to "fraze mowing" where the equipment literally takes off the entire top 1/2 of soil (and all teh existing grass and thatch with it!). By only taking 1/2" it leave all the roots and the grass all grows back in about a month.
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    Oscar Leroy's Avatar
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    This describes my neighborhood too, and many of the homeowners have moss instead of grass. Looks nice and green, no mowing. My yard is slowing filling in with moss without me doing anything. Now if it will just crowd out the weeds.

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