What ground cover can I plant (besides grass) #613092 - Ask Extension


What ground cover can I plant (besides grass) #613092

Asked February 11, 2020, 1:50 PM EST

I have a small yard in a block of row homes which is mostly occupied by a large oak tree. The area under the tree and around the roots is mostly bare ground with a few springs of grass and other weeds here and there. I would like to plant something to cover the ground that is more environmentally friendly than grass but won't invade the yard and creep across the whole block. It would have to be something that could thrive in shade but would not need to tolerate foot traffic. I am considering moss, but unsure of what kind/species to get. We have some moss growing in the front yard and I wonder if it would be possible to transplant some and encourage ground cover in the back yard. I would also be interested in something that flowers to attract pollinators. I'm mostly just worried about introducing a non-native species to the area or inviting a fast-growing creeper that will take significant effort to manage. Any advice on what to plant is most appreciated!

Baltimore City County Maryland

Expert Response

Assuming you have a shady (or mostly shaded) site from this large oak, there are a number of native and non-invasive non-native plants alike that would be good candidates. In general, using a diverse array of plants will attract the widest breadth of wildlife, including pollinators. Flowers in a range of colors, forms (tubular versus flat clusters, for instance), and bloom seasons would be a good approach. If you are interested in natives, these three sources are good places to help narrow-down (or broaden) the list of choices:




Conditions to consider other than the shade and root competition from the tree include exposure to deer browsing (this sounds unlikely here), wet soils from poor drainage or excess runoff, and desired plant sizes.

Moss can be a great groundcover in shaded, damp, acidic soils where it can often turn up on its own if it isn't out-competed by faster-growing perennials. Since moss doesn't have true roots, it can easily be lifted from one spot and "transplanted" to another, though spreading from that point may take awhile.

For pollinators, you can garden for both hummingbirds and insects. Some of the showier butterflies won't be as prominent in shaded habitats as sunnier ones, but some will still visit woodland flowers. Some of our native perennials die back after springtime; these spring "ephemerals" can be used among other, late-sprouting perennials to share space and allow for even more diversity.

We can list some perennial candidates here as a starting point, although this is by no means an exhaustive list. You can even consider short flowering shrubs for interest and wildlife shelter in winter. To keep weeds to a minimum, planting these perennials a bit closer to each other than advised can allow them to out-compete weeds, though a mulch or more vigorous groundcover could be used for this purpose instead.
  • Lobelia - all of the species/colors
  • Wood Asters - there are two native species that bloom in woodlands and later in the summer/autumn
  • Blue Mistflower and White Snakeroot - both shade-tolerant cousins to Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium, though some have been renamed)
  • Goldenrod - there are a couple of shade-tolerant species (Solidago caesia and S. odora)
  • Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
  • Phlox - there are two types (Phlox divaricata and P. stolonifera) that are woodland wildflowers and creep without being rampant
  • Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)
  • Eastern Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) - popular with hummingbirds, and flowers around the time they have reached our area in their northward migration
  • Indian-pink (Spigelia marilandica) - not actually a Maryland native, but still a North American native with brilliant  flowers for shade
  • Hellebores (Helleborus species and hybrids) - non-native but some hybrids don't spread readily from seed; perhaps more showy than offering wildlife value
  • Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) - flowers aren't showy, but they are pollinated by ground-dwelling insects and the foliage remains attractive and helps to cover the soil without being aggressive
  • Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) - a harder-to-find, slow creeper with the added benefit of red berries
  • Wood Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) - vibrant flowers with striking white undersides to the leaf that are visible in a breeze
If you want to mix in some decorative grasses for aesthetics, several native and non-native Sedges (Carex) grow well in shady conditions, as does the non-native Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra). Our native River Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) would grow well also but likely be too aggressive and spread via seed.

If you want to avoid aggressive (and sometimes invasive) spreaders, avoid Periwinkle (Vinca minor), Japanese Spurge (Pachysandra terminalis; the native one, P. procumbens, is fine), Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), and Bishop's-weed (Aegopodium).


Loading ...