Tame my hellscape
September 19, 2017 2:34 PM   Subscribe

I have a large (1 acre), steep (30% grade) south-facing back yard, with several very large trees in Zone 6b. Right now it is running amok with weeds and vines because it is just so uncomfortable to be out there. What can I plant that will stop erosion, suppress weeds, and look lovely year-round?

In a perfect world, I carpet the whole thing with bluebells. Unfortunately I have exactly the wrong soil (acidic, clay) for them. If you know of something that will give that sort of dreamy effect, I'd love to hear it! And if not, I welcome any evergreen ground cover that will thrive in my situation and to require nothing from me beyond the initial planting. The hill is so steep that it is difficult to stand on, let alone garden intensively. I am willing to suck it up to put something permanent, beautiful and care-free there, but would otherwise like to never think about it again.
posted by apparently to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Daylilies might fit most of the bill for you, for a massed flowers effect and decent weed-competition and self-spreading. After you rent some goats to clear all the existing foliage. It's not interesting in the winter, tho. That's going to be trickier.
posted by janell at 2:46 PM on September 19 [1 favorite]

A decorative tree, or several. I have a cherry tree that is lovely in bloom. Birds keep stealing the fruit, so next year I'll use netting, but if you don't care about the fruit, no prob. If I had an acre, I'd have 4 - 6 fruit trees. The slope makes harvesting easier. Daylilies are zero maintenance and okay at erosion control, great at filling in and not allowing weeds. I see lupines on hillsides in Maine, gorgeous. And maybe some varieties of mint, like bee balm, lemon balm, orange mint, which butterflies and bees like.
posted by theora55 at 3:17 PM on September 19 [1 favorite]

Or lavender
posted by theora55 at 3:18 PM on September 19

posted by humboldt32 at 3:18 PM on September 19 [1 favorite]

Potentilla, tickweed, and native grasses would be my pick.
posted by snickerdoodle at 3:23 PM on September 19 [1 favorite]

A mix of native shrubs and plants would probably be best, long-term. The first thing I thought of was azaleas or other rhododendrons, which you could put in the part-shade of the trees and can become massive if they like where they are (acidic hillsides seem to be great).
posted by zennie at 3:39 PM on September 19 [3 favorites]

posted by yet.another.boston.question at 4:27 PM on September 19

One acre is really worth planting with plants that are native to your area for their wildlife value. If your state has a wild plant society you could email them. Master Gardeners or other university related groups might be another source of suggestions. You probably have a variety of conditions, sunny spots, shade and possibly very dry spots if the trees have dense foliage, each suitable for different plants. Be careful about using introduced ground covers as they can become invasive. And could you create a trail with switchbacks so there is easier and more inviting access?
posted by Botanizer at 4:31 PM on September 19 [12 favorites]

Daylilies tend to be invasive. Lavender requires full sun; it will not work under a tree canopy. Pachysandra is extremely invasive. Ground covers that out-compete weeds without assistance usually do so because they are aggressively invasive; most plants promoted as ground covers in garden centers fall into this regrettable category.

Azaleas will probably be happy, and rhododendron or mountain laurel may be happy. Both like acidic soils and part shade. If the area is not too dry, native ferns can form beautiful carpets in shady areas.

Please try to stick with native plants where you can; posterity will thank you for it.
posted by musicinmybrain at 4:40 PM on September 19 [6 favorites]

Japanese pachysandra is super-invasive. Native North American pachysandra is not.

Daylilies will not cut it for you, because they require full sun to look good and typically have a foilage die-off after flowering. Lavender not only requires full sun, but requires very, very good drainage (which you don't have if you have clay soil), prefers basic soil, and most types have a spotty track record for surviving the winter even in my parents 7b/8a garden. Lupines can be really, really tricky to grow in 6b unless you nail the soil conditions, which it sounds like you may not.

Bluebells, for the record, would not cut it for you, even if your soil conditions were different. They're ephemerals and basically disappear once the spring is over.

What would work for you? Pretty much everything on this list. Like others are suggesting, put in some tough trees and shrubs, like mountain laurel or azalea or rhodies as the backbone, and tough native grasses (which is particularly important because a shitload of non-native grasses are invasive as hell), and then plant the area closer to the house with smaller, pretty plants that suit your taste. Given your love of blue-purple flowers, Virginia spiderwort and germanium maculatum might be appealing in semi-shady areas. Mix in some native ferns for texture appeal (because they look dainty, but ostrich ferns and marginal ferns are TOUGH AS NAILS and can outcompete a lot of weeds in 6b soil like yours if you clear a little space for them to get established) and native Solomon's seal and some of the exciting varieties of native tiarella now on the market.

In sunnier spots, put deep rooted super-tough native blackeyed susans and other coneflowers, where they will stop erosion in its tracks, provide a jillion weeks of flowers, require zero maintenance though they will be vulnerable to thrips in late summer and Japanese beetles may eat the petals, but who cares if you aren't up close and personal, especially because seed eating birds will love the seedheads in the fall-- and you've earned yourself native planting credit and year round interest to put in some non-native but beautifully blue Siberian squill at the front of your beds. Squill blooms only briefly in the spring and then disappears, but is one of my favorite bulbs around, and has a deep, piercing blue that may remind you of bluebells Also, non-native, but epidemiums, which are absolutely lovely, have dainty flowers in spring and lovely foilage the rest of the year, and yet are tough enough in dry-ish shade if you get the right kind to warrant their common name of barrenwort.

In case you haven't figured it out, I'd love to have your problem. ;)

Side note: if you're in 6b on the suburban or exurban East Coast, you probably have a deer problem. Most of the plants I've linked to are fairly deer proof, but I've had deer bother Solomon's seal. They generally leave ornamental grasses and ferns alone, though.
posted by joyceanmachine at 5:45 PM on September 19 [19 favorites]

Maybe consider sedge.
posted by gudrun at 5:47 PM on September 19 [2 favorites]

Native plants are definitely the way to go. I am a big fan of back-eyed susans and coneflowers. Not only are they beautiful, butterflies love the flowers and goldfinches devour the seeds. If you can plant milkweed -- do it! It sounds like it would thrive under those conditions and be beneficial to the monarchs.

Raspberries or blackberries form thickets and would probably do well ... you may want to stick with the thornless varieties if you plan on harvesting them. Unlike most fruit trees, they don't require spraying or much care.

My favorite small native tree / shrub is the serviceberry. Beautiful flowers in the spring, followed by red berries, and then in the fall the foliage is beautiful. Also know as saskatoons in Canada. Really a great plant.
posted by Ostara at 10:58 AM on September 20 [1 favorite]

If you're amenable to some light reading Bringing Nature Home is a wonderful and inspirational book on the benefits of using native plantings in our gardens.
posted by lydhre at 11:11 AM on September 20 [1 favorite]

Amazing answers! Joyceanmachine's blew me back in my chair like a Memorex ad! Thank you so much, everyone!
posted by apparently at 1:50 PM on September 20 [1 favorite]

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