What kind of lawn can I grow in almost total darkness.
October 10, 2007 3:04 PM   Subscribe

What kind of ground cover can I use in Massachussetts in stygian darkness.

My back yard is infested with trees. There are two Norway Maples in the back corner of my neighbor which completely overshadow 60% of my yard. The maples were just trash saplings ten years ago, and I could have just pulled them up with my hands. But now they are thirty feet tall, and they block my yard from the sun almost entirely. The neighbors and my wife all love trees, so I can't chop them down. (Norway maples are weeds in the northeast.) So I need to find something to plant which will withstand (1) complete lack of light, and (2) lack of water, as all the water and nutrients are sucked up by the maples. When I dig into the back yard, the entire thing is a tangle of little roots. That can't be good. Oh, and I've got grubs as well, though they may have died when the grass died.

I've tried pachysandra, english ivy and two different deep-shade varieties of bluegrass. They all died after a few weeks. The only thing that I can get to live longer than the middle of the summer is hostas.
posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried bishop's weed (goutweed) or Vinca (periwinkle) (there's vinca major and vinca minor)?
posted by OrangeDrink at 3:17 PM on October 10, 2007

Best answer: Wintergreen is a good shade-tolerant groundcover, and it smells great when you step on it. The link goes to the info page at Dave's Garden, which is a great gardening resource. (You have to register to get unlimited access to most of the stuff but it's free and they don't spam out your email address.)

How do you want to use the yard? A grassy lawn or a sunny cottage border is right out, of course. But if you just want a place to hang out and relax, consider using hardscaping -- paving blocks, fountains, decking, fencing, pathways -- to shape and define the yard, instead of fighting against the site. Because the site will always win.

Your profile doesn't say where in the northeast you are, but I'm sure you have access to a county extension service. (Just google your state's name and "county extension office") You can find an arborist, or at least gather some info, that might convince your neighbor to thin out the trees. They're probably planted too close, which encourages weak growth, parasites, etc.
posted by cat.dog at 4:40 PM on October 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: These are tough conditions to remedy.

In case this matters to you, there are many aggressive garden groundcovers out there that are nonnative and invasive in natural ecosystems. They spread vegetatively, which is why people like them for shady or other hard-to-grow-and-maintain areas, but they can also be very persistent, and their seed may be spread by birds or wind to other ecosystems, crowding out native vegetation. Some of these plants are on Provincial/State/Federal Noxious/Invasive Weeds Lists and therefore may have certain conditions tied to their presence - some may be banned from being grown or sold in your area, some may be required to be eradicated whenever found, some may be just not recommended. According to the Massachusetts Prohibited Plant List, Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria) is banned, so you shouldn't be able to find it or to plant it anymore. (Incidentally, Norway maples are also banned but the ban doesn't seem to be enforced for plants already in the landscape.) If you do decide to plant a creeping garden plant, it might be a good idea to check out the prohibited list first.

I can't think of any other dry, shady, creeping garden plants that aren't aggressive in this way. I've seen Periwinkle (Vinca), Lamium, Bugleweed (Ajuga), and Goutweed (Aegopodium) work well as garden groundcover in the areas you've described and also taking over in natural areas.

Do you like the hostas? If that's what you've been able to grow there, there's a huge variety of hostas in different colours and blooming times to choose from.

Native plants like Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) or Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) or Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) are all native low-growing groundcovers in your state and can grow work in drier shade but it would take awhile for them to get established and spread.

Whatever route you decide to go, it might be helpful to add some compost to the soil to build it up a bit, if you can (I know you mentioned that it's pretty rooty). Most of all, spreading mulch (like wood chips) around your plants might bring a bit more organic matter to the soil, suppress weeds, and help hold some moisture around the plants as they get established in this tough spot. (And no matter how well a plant can do in dry shady conditions, it would still need to be watered and weeded around while it gets established and rooted, at least through the first growing season, in order to give it a chance.) Good luck!
posted by onoclea at 5:09 PM on October 10, 2007

Everything onclea said is absolutely right.

onclea also spotted the name of your state, which you cleverly hid within the "more inside" headline. (Who would look there?!?) Here's a link to the UMass Landscape, Nursery, and Urban Forestry Site.
posted by cat.dog at 5:33 PM on October 10, 2007

I'm in your area and have a similar situation. The ground beneath our maples is dirt, dirt, dirt and a scattering of saplings that'll never make it. My landscaper friend says rip out the maples and plant another type of tree that will tolerate other plants in its vicinity (she recommended a fast-growing one but I can't remember it). The UMass group cat.dog links to was recommended as well, but I'll take you one deeper to their home gardener information page.
posted by cocoagirl at 7:32 PM on October 10, 2007

I had a similar question, and live in the same general area. My green-thumb coworker suggested periwinkle to me. I haven't done it yet but I plan on it.
posted by tastybrains at 8:45 PM on October 10, 2007

I've got a very shady back yard and am in the process of following cat.dog's advice: putting in rocks, stepping stones, and wood paths. I do want some vegetation, however, so I'm learning to grow potted plants. The pots provide the ability to rotate them around the yard to find a place they like.
posted by GPF at 7:27 AM on October 11, 2007

Response by poster: I also tried Bishop's Goutweed, but it didn't spread. In any case, in Mass. Bishop's Goutweed has been officially declared a noxious weed, and you can't plant it legally. At least you can't buy it legally. I don't know what would happen if you found it in the wild and transplanted it. I found some in my friend's garden and transplanted it, with no luck.

I'm thinking about what you call hardscaping. The site is really quite small. It's only about 30ftx30ft, but it's shaped like Utah, with a bite out of one corner. It's got a gentle slope running back to front, and the back is about 2 feet above the front. I'm thinking about:
  1. Terracing the back part with those blocks you can get at Home Depot for building short, no-mortar walls, and making the back terrace entirely bricked over with pavers,I might make it 2/3 bricked in with pavers, with some space in the far corner, far from the trees, with space for the hostas.
  2. Covering the front 2/3 with a circular pattern of pavers, which cover about 80% of the area, and then fill in the corners with hostas. Maybe in the one corner I get sun I might put some shade-tolerant annuals.
I think the motto I like the most is "The site always wins." I'll take that to heart.

Thanks to all for the advice.
posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA at 9:48 AM on October 11, 2007

Gardening zone 5a checking in. (I am guessing here you're in a similar zone.)

I have some spots like that, and I use violets for it. The wild purple version seems to be drought-tolerant. I have some white ones with the blooms on a stalk that bloom most of the summer, but I have no idea of the species; the plastic tag disappeared 10 years ago.
If you want to walk back there, you'll want to throw in some paving stones of some kind to walk on, but the violets will crowd or shade out any weeds that spring up. (I once got rid of creeping charlie that way; I just quit mowing the violets and they mopped up any competition.)

I would beef up the soil, but sometimes it washes dowhill no matter what you do. I use Asiatic day lily for some shady spots but it's less tolerant of dry soil. (An imported weed that appears to be a cousin to Wandering Jew the house plant, but it will survive the winter. I stole my start from under a chiropractor's porch. It's really easy to rip up by the handful if you don't like it; it has very shallow roots.)
posted by unrepentanthippie at 10:42 AM on October 11, 2007

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