Rather, grow these ground covers
Faithful reader, Cheryl, writes, “My front yard has a huge oak tree right in the middle. We have tried countless different things to grow grass and it's not happening. Is there anything we can do short of cutting down this beautiful tree?”
Grumpy’s Guaranteed 129% Correct Response: Don’t feel bad, Cheryl. No lawn grass will grow in the shade of a big tree. Instead of cutting down the tree just so you can plant grass that has to be mowed, fertilized, and treated for pests, why not plant a shade-tolerant ground cover that needs less maintenance? Here are five top picks. None are favored by deer.
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Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis)
There is no more elegant ground cover for shade than Japanese pachysandra. A well-grown bed is absolutely luxurious. Growing 6-12 inches tall and spreading by roots, it combines rosettes of glossy, deep green foliage topped in spring by spikes of white flowers. This is strictly a shade plant, turning yellow in sun. Plant it in moist, well-drained soil containing lots of organic matter. Space new plants 6-12 inches apart. Avoid watering with sprinklers, as foliage that stays wet too long is prone to fungus. Adapted to USDA Zones 5-8.
Mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus)
If you want a ground cover that looks just like grass but isn’t grass, this is the one for you. You can actually grow it as a shady lawn. Thin, arching deep green leaves form tufts of foliage 6-12 inches tall that spread outward by roots. Rather inconspicuous summer flowers give rise to beautiful, sapphire-blue fruits in fall. Mondo grass likes ordinary, well-drained garden soil and requires very little maintenance once established. You need only mow it down to an inch tall in late winter to get rid of old, ragged foliage. Space new plants 6-12 inches apart. Adapted to USDA Zones 7-10. Mondo grass thrives in the dense shade of trees.
Sweet woodruff (Gallium odoratum)
So many plants demand well-drained soil, you may ask, “Are there any on this planet that like constantly moist, poorly drained soil?” Sweet woodruff does. Slender stems 6-12 inches high bear whorls of 6-8 slender leaves that emit a fragrance of freshly mown hay when stepped upon that grows stronger when they’re dried. Small white flowers top the foliage in late spring and summer. Sweet woodruff spreads quickly by roots and seedlings in moist shade, so keep an eye on it. Water during summer droughts. Space new plants 12-18 inches apart. Adapted to USDA Zones 4-8.
Carpet bugleweed (Ajuga reptans)
This mat-forming perennial has the prettiest flowers of the ground covers. Appearing in spring, they’re usually blue, but may be pink or white. They stand on 6-inch spikes that rise above tufts of foliage about 3-4 inches tall. Leaves may be green, bronze, dark purple, or variegated green, white, and pink. Space new plants 6 inches apart in shade to part shade. Good drainage is essential, lest carpet bugleweed fall victim to a disease called crown rot. Plants are easy to divide at any time of year. Adapted to USDA Zones 3-8.
English ivy (Hedera helix)
Some gardeners love English ivy because it’s the fastest spreading of all the ground covers and the best for blanketing large areas. Others revile it because it climbs literally everything it touches and can be invasive unless carefully controlled. Thick, leathery, lobed leaves grow from running stems that root where they touch the ground, forming a thick carpet 6-12 inches high. Once established, this tough plant needs little care and is also hard to eradicate. Space new plants 1-2 feet apart. Adapted to USDA Zones 4-9.