Garden Plot: Grass isn’t your only friend for the ultimate ground cover

There are some places grass will just not grow

Ali in Woodbine writes: “Our front yard is home to some tall oak trees. We get a good amount of shade every summer. We have been trying for a few years to get a lawn going but have not been successful. I tilled the soil last fall, added leaf compost and used a shade mix from Southern States. The sprouts came up but just didn’t take. What would be your recommendation for a type of grass seed to use for a shady area.”

Unfortunately, it sounds like you already used the correct seed last fall and did pretty much everything else right as well, planting in the fall and adding compost.

The harsh truth is even the most shade-tolerant grass needs at least four solid hours of sun a day, and some areas just won’t grow grass, no matter how much you want them to.

So, instead of grass …

Ali in Woodbine is “blessed” with tall oak trees that cast deep shade in summer and wonders what kind of grass will grow there. Sorry Ali, even the most shade tolerant grass needs four hours of sun a day — and the roots of those trees are going to compete with any turf grass for food and water. The roots will win.

The go-to plant in these situations is pachysandra, because it fills in nicely and thrives in shade. Sweet woodruff is a lesser utilized but more interesting alternative.

It grows in dense shade, flowers in the summer, tops out at about a foot tall and is nicely fragrant.

Sweet woodruff does need to be watered to be able to compete with those tree roots — and you should install deep edging to keep it out of flower beds and such.

The ultimate ground cover!

It’s not just the shade — the roots of tall trees are going to compete with any turf grass for food and water. The roots will win.

But there is a ground cover that looks like grass and doesn’t have a root system. It’s also green all year long, and never needs cutting OR feeding — it’s moss!

Yes, moss!

The same plant that many lawn owners try to kill is actually the perfect ground cover for areas that don’t get enough sun — it’s the plant that belongs there!

Check out Moss Acres online. This Pennsylvania-based company ships four different kinds of moss nationwide and has lots of informative articles about achieving mossy success.

Let’s plant a lilac!

Janet, of an undisclosed location, posted this message on the WTOP Facebook page: “When can I plant a lilac bush? I bought it at Costco yesterday.”

First, I want to urge everyone in ‘TOP land to purchase their plants at a local independent garden center like Homestead, Greenstreet’s or Merrifield, not a big box store.

Independent garden centers are longtime members of our community and deserve our support. They are as endangered — and just as important — as family farms.

I will now get down off my high horse to say plant that lilac as soon as you can and make sure the spot gets good morning sun. Dig a wide hole, but not a deep one; you want the roots to be just below the soil line.

Refill the hole with the same soil you dug up and keep chemical fertilizers far away. Instead, mulch the plant with compost.

Lilac details

Janet of an undisclosed location asks, “When can I plant a lilac bush I bought yesterday?”

ASAP Janet!

Plants are always anxious to get out of the pot and into the ground, and lilacs are not the least bit frost sensitive.

But they ARE disease sensitive. In fact, they are real horticultural drama queens with strict demands.

The first is morning sun — to dry the morning dew off their leaves as soon as possible.

The second is lots of sun. Lilacs will not bloom until they get six to eight hours of sun a day.

The third is the correct kind of mulch. Lilacs want 2 inches of high-quality compost around their bases. Any kind of wood or bark mulch will breed disease spores and literally make them sick.

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