Lawn alternatives for shady yards

Although a non-native example, this New Zealand Hair Sedge (Carex comans) illustrates the soft, flowing look multiple sedge species provide. Photo: M. Talabac

Q: I’m happy to try a lawn alternative for my shadier areas but I’d like it to look more like a lawn than a groundcover or mix of flowering plants. What kind of grasses work for that?

A:  Not many true grasses will grow well if you have less than full sun, but several perennials that look like grasses can work nicely. My primary recommendation would be to try one or more species of sedge (Carex). I was excited to see the study results for sedges from Mt. Cuba released recently: “Carex for the Mid-Atlantic Region” that may be a useful reference.

Mt. Cuba Center is a public garden and research facility in Delaware which displays and studies native plants, and they perform periodic plant trials to evaluate species and cultivars for garden performance. Lately they have been including an assessment of pollinator appeal as well, though in this particular case that wouldn’t apply since sedges are not grown for pollinator draw. (Even though the caterpillars of several of our less-often-seen butterflies feed on sedges.)

Sedges are a species-diverse group and make for an excellent grass-like aesthetic in partial shade to full shade. Many form low soft-looking tuffets, though with time or dense planting can form a more-or-less uniform “lawn.” Still, don’t expose them to much foot traffic since nothing is quite as tolerant to that as turfgrass. Well over one hundred sedges are native in Maryland, and the Mt. Cuba study results include lists of those well-suited to more sun than shade, more shade than sun, and a tolerance to mowing (not that they require it by any means).

A few true native grass species tolerate some shade, but won’t give you a comparable look to a lawn since they grow much taller or have a different leaf color or texture (often wider, coarser leaves). Examples include river oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) and Eastern bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), which still could make nice accents if you wanted spots with showier seed heads.

The non-native asparagus relative mondo grass (Ophiopogon), which has dark green grassy evergreen leaves and a slowly-spreading growth habit, has been successfully grown as a lawn look-alike under mature trees. I would not recommend using its cousin Liriope, the spreading form of which (Liriope spicata) can be too aggressive and is considered invasive. (Plus, it’s way over-planted.) Mondo grass thus far does not appear to be colonizing natural areas in or near Maryland.

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun and Washington Gardener Magazine. Read more by Miri.

Have a plant or insect question? The University of Maryland Extension has answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask ExtensionOur horticulturists are available to answer your questions online, year-round.

Variety is the spice of life: creating a new garden with native plants

Nothing like starting out a blog with a cliché, right? But this perfectly sums up one reason to change from a monotypic lawn to a mix of native plants. Instead of looking out at a sea of sameness, the diversity of colors, sizes, and shapes of plants offer a more pleasing landscape to view. And, bonus points, more and different kinds of plants attract more and different kinds of butterflies, birds, and beneficial wildlife!

butterfly milkweed with monarch caterpillar
Butterflyweed planted in spring 2020 provides food for Monarch caterpillars later in the summertime.

A do-it-yourself garden is harder but more fulfilling

Once you figure out that you do want more variety of plants instead of lawn in your yard, the real planning begins. But, it can be hard to know where to start – do you just chop up the lawn and start planting? How much will it cost? What’s the maintenance on these plants? What about soil conditions? Don’t worry! There are some really good online tips for beginners. To sum mine up: start small, don’t overthink it, and stick to things you like looking at.

For example, my sister moved into a small house with a fenced backyard. She knew she wanted to avoid the pain of mowing. She knew she wanted low-maintenance, flowering plants. And since she’s a redhead, she knew what colors she liked (hint: little to no red flowers). The first thing we did was start tracking the sun, in both the front and back yards. Each month over the winter, we took a picture in the morning, at noon, and in the evening. We also got started on the paths needed through the garden areas.

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Readers’ 2020 Gardening Highlights Vol. 2

At the end of 2020, we asked readers to share any notable stories, projects, or accomplishments from their past year in gardening activities. We received some great submissions. We will feature a portion of the submissions in this post and more in the future.

View more 2020 Highlights

Pollinators love Mexican sunflower

Anne Henochowicz in Montgomery County wanted to share her success with this pollinator attracting plant.

Pumped about pumpkins

Kelly Domesle and daughter Helena had great success with pumpkins down in Washington D.C.

“During the shutdown this Spring, we spent an afternoon exploring the physics of “Pumpkin smashing” from our deck. My daughter, Helena, salvaged a few pumpkin seeds and planted them in our front yard. I was skeptical, but she tended to the plants all summer and had an amazing harvest this Fall! People stopped and talked to us about our pumpkin patch all year and we loved watching the bees buzzing in and out of the flowers. We gave the pumpkins away to neighbors and cooked some, too.”

  • Pumpkin harvest
  • Big pumpkin patch
  • Pumpkin vine

Brittany’s bountiful Baltimore garden

Brittany Croteau, a Master Gardener in Baltimore City shared her amazing turf reduction/garden expansion, native flowers, and fruit and vegetable haul this year:

“Over 2020 I anticipated having a really sad garden year… I was newly pregnant, and had just accepted a promotion which had me traveling to Cecil County daily, which left me with little time to think about my garden. Then COVID hit and I found myself at home 24/7, with a LOT of free time on my hands. My husband and I decided to rededicate that time to our garden, removing more turf, planting more natives, and meeting (socially distanced) with neighbors to swap produce and flowers. This year was the most fruitful garden we had, both with native plants, native birds, and veggie production. I was so grateful to spend time outside and create a space I was happy to welcome my daughter into in August 2020. A year I thought my garden was going to be neglected ended up being our best garden year yet. “

Q&A: How can I remove lawn and create a native habitat for birds and butterflies?

lawn removal
Turfgrass removal using newspaper and mulch. Photo: Beth Blum Spiker, University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener

Q: Our place is almost entirely lawn and we want to convert the yard into a biodiverse, native habitat for birds and butterflies. Since it is almost fall, do we cover the grass areas with newspaper and then mulch on top or leave it until spring? How do we prepare the ground for planting in spring? Can we plant things now?

Answer: If you already have decided on the beds or habitat areas, then killing the grass now is an excellent idea. Mow as low as you can. Newspaper and mulch (especially leaf mulch available in fall) should work well. Use several layers of newspaper under the mulch. Do a soil test now.  Fall is a great time to plant woody plants and herbaceous perennials. However, unless you must plant now (gift plants, donated plants), you may want to wait until you have a planting plan designed for each bed. Winter is an excellent time to plan.

The Woods in Your Backyard is a comprehensive program that helps homeowners figure out how to do just what you have in mind. When selecting native plants, a great reference is Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping. This online publication features photos and growing requirements for each plant in an easy-to-use chart format. Also, refer to the Home & Garden Information Center’s website for more information about native plants.

By Ellen Nibali, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Information Center. Ellen writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun.

Have a plant or insect question? University of Maryland Extension’s experts have answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension.