ground cover, tolerates shade and some foot traffic?

crl_(z7 No. VA)September 21, 2007


I'm not much of a gardner so would appreciate any suggestions. We've just bought a house with a mess of a backyard--ivy, poison ivy, trash bushes and trees all growing up around some nice mature trees. I'd like to clear the mess out and plant something that will tolerate dry shade and some foot traffic--4 year old son and soon to be dog. I get the impression this is a tall order. Any suggestions for a native (or at least non-invasive) goundcover for this situation?

Thank you!


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Judy_B_ON(Ontario 5B)

The tall order is that a 4 yr old and a dog will not create "some" foot traffic, they will create major foot traffic.

A patch of grass is what you really need for your son and dog. Once you clear out the junk trees and shrubs see if there is an area that gets at least 2-4 hours of sun or light shade and plant shade tolerant lawn grass there. You may need to limb up some of the mature trees.

For the remaining areas, create mulched or stone dust paths, train son and dog to stay on paths and then plant rest in woodland ground covers, native perennials or understory shrubs.

Depending on your location, soil, shade and moisture, native ground covers could include ginger, ferns, barren strawberry, violets, false solomon's seal, waterleaf, woodland phlox, sedges, foamflower, baneberry, jack in the pulpit, trillium, zig zag goldenrod, golden alexanders, columbine --- none of which will tolerate foot traffic.

    Bookmark   September 22, 2007 at 12:55AM
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crl_(z7 No. VA)

Thanks for your thoughts.

Son goes to school and we spend a fair bit of our afternoons at parks so I think of it as "some" traffic--it's not like a public park or anything.

Our yard is a bit small for paths, etc. The area that needs to be cleared is probably about 10 x 75 feet.

We have a patch of grass but it's on the small side for a kid and a dog to play fetch, etc so I'm looking to expand the area they can play in. I'd rather not expand the grass though. In my limited experience grass just doesn't grow well with tree root competition and shade. What's here is already struggling.

I may try to establish some beds in the very back corners of the yard later on and will keep your plant suggestions in mind for those.


    Bookmark   September 22, 2007 at 7:56AM
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You have a tall order clearing all that junk. I'm four years into a similar project (ivy, privet, kudzu, liriope, knotweed). For the first year or two, I recommend just piling up mulch (wood chipper grindings or raked leaves) on the areas you clear. This will suppress weed seeds and erosion, makes it easy to destroy any lingering junk, and allows any native survivors to show themselves.

I have a section of elephant's foot (Elephantopus tomentosus) where my kids play. It thrives in almost any conditions, spreads quickly (but locally) by seed, and tolerates a lot of traffic. It may or may not live in your part of Virginia, but it is readily found along roadsides in Georgia.


    Bookmark   September 24, 2007 at 10:56AM
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crl_(z7 No. VA)

Thanks! I think your suggestion of mulching some of the area after clearing is a good one. We can get leaf mulch from the county so I may check into that. I will check out elephant's foot.


    Bookmark   September 25, 2007 at 1:47PM
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Judy_B_ON(Ontario 5B)

Trust me, I have grown kids and we've always had dogs --- playing fetch and running is major foot traffic.

The only ground cover that can tolerate a running kid and dog is grass. And grass is difficult to grow in the shade and root infested soil under mature trees.

If you can keep the fetch and running games to the park, shade tolerant grass may work in the yard for walking and sitting. But if you think the dog and kid will want to play rough running games, then use heavy (3" to 6") layer of mulch or stonedust for the play area.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2007 at 4:14PM
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I've also heard of Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) being used as a ground cover. It's very vigorous (may be hard to get rid of) and may climb up trees, but the fall color is nice. I'm not sure if it could serve as a "running space", because it's a woody vine.

Here's ground cover information from PFAF:
The plant can be allowed to fall down banks and make a spreading ground cover[202]. They are best spaced about 3 metres apart each way[208]. They are very vigorous, however, and would soon swamp smaller plants[K].

    Bookmark   October 7, 2007 at 9:18AM
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chazparas(USDA zone 9 , San Jose, CA)

As lovely as virginia creeper is, I'd avoid it as a ground cover with kids and dogs. Poison Ivy is hard to detect in virginia creeper the dog will be bringing the oils in on its fur all the time.
I'd do a couple of years of leaf mulching, especially if you can get it from the town, you'll improve your soil, keep down weeds, and by the time your child is done with the yard you'll have great soil to plant your native garden!

    Bookmark   October 8, 2007 at 8:12AM
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ladyslppr(z6 PA)

I agree that the dog and son will create more than just light traffic. Some parts of the yard will get little or no traffic, but other areas will be trampled bare. The best plant for a situation like yours is grass.

Why not plan for grass with some compatible native plants in the grass? Lots of smaller wildflowers will grow well with grass, and you can add some non-natives as well to create a nice woodland meadow sort of effect.

Natives that grow well with grass include violets of several species (violets also serve as larval food plants for several types of butterflies), spring beauties, perhaps trout lilies if you have a moist area, and many others. I am sure that the members of the list could add many plants to this list. I an thinking mainly of plants that are low enough that a mower won't damage them too much. For ideas you need only look in the grass at places like state parks, larger city or county parks, church camps, and similar places where there is grass under trees that is mowed but never treated with chemicals.

You could also also add smaller bulbs like crocus, snowdrops, grape hyacinth, etc., as well as english daisies. These aren't native but won't spread outside your yard. With the spring bulbs and wildflowers you should delay cutting in the spring, or cut with a mower set as high as possible, to give the plants time to grow and store food for next year before they are cut down.

    Bookmark   October 8, 2007 at 8:35AM
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