Roots and Shoots: A Fussy Search for a Non-Fussy Plant

By Pamela Doan

Here’s my quest. There’s a slope below my home that has patches of bare soil. It’s bordered by a stone wall and there are mature maples growing along the side. Shade from the trees has gradually killed off grass and ferns that used to grow there. In a heavy rain, water runs off from the house down this slope, too, and erosion is a concern. I want to plant a groundcover that will protect the soil and also look good since this is a view from the main living room windows.

These are the criteria I’ve got for a plant or plants to cover this area:

  • Shade loving
  • Low growing
  • Deer resistant
  • Won’t be a snake haven
  • Doesn’t need to be mowed
  • Will spread out and suppress weeds
  • Can cling to a slope
  • Tolerates acidic, rocky soil that is more clay than not
  • Will help with drainage
  • Can compete with tree roots
  • Low maintenance i.e., doesn’t have fussy needs, common pest or disease problems that require routine treatment and will establish easily
  • Attractive, flowering would be nice
  • Native is preferable
  • Beneficial to the eco-system i.e., food or habitat for birds or insects

The first suggestion I got from a landscape center gardener was pachysandra or Pachysandra terminalis. It’s a popular ground cover and meets a lot of my criteria — grows in the shade, tolerates my soil conditions, shallow-rooted, low maintenance, flowers and is generally left alone by rabbits and deer. It has two big problems, though. It isn’t native, it’s a Japanese transplant, and it is invasive, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Since I live in a forested area, that’s a big concern.

Creeping dogwood, or bunchberry, in bloom

Creeping dogwood, or bunchberry, in bloom

Although it would suppress weeds well, that same characteristic means it can spread into the woods and its thick, tightly spaced leaves would suppress other native vegetation as an unintended consequence. It’s also the perfect height and thickness to be a snake haven and it’s near an area that people will be walking through, which makes me uncomfortable.

Moving on. I find several plant lists and searchable databases online. The most useful were through the Cornell University website, the University of Connecticut website and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website. I perused about a dozen different sites, though, cross-referencing the plants I found and needed more information about. Deer-resistant should be a category that’s included in any plant list these days, but it isn’t. There aren’t many areas where deer aren’t a threat to landscape plants. Ultimately, the Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder search yielded the most useful results.

The winners so far:

Sedges, or Carex, are native grassland plants that seem like they’ll hit a lot of my criteria. Common woodland sedge, blue wood sedge and Pennsylvania sedge are a few varieties that are worth checking out. Since the area I need to cover is between a rock wall and the lawn, however, the grasses might not look right next to each other. It could look like there’s a messy, un-mowed section on the edge of the lawn. I need to see if there’s a variety that is distinctive enough that it will complement the lawn, instead. Sedge flowers in spring and birds like the seeds, which is a big plus.

Cornus Canadensis or creeping dogwood is a leading contender. It’s native, flowers, and has berries that birds love. Deer might be a problem, though, and the site might be too dry. It prefers moist soil and might need to be watered. I’m going to try planting a small patch and see how it does before installing enough plants to cover the entire area.

Epimedium or barrenwort is another colorful choice that both flowers and has bold leaves that change color in the fall. It is listed that it “tolerates” the poor soil conditions that I can offer, but does best in moist, loam soil. This is another one that I will try out as an experiment first to see how it does.

The biggest challenges here were finding a shade-lover that will tolerate the poor soil conditions and that deer will leave alone. This was a trifecta of difficulties that ruled out a lot of plants I’d love to have growing in the yard. I’m not willing to invest the time in improving the soil, though. Soil will always revert to its natural state and eventually the plants won’t thrive if you don’t keep it up. Working with nature is a lot easier.

Photo courtesy Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

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