En Español

Q. Who is Mr. Smarty Plants?

A: There are those who suspect Wildflower Center volunteers are the culpable and capable culprits. Yet, others think staff members play some, albeit small, role. You can torture us with your plant questions, but we will never reveal the Green Guru's secret identity.

Help us grow by giving to the Plant Database Fund or by becoming a member

Did you know you can access the Native Plant Information Network with your web-enabled smartphone?


Ask Mr. Smarty Plants

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Search Smarty Plants
See a list of all Smarty Plants questions

Please forgive us, but Mr. Smarty Plants has been overwhelmed by a flood of mail and must take a break for awhile to catch up. We hope to be accepting new questions again soon. Thank you!

Need help with plant identification, visit the plant identification page.

rate this answer
1 rating

Thursday - June 17, 2010

From: Park Ridge, NJ
Region: Northeast
Topic: Edible Plants, Shade Tolerant, Grasses or Grass-like, Herbs/Forbs, Shrubs
Title: Plants for shade, poor soil in Park Ridge NJ
Answered by: Barbara Medford


Hello! I live in far northeast New Jersey, by the New York state border. I am looking for plants for areas of my lawn that nothing currently grows in - due to shade and poor soil quality - very rocky, sometimes very dry, occasionally flooded. They must be native plants to the area, low maintenance and hardy, perennial plants. I am primarily interested in types of grass, but would also like to plant some bushes, shrubs and wildflowers, and even edible plants (fruit/berry trees/bushes, veggies, beans, anything). Thank you very much for your help!


Before you do anything else, we urge you to read our How-To Article A Guide to Native Plant Gardening. It doesn't matter what part of the country you live in, this has important information.

We will certainly try to find a list of native plants that will grow in Bergen County, USDA Hardiness Zone 6b. Before we do that, though, we need to warn you that the problem you are having does not have entirely to do with plant selection, but mostly with location. The grasses we find that will grow in shade are not going to be mowable turf grasses, but taller grasses that will turn brown in drought and cold. Another problem, from your list of requests, is that most vegetables and fruit trees are not only not native to North America but need more sun to thrive. Even hardy and drought-tolerant plants need some irrigation in the early months of their lives, and "low maintenance" does NOT mean you can plant and forget.

Since it is now Summer, well, it is in Texas, anyway, you really won't need to be planting anything until Fall. Woody plants, like trees and shrubs, should either be planted in Fall or early Spring in your hardiness zone. Wildflowers should be seeded in early Spring, and perennials will usually not bloom until the second season. So, there is no Instant Garden. We suggest you use the time until you can begin planting to improve the conditions in which the plants will grow. We will search on plants that can tolerate "part shade," which we consider to be 2 to 6 hours of sun a day, and "shade," 2 hours or less. If the shade is created by trees, some trimming and limbing up to let more sunshine in can make a big difference. If they are BIG trees, it would be worth it to hire a licensed, trained arborist to do the trimming, someone who will make sure the trimming does not harm the trees. 

Next, try making amendments to the poor soil you have. Drainage is very key in getting most plants to do well. If your soil is clay, it will be even harder. Consider the possibility of raised beds.  Here is one article on the construction of such a bed from Popular Mechanics. Another take on the problem comes from About.com: Organic Gardening, Raised  Bed Gardens. Whether you raise it by construction of borders or simply by adding amendments to the soil, you will need to till or dig in compost or other organic materials, and be prepared to irrigate it when it is dry. With the improved drainage, the occasional flooding should be okay.

Follow each link to the page on that plant in our Native Plant Database to learn growing conditions, projected size, bloom time, etc. To make your own selections, go to our Recommended Species section, click on New Jersey on the map, and then Narrow Your Search by selecting from General Appearance,  Duration, Light Requirements, any other specifications you have.  For additional grasses, go to the Native Plant Database, select New Jersey and make the other choices in the Combination Search.

Herbaceous Blooming Perennials for Park Ridge NJ:

Achillea millefolium (common yarrow)

Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly milkweed) 

Claytonia caroliniana (Carolina springbeauty)

Coreopsis lanceolata (lanceleaf tickseed)

Shrubs for Park Ridge NJ:

Gaultheria procumbens (eastern teaberry)

Ceanothus americanus (New Jersey tea)

Hypericum prolificum (shrubby St. Johnswort)

Vaccinium angustifolium (lowbush blueberry)

Grasses for Park Ridge NJ:

Chasmanthium latifolium (Inland sea oats)

Muhlenbergia schreberi (nimblewill)

Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem)

Tridens flavus (purpletop tridens)

From our Native Plant Image Gallery:

Achillea millefolium

Ratibida pinnata

Claytonia caroliniana

Coreopsis lanceolata

Gaultheria procumbens

Ceanothus americanus
Hypericum prolificum

Vaccinium angustifolium

Chasmanthium latifolium

Muhlenbergia schreberi

Schizachyrium scoparium

Calylophus berlandieri ssp. pinifolius




More Shrubs Questions

Native plants that do not attract any kind of wildlife.
October 19, 2015 - Hi I live in Bexar County, Texas and I was wondering what would be some good NATIVE plants that could be planted in yards that do not attract any kind of wildlife (so no berries, nuts, fruits, thick c...
view the full question and answer

Is Viburnum rufidulum monoecious or dioecious?
July 28, 2014 - Is Viburnum rufidulum monoecious or dioecious? Your database does not address this for most plants.
view the full question and answer

Erosion control on partially shaded slope
November 27, 2010 - Mr. Smarty Plants, I live in Atlanta, GA. My house is on a hill, and I am beginning to have erosion at my backyard porch (concrete slab, on the corners especially). The soil is mainly red clay, a...
view the full question and answer

Identification of shrub looking like honeysuckle in Odessa TX
October 02, 2011 - Bought a shrub in Pecos, TX yesterday. It looks like honeysuckle but the brightest flat orange I have ever seen. Flower and greenery looked like honeysuckle but when I looked on the Internet under or...
view the full question and answer

Dwarf, Evergreen Shrub Suggestions for Staten Island
August 14, 2013 - I had two rows of bushes in the front of my house. The back row of bushes is what is commonly known as a hedge. Unfortunately due to Sandy I lost the front row of bushes. Please help me, I am in conta...
view the full question and answer

Support the Wildflower Center by Donating Online or Becoming a Member today.
© 2016 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center