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Mr. Smarty Plants - Winter groundcover for shaded backyard in Austin

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Thursday - January 10, 2013

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Erosion Control, Groundcovers, Grasses or Grass-like
Title: Winter groundcover for shaded backyard in Austin
Answered by: Nan Hampton

QUESTION:

I live in south Austin and have a shaded backyard. During the summer, the lawn died and the ground is now bare. I'd like to plant some kind of winter grass or ground cover that will hold the soil in place until I decide on a permanent landscape in the spring. Can you recommend some low-effort and low-maintenance winter grass or ground cover that I can plant or seed now (Jan 2013) and that will prevent erosion from rain? If it can be walked upon occasionally, that will be a bonus, but is not strictly necessary. Thank you!

ANSWER:

There are warm season grasses and cool season grasses. Warm season grasses germinate in the spring and, since they are heat and drought tolerant, are generally green throughout the spring and summer.  They  begin turning brown in the fall and remain so throughout the winter.  Cool season grasses germinate in the fall and are green and growing throughout the winter and spring, but die back in the heat of summer.  Although there are native cool season grasses [e.g., Poa arachnifera (Texas bluegrass), Elymus canadensis (Canada wild rye)and Nassella tenuissima (Mexican feathergrass)] that will tolerate some shade, it is actually a little late to plant them. They should have been planted in the fall to insure good germination and should be growing already.  Even the non-native  rye grasses (Lolium spp.)—cool season grasses ready to germinate and grow rapidly through the fall and winter—are not likely to germinate well and grow enough to help with your bare lawn.  Additionally, we do NOT recommend the non-native rye grasses—Lolium perenne (perennial rye grass) or Lolium perenne ssp. multiflorum (annual rye grass)—for the following reasons:

  • they aren't North American native plants and our focus and expertise are on plants native to North America;
  • they are invasive and responsible for massive reduction of native wildflowers along roadsides; and
  • additionally, they are allelopathic (kill or inhibit the growth of other plants) which gives them a competitive edge.

Rather than trying to seed a grass or other ground cover at this particular time of the year, you would be better off planting small nursery plants.  Sedges, which are very grass-like, would be ideal for your shady backyard.  The ones listed below are evergreen, generally do well in the shade and don't grow very tall—and, thus, require little if any mowing.  

Carex texensis (Texas sedge) grows in sun or part shade.

Carex perdentata (Meadow sedge) prefers the sun, but will grow in part shade.

Carex cherokeensis (Cherokee sedge) prefers part shade.  The leaves of this one are a bit coarser and the plant is taller than the other two, but it is still an attractive plant.

You should be able to find some of these as small plants in local nurseries that specialize in native plants.  (See our National Suppliers Directory to search for nurseries.)   I happened to be in one such nursery, Barton Springs Nursery, in Austin just today and they did have small containers of Poa arachnifera, Nassella tenuissima (synonym = Stipa tenuissima), Carex texensis and Carex cherokeensis.  There are, no doubt, other nurseries in the area with these species for sale.  With the ground soft from the recent rain, it should be relatively easy to plant theseUsually the plants in the containers can be divided in order to cover a larger area. 

Here is some more information about sedges from McNeal Growers, a wholesale nursery in Manchaca, TX and here is an article, Sedge Lawns for Every Landscape, from Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

 

From the Image Gallery


Texas bluegrass
Poa arachnifera

Canada wild rye
Elymus canadensis

Mexican feathergrass
Nassella tenuissima

Texas sedge
Carex texensis

Meadow sedge
Carex perdentata

Cherokee sedge
Carex cherokeensis

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