Rent Shop Volunteer Join

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
Not Yet Rated

Tuesday - March 12, 2013

From: Boston, MA
Region: Northeast
Topic: Xeriscapes, Groundcovers
Title: Groundcover for Boston MA
Answered by: Barbara Medford


We have a small back yard that gets great sun in spring before the leaves are fully back on the tall trees surrounding the perimeter, and then a lot of shade in summer. We have weird patchy grass and a ton of weeds. The soil is actually pretty healthy and has excellent drainage. Instead of sodding or seeding for grass, I would love to plant a hardy ground cover that could withstand some foot traffic. My question is, is there a ground cover that will meet my needs that can grow in my zone and if so, can I grow it from seed instead of pre-sprouted plants so that I can spread it all over the yard at once? I am starting to wonder if a traffic resistant ground cover is a bit of a myth since I never see people using ground cover for more than pathways and on slopes. I am just so over grass!


Okay, here's the thing - right now when we think of Boston, all we can think of is blowing snow and cold. But obviously you are thinking of Spring and your statement that you are so over grass definitely resonates with us. Down here in drought stricken Texas, the grasses that will grow in shade are non-native and require a huge amount of water as well as fertilizers, mowing, etc. A lot of us are so over grass, too. We don't get that many questions from Boston, but we do get some and would like to ask you to read this previous Mr. Smarty Plants question that will give you some information on using our Native Plant Database to find plants.

Now, let us suggest you consider xeriscaping. We realize that is often thought of in connection with the Southwest, cacti and other succulents, and rocks. To us, it means eliminating the plants that require a lot of expensive care with unsatisfying results. Basically, our opinion is that the problem with the grass you now have is the shade from the trees. To us, trees are more valuable in the landscape than grass..

Since we are suggesting that you reorganize the way you garden, please read these suggestions from a previous Mr. Smarty Plants question

1.  Map out the area, including dimensions of whole lot, existing structures and/or large trees, fences, etc.

2.  Watch the property for several days, estimating the amount of sun in various spots. This will have a large part in the selection of plants. If you have a chance, do this at different times of the year, as the amount of sun will change with the seasons. We conside "full sun" to be 6 hours or more of sun a day; "part shade" 2 to 6 hours of sun and "shade" 2 hours or less of sun a day. Those terms will be used in the webpages on each plant, so you will know where is the best place to put particular plants. Most blooming plants bloom best with at least several hours of full sun.

Forget about groundcover that can take foot traffic, we agree with you that this is a myth. Here is a suggestion from another previous Mr. Smarty Plants question:

"As long as we are talking paths, you mentioned the turf grass as making broad paths through your garden. Consider, once you have eliminated the bermudagrass in an area, putting down a path of decomposed granite or more mulch. From The Human Footprint, here is an article on using decomposed granite. Most of the pathways in the Lady Bird Wildflower Center are treated this way, and it is far more natural-looking and low maintenance than grasses, etc."

Especially in the areas under your trees you  should consider some sort of non-natural ground cover. Since you got instructions in our previously answered question from Boston on making selections from our Native Plant Database, we are going to go to that database and, using the Combination Search, select on Massacusetts, "herb" (herbaceous blooming plants) under Habit, and "part shade (2 to 6 hours of sun a day). We will go down that Search page and select 0 to 1' for Height, so you can make individual areas of low plants around your planned walkways, if that is the route you choose to go. You can have lots of fun with the database, selecting trees or shrubs or grasses to search on, and asking for heights or bloom colors or bloom times to your taste. Careful though, the more specifications you put in, the fewer choices (or none) you will have. Follow each plant link to our webpage on that plant to find out more about it, including growing conditions. One more thing - none of the plants on our list are expected to be tolerant of foot traffic. If you have difficulty finding these native plants locally, go to our National Suppliers Directory, put your town and state or just your zipcode in the "Enter Search Location" box. You will get a list of native plant nurseries, seed companie and consultants in your general area. Most have contact information so you can find out if they have what you are looking for before you start shopping.

Low herbaceous blooming plants for Boston, MA:

Antennaria plantaginifolia (Plantain-leaf pussytoes)

Asarum canadense (Canadian wild ginger)

Chamaecrista fasciculata (Partridge pea)

Claytonia caroliniana (Carolina springbeauty)

Erythronium americanum (Yellow trout-lily)

Fragaria virginiana (Virginia strawberry)

Hydrocotyle umbellata (Manyflower marshpennywort)

Lycopodium digitatum (Fan clubmoss)

Oenothera laciniata (Cutleaf evening-primrose)

Oxalis violacea (Violet woodsorrel)

Sanguinaria canadensis (Bloodroot)

Viola affinis (Sand violet)


From the Image Gallery

Woman's tobacco
Antennaria plantaginifolia

Canadian wild ginger
Asarum canadense

Partridge pea
Chamaecrista fasciculata

Carolina springbeauty
Claytonia caroliniana

Yellow trout-lily
Erythronium americanum

Virginia strawberry
Fragaria virginiana

Manyflower marsh-pennywort
Hydrocotyle umbellata

Fan clubmoss
Lycopodium digitatum

Cutleaf evening-primrose
Oenothera laciniata

Violet woodsorrel
Oxalis violacea

Sanguinaria canadensis

Sand violet
Viola affinis

More Groundcovers Questions

Groundcover for beachside planting in Florida
March 02, 2011 - What type of ground cover is best for beachside planting. Looking to replace lawn with salt tolerant, weed resistant, drought tolerant, little mowing, insect resistant ground cover. Any flowers are a ...
view the full question and answer

Low maintenance ground cover for pool area in Corona CA
March 28, 2009 - Hi, I have this slope in my backyard that goes up to the neighbors yard. I'm looking for a low maintenance ground cover type plant that will stop erosion and won't cause a mess for my pool which is...
view the full question and answer

Deer Resistant Groundcover for lower Michigan
June 24, 2012 - What ground cover is deer resistant for a sunny location in lower Michigan?
view the full question and answer

Dying non-native St. Augustine grass from Austin
May 02, 2013 - Although we all know St. Augustine grass is not a good thing, I am stuck with it and am trying to save areas that appear to have take-all fungus. I have done much reading online and have tried peat m...
view the full question and answer

Ground cover for Orange County, California
August 05, 2012 - What ground cover do you suggest for an Orange Co., CA, backyard with a steep slope in 3-4 hours of sun? Needs to grow fast to beat the weeds. Something pretty would be nice! Thanks
view the full question and answer

Support the Wildflower Center by Donating Online or Becoming a Member today.