En EspaŅol

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
Can't find the answer in our existing FAQs, submit a question to Mr. Smarty Plants.
Need help with plant identification, visit the plant identification page.
rate this answer
Not Yet Rated

Sunday - May 12, 2013

From: Prineville , OR
Region: Northwest
Topic: Erosion Control, Groundcovers, Shade Tolerant
Title: Groundcover for foot traffic in dry shade from Prineville OR
Answered by: Barbara Medford


I live in central Oregon. I have an area under a large elm tree that slopes on all sides and has lots of foot traffic and no sun. (my kids have a swing in the tree and play around it a lot.) It's a very light dusty dirt that's hard to soak with water. What kind of ground cover will actually grow and or hold up to little feet and no sun, and not end up in a pile at the bottom of the slope?


The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, home of Mr. Smarty Plants, is committed to the growth, propagation and protection of plants native not only North America but to the area in which those plants evolved; in your case, Crook County OR, in central Oregon. We are pretty sure there is no such plant, native or non-native, that can withstand the conditions you describe. You not only have the heavy shade that not many plants tolerate as well as the competition of underground roots from the tree.

If no weeds, probably native grasses, have managed to pop up and survive there, that is a strong indication that nothing else is going to, either. There are a few taller grasses that can tolerate some shade, but they are not low groundcovers and would not survive to maturity with all that foot traffic.

Often, in cases like this, we suggest mulch for groundcover but, as you have already pointed out, that would go right down the hillside. Same with pea gravel and it would not be kind to small knees and feet.

We have a couple of suggestions that are pretty feeble and don't involve plants. The first is that an early morning light sprinkling of water on the area would hopefully suppress the dust without causing muddy footprints in your house.

Another totally off-the-wall possibility is artificial turf. From Wikipedia:

"Artificial turf is a surface of synthetic fibers made to look like natural grass. It is most often used in arenas for sports that were originally or are normally played on grass. However, it is now being used on residential lawns and commercial applications as well. The main reason is maintenance—artificial turf stands up to heavy use, such as in sports, and requires no irrigation or trimming. Domed, covered, and partially covered stadiums may require artificial turf because of the difficulty of getting grass enough sunlight to stay healthy. But artificial turf does have its downside: limited life, periodic cleaning requirements, petroleum use, toxic chemicals from infill, and some heightened health and safety concerns."

There are definite disadvantages, obviously, for a children's play area, and only you can make a decision on that. When we searched online on "artificial turf," all we got were advertisements, including for online ordering and delivery. Frankly, we think we would go with the dirt.


More Shade Tolerant Questions

Fast growing shade tree for Phoenix, Arizona
November 07, 2007 - Would you recommend a fast growing shade tree for Phoenix, AZ that will grow at least 30 ft. high and with a similar canopy in clay soil?
view the full question and answer

Straggler daisy as a ground cover in Florida
April 21, 2015 - I live in Hillsborough county,FL. My yard has two large oak trees and is very shady. I am looking for a shade resistant ground cover that will do well for a yard used by children to play. I was told...
view the full question and answer

Native grasses for shade for Austin
September 21, 2009 - I just read with interest your article on multi-species native lawns. However, I believe the suggested grasses don't grow well in the shade, is this true. Are there any suggestions for native (mult...
view the full question and answer

Deer-resistant plants for under cedar and oak trees in Austin
June 22, 2010 - I have about 1.5 acres in southern Travis county. It's full of mature live oaks and cedar trees, and the soil is full of limestone. I've been gathering the limestone and using them to create raise...
view the full question and answer

Should Solanum eleagnifolium, silverleaf nightshade, be removed from yard
October 01, 2009 - I live in Upstate NY. I'm quite sure, after checking many sites/pictures, that I have a couple specimens of Silver Leaf Night Shade (Solanum elaeagnifolium) growing in the "wild" portion of my side...
view the full question and answer

Support the Wildflower Center by Donating Online or Becoming a Member today.
© 2015 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center