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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.

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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.

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Wednesday - September 11, 2013

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Groundcovers, Shade Tolerant, Grasses or Grass-like
Title: Native lawn replacement for shady areas in Austin
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

Our front lawn was totally destroyed this summer during some remodeling construction. I am interested in replacing it with native grasses, but we have several oak trees that keep the area fairly shady. I do not think the Habiturf mix will establish well, from what I've read about it. Is there another mix or type that might be better for shadier areas?

ANSWER:

In our queue of questions for Mr. Smarty Plants today we have two questions from two entirely different parts of the country, both asking for lawn selection help. To help you know what page we are on in terms of lawn grasses, please read this recent article from the New York Times "Lose the Lawn".

You are correct, the Wildflower Center-developed Habiturf needs from 4 to 5 hours of sun a day, which makes it almost impossible to grow in shade. Another problem is that besides shedding shade on the ground beneath them, most oaks emit substances that discourage plant competition in their territory. This is called "allelopathy," and is also common with members of the Juglandaceae family - walnuts, pecans and hickories - causing havoc with attempts to plant grass or other groundcovers under those trees.

Having dealt with your plantings, we must attempt to help you find alternates, not an easy task. From a previous Mr. Smarty Plants answer on Austin lawns:

"More and more, we are encouraging gardeners to move away from grass or formal lawn, especially in drought-stricken Texas, and more especially, shady lawns. Here is a previous Mr. Smarty Plants answer that might point you in some good directions. From another Mr. Smarty Plants answer:

We would suggest you consider putting something else beneath those trees and perhaps embark on a process of xeriscaping. From eartheasy, here is an excellent article on Xeriscape. Obviously, you do not have to do every single thing suggested for xeriscaping, but you can start small and work your way up. Without knowing exactly what else is going on in your garden, we would suggest covering the oak roots and bare ground with a nice layer of mulch. Please read our How-To Article Under Cover with Mulch.

A good quality shredded bark mulch will make a nice cool surface for the ground, sheltering the tree roots from heat and the sun, discouraging weeds from sprouting and preserving moisture in the soil. It will tend to scatter or decompose, sinking into the soil and making it healthier, over time, but it's an easy fix to spread some more on the area. And it doesn't have to be mowed. We had one letter from a homeowner this week that said they were so over grass, and we feel, in this hot, dry climate, that may be a very good idea."

If you live in an HOA that mandates a certain percentage of grass and/or St. Augustine you may have to see if you can get an exception.

We can offer you a few suggestion for native grasses and other herbs (herbaceous blooming plants) but these are not necessarily what you would call traditional lawn grasses. Most of them cannot tolerate continuous foot traffic; for those areas in which foot traffic occurs you could consider the mulch, small gravel or degenerated granite for walkways.

To offer you a list of native groundcovers, we will go to our Native Plant Database, scroll down to the Combination Search, selecting first on Texas, "grass or grass-like" under Habit, "dry" for soil moisture, "shade" (less than 2 hours of sun a day) and "part shade" (2 to 6 hours of sun a day), and 0' to 1' in height. You can follow each plant link on our list to our webpage on that plant to learn its growing conditions, propagation methods and see some pictures. If you scroll down to the bottom of that page you can click on the USDA Plant Profiles for that plant to learn if it is native to the area in which you are gardening. We usually check on this with every plant we recommend, in order to assure that plant can live in the rainfall, climate and soils in which you garden. We will run the exact same search for "herbs" (herbaceous blooming plants).

Low grasses for for part shade to shade in Austin:

Carex planostachys (Cedar sedge)

Carex texensis (Texas sedge)

Low herbaceous blooming plants for shade in Austin:

Amblyolepis setigera (Huisache daisy)

Callirhoe involucrata (Winecup)

Calyptocarpus vialis (Straggler daisy)

Chamaecrista fasciculata (Partridge pea)

Dichondra argentea (Silver ponyfoot)

Glandularia bipinnatifida (Purple prairie verbena)

Hedeoma drummondii (Drummond's false pennyroyal)

If you have difficulty finding these plants native to Texas in your area nurseries (and you probably will) go to our National Suppliers Directory, put you town and state or just your zipcode in the Enter Search Location box, press GO and you will get a list of native plant nurseries, seed companies and consultants in your general area. They have contact information so you can get in touch to find out what they have before you start shopping.

 

From the Image Gallery


Cedar sedge
Carex planostachys

Texas sedge
Carex texensis

Huisache daisy
Amblyolepis setigera

Winecup
Callirhoe involucrata

Horseherb
Calyptocarpus vialis

Partridge pea
Chamaecrista fasciculata

Silver ponyfoot
Dichondra argentea

Prairie verbena
Glandularia bipinnatifida

Drummond's false pennyroyal
Hedeoma drummondii

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