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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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Thursday - December 06, 2012

From: West Chester, PA
Region: Mid-Atlantic
Topic: Soils, Groundcovers, Shade Tolerant, Ferns, Grasses or Grass-like, Herbs/Forbs, Trees
Title: Ground cover under Spruces from West Chester PA
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

Trying to get a native groundcover (or any grass/wildflower/fern) planting established under a small stand of spruces. Established stand (30+ years old), so lots of needles on ground. Just about total shade. Any ideas?

ANSWER:

There are three members of the genus Picea (spruce) and family Pinaceae native to Pennsylvania: Picea glauca (White spruce), Picea mariana (Black spruce), and Picea pungens (Blue spruce). We are not sure which one you have but you can follow the plant links above to our webpage on each to find out what their prospective heights and best environment are. Of these, we chose Picea pungens (Blue spruce) for our example. We need to know what kind of soil and sunlight they require in order to understand what might grow beneath them. The spruces apparently need medium amounts of water, part shade, and moist, rich, acidic soil.

In selecting groundcovers, you have several problems. That deep shade and the extensve underground root system of the spruce is not going to encourage much in the way of growth beneath it. We found an article from the Edmonton Journal on that exact subject, Acidic Soil Beneath Spruce Trees. Of course, the author included several plants not native to North America, so we will find some that are native. We went to our Native Plant Database to begin our search. Using the Combination Search, we first chose Pennsylvania for the State, grass or grass-like for the Habit, part shade or shade for Light Requirement, moist for Soil Moisture and 1-3 ft. for the mature height. We ran the same search with herb (herbaceous blooming plant) and fern for the Habit. There is no opportunity for selecting the preferred soil acidity in our Database, but you are going to have an acidic soil with all those needles falling on the ground over a 30-year time period. By following each plant link to our webpage, you can find out more about the Growing Conditions of that specific plant. We restricted our suggestions to those needing a moist acidic soil.

Grass or Grass-like:

Carex blanda (Eastern woodland sedge)

Carex plantaginea (Plantainleaf sedge)

Herb (Herbaceous blooming plant)

Anemone quinquefolia (Wood anemone)

Argentina anserina (Silverweed cinquefoil)

Asarum canadense (Canadian wild ginger)

Claytonia caroliniana (Carolina springbeauty)

Glandularia canadensis (Rose vervain)

Hydrastis canadensis (Goldenseal)

Mitchella repens (Partridgeberry)

Phlox divaricata (Wild blue phlox)

Ferns:

Athyrium filix-femina (Common ladyfern)

Osmunda cinnamomea (Cinnamon fern)

You may have difficulty locating these plants in large commercial nurseries. Go to our National Suppliers Directory, put your town and state or just your zip code in the "Enter Search Location" box and you will  get a list of native plant nurseries, seed suppliers and consultants in your general area. All have contact information so you can get information on availability and location before you leave home.

 

From the Image Gallery


Eastern woodland sedge
Carex blanda

Plantainleaf sedge
Carex plantaginea

Canadian anemone
Anemone canadensis

Silverweed cinquefoil
Argentina anserina

Canadian wild ginger
Asarum canadense

Carolina springbeauty
Claytonia caroliniana

Rose vervain
Glandularia canadensis

Goldenseal
Hydrastis canadensis

Partridgeberry
Mitchella repens

Wild blue phlox
Phlox divaricata

Common lady fern
Athyrium filix-femina

Cinnamon fern
Osmunda cinnamomea

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