Monday, February 1, 2010

Native Plant Ground Cover as Grass Substitute

My brother- and sister-in-law, who live in Brooklyn, NY recently asked about the best type of grass to grow in front of their brownstone. The area in question is an enclosed bed that receives some shade. The residents would like an attractive, easy-to-maintain area that can handle a little foot traffic. 

First, I suggest that they get a soil test to determine what amendments they need to improve growing conditions. Soil test kits are available at the public library.  They come with specific instructions. Once the results of the soil test are in, I suggest thinking beyond grass as a ground cover. Grass requires a relatively high level of maintenance, including watering, cutting, and fertilizers to keep it green.  

Native plants are a more environmentally friendly choice and have the added benefit of attracting beneficial wildlife, such as butterflies and birds. Once established, Native plants need little care, since they are well-suited to local soil and climate conditions. Following is a list of Native plants for New York City gardens, as listed in the publication: "Gardening With New York City Native Plants."

• Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) Birthwort family. To about 8 in. tall. Leaves lustrous green. Flowers hidden below leaves, deep purple-brown, April-May. Very shade tolerant.
• Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) Geranium family. Grows to 22 in. Showy pink-purple flowers are held aloft cut foliage in April-June. Attracts butterflies. Shade tolerant. Spreads slowly.
• Twoleaf mitrewort (Mitella diphylla) Saxifrage family. Grows to 16 in. Flowers white, scattered along inflorescence, April-May. Also try foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia).
• Mountain phlox (Phlox subulata) Pink family. To about 8 in. tall. Showy purplish pink flowers attract butterflies in May-July. Prefers dry, non-fertilized soils. Great for rock gardens.
Old field cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex) Rose family. Grows to 1 ft. Leaves are semi-evergreen. Flowers yellow, April-June. Try also Silverweed (P. anserina).
• Common blue violet (Viola sororia) Violet family. To about 6 in. tall. Flowers violet April-May. Attracts butterflies. Tolerant of partial shade. Freely self-sows, naturalizing in most areas.
• Barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides) Rose family. Grows to 6 in. Small clusters of yellow flowers in spring. Evergreen foliage turns bronze in winter.

see also my post on lawn care:


  1. Wow, that is a very complete answer. Perhaps one day I will be aimlessly wandering through Brooklyn admiring the brownstoes and I will come across one with a beautiful lush square plot covered with violets, perhaps, or strawberries and I will wonder, was this the building discussed in the Northern Virginia Gardener blog?

  2. May it be a transcendental experience for us all.

  3. Phil says:
    Nice! Thanks Brenda. Wild ginger and wild geranium seem the way to go. Both are shade tolerant, which is crucial in my area. I don't think that I need to test the soil, though, since we bought about 6 bags of soil from Home Depot. I doubt that there are any harmful chemicals in those bags of soil.

  4. Northern Virginia Gardener responds:
    I'm glad I could help, and I hope your efforts are rewarded in the Spring.

    I also want to clarify that a soil test is not just to determine what
    chemicals may be present in your soil. A soil test will also tell you
    the composition of the soil, the level of alkalinity or acidity, and
    the density. This will help you determine what plants grow best in
    your area. Some plants like a looser, sandier soil, while others like
    a heavy, clay soil that holds moisture. Adding a good potting mix to
    existing soil is helpful; you may also want to try manure or leaf
    compost to improve the soil composition. A soil test is certainly not
    necessary, but it is a helpful starting point.

    Good luck!