“A new neighbor decided to limb up some spruce trees to about 8 feet along the property line and I am now looking at bare soil on my side of the trees. Will a shady grass blend work in this situation? The area is shady almost all day. If grass will not grow, what ground cover would grow there? I prefer something that stays low.”
— Barry Gunderson, Deerfield
The area under the spruce trees will likely be too shady to grow grass even if you use a shade blend of grass seed. If you can get grass to grow in the deep shade, you will probably need to seed it again every spring and it will thin out as the season progresses.
I assume that the bare area under the trees is large, since the branches were limbed up to 8 feet. You may be able to reduce the size of the bare ground by seeding grass along the edge of the bed where there will be more sun. Then plant a ground cover that will tolerate dry shade to fill the rest of the area.
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a native vine that should work to cover the ground under the spruce trees. This plant will stay low, but will need to be kept from climbing the trunks of the spruce. Cut it back as it spreads from the bed out into the lawn. This plant is an inexpensive solution to cover a large area. Plant the vines on 2- to 5-foot centers, depending on how quickly you want to cover the bed. Avoid tilling the area in preparation for the new ground covers to minimize damaging the roots of the spruce trees.
I have had good luck using Canadian wild ginger (Asarum canadense) to cover dry, shady areas in my garden. It will wilt during periods of more extreme dry conditions, so you may need to give it a touch of water on occasion. It is low-growing and spreads.
If you are willing to provide supplemental water on a more regular basis to this area, you could consider using more moisture-loving ground covers such as creeping lilyturf, pachysandra and yellow archangel.
There are also many types of hostas with different heights and foliage colors that would work well under the spruce trees, but you may want to avoid hosta if you have deer that browse in your garden. I have a large planting of hosta under an oak tree that I do not water.
Any new planting will need attention to watering in the first year to get the plants established, even if they are tolerant of dry conditions.
For more plant advice, contact the Plant Information Service at the Chicago Botanic Garden at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tim Johnson is senior director of horticulture at the Chicago Botanic Garden.