Hi. My parents have a shady spot in their yard, under a high canopy of oaks...

Asked May 23, 2015, 6:29 PM EDT

Hi. My parents have a shady spot in their yard, under a high canopy of oaks (at least 25') that gets nice light but not much direct sun, and little dappled shade. The house is on north side, the base of the oaks is on the east, and a patio beneath the deck is to the west. It is wide open on the south. The soil is pretty sandy, for sure not leaning towards clay. There is grass there now, but would like to not have to mow as it is too tight for the radius of their riding mower, and too big to cut with the trimmer (perhaps 20'x8'). We are thinking about putting down some type of wood mulch and a few perennials. They currently have very prolific ferns and hosta in the other shady areas of the yard, which would likely grow well and look nice here. However, my dad is insistent that there be no more plants that require cutting back in the fall or spring. Is there anything that you can suggest that would work for them? Thank you.

Ramsey County Minnesota

1 Response

Thank you for the question. Cutting back, pruning, and general garden clean up can be a significant amount of work so I understand your Dad's desire to not add to his work load! On the other hand, all plants require some maintanence and clean up. This is even more true on a wood mulch bed where every bit of litter will stand out against the uniformity of the wood chips. There are several options to maintaining turf grass in a cramped location, but before you do anything you will need to remove the grass without harming the tree roots. This can be accomplished by manually digging it out and shaking off the excess soil, or you could kill it with a product like glyphosate (Roundup). Digging out the dead sod will be a bit easier to accomplish than removing the live grass. Once this is done, you can plant and then add a mulch layer, no more than 4 inches thick. More than this can reduce the oxygen available to the fine tree roots, ultimately harming the tree. One option that would ensure easy clean up would be to put pots with shade or part shade annuals on top of the mulch. In the fall, simply discard the pot contents. If your Dad doesn't like that option, you could pick low residue slow growing shrubs like azaleas or rhododendrons. Here are several links to read about how to plant under trees and a list of plant options for challenging situations such as you have: http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/landscaping/planting-under-trees/ http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/landscaping/best-plants-for-tough-sites/ http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/07400.html http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/landscaping/maint/ground_covers.html Another option to consider is a ground cover instead of mulch. Many require very little care once established and can even be lightly walked on. Read the links on ground cover options. http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/07400.html http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/landscaping/maint/ground_covers.html Your Dad will have to decide what he wants but in reality, there are no plants that are maintanence free. Thank you for contacting Extension.