Groundcovers Instead of Grass

It’s a “tale as old as time” question. Why is the grass not growing under my trees?

And there’s another version: “Randy, what grass do you recommend for shade?”

My answers:

  1. Grass won’t grow in shade - it needs at least six hours of sun daily.
  2. I don’t.

Yes, there are a few grasses advertised as “shade tolerant,” but when it comes to Southeast Texas landscapes, there are only a couple of Zoysia varieties - Zeon and Zorro - that I believe can handle filtered light. When it comes to Bermuda and St. Augustine, though, I don’t believe any will thrive in total shade. And even if a grass variety boasts a tiny bit of shade tolerance, it won’t be able to keep up with the competition from mature tree roots for available nutrients and moisture.

So instead of trying some new turf that claims it can handle shade, let’s do what people in the heart of Houston have been doing for years … working in a groundcover.

But, before you run out and buy a bunch of flats or small pots, remember that this project will require our “starting over” protocol for grass known as “Kill, Till, Fill and Sod.” When replacing sickly turf with a groundcover, you first need to kill off the grass or what’s left of it. Then till it all out, and till in an inch or so of really healthy soil, like rose soil. That will give the new groundcover’s roots room to take hold.

Another thing to consider when switching from grass to some groundcovers is incorporating stones for a tasteful look. Stones will also reduce the number of plants you’ll need.

Take a drive through the Rice University or Bellaire areas of Houston, and you’ll see many homes where the groundcover solution has been applied. Examples ranging from Asian jasmine to dwarf monkey grass to ferns abound.

Here’s my list that covers groundcovers:

  • Asian Jasmine
  • Algerian Ivy
  • English Ivy
  • Monkey Grass
  • Dwarf Monkey Grass
  • Liriope
  • Variegated Liriope
  • Ferns (almost any type)

Be careful … many other groundcovers are great lawn replacements in shady areas, but they can get wiped out by our winters or harsh summers. They include hostas, creeping Jenny and impatiens. But, if you can think of any others that will work for our area, please email me at or give me a call on the radio show (713-212-KTRH) this weekend.

By the way, another benefit of groundcovers is that you’ll never need to mow the area again. Sure, you have to feed them and keep them watered. And you do need prune and clean them up now and then. But the groundcovers above are essentially low- to no-maintenance.

More groundcover information and care tips for the long term will be among the topics with their own chapters in my upcoming book, The Ultimate Guide to Gulf Coast Gardening. It’s due out in early February.

GardenLine with Randy Lemmon

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