Grow Knowledge

40 Winning Plants for Shade

Hosta Photo by Maria Gulley

Photo by Maria Gulley

Many of us have yards with shaded areas, but I get a lot of questions asking what the plant options are beyond hostas. Don't get me wrong, I love hostas - there are so many unique varieties, and bees and hummingbirds can't get enough of the flowers. But they are prone to slug and deer damage, and it's not crazy to want a little bit of something different. Below I've come up with 40 different plants for shade - some prefer dappled sunlight, and others can take pretty dense shade. I divided the plants into four categories: shrubs and small trees, perennials, groundcovers, and annuals and tropicals.

Some of the plants that people often pick for shade have been deliberately omitted due to having invasive tendencies (wintercreeper, English ivy), being poorly matched for central Indiana growing conditions (azalea, rhododendron), or other reasons. With the plants that remain, I did my best to pick many different colors and styles. All of these plants should be available for retail purchase, although some may be easier to find at independent garden centers rather than big box stores. If you have a specific need you're trying to fill, never hesitate to ask! I love a good plant selection challenge. Since I'm a bit of a native plant and pollinator nerd, I'm marking species native to Indiana with a * and pollinator-friendly species with a + .

Shrubs and Small Trees

Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)*+: a large, showy-flowered shrub that tends to form a sprawling colony

Boxwood (Buxus species and hybrids): this evergreen has some shade-tolerant varieties, although they will be less dense in the shade than in the sun

Chokeberry (Aronia species and hybrids)*+: known for its brilliant fall color, this medium sized native shrub also sports edible berries and small white flowers

Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus)*: a lesser known and harder-to-find shrub, coralberry is a low-growing suckering shrub that is perfect for filling low-maintenance areas; white, pink, or red berries in the fall

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum): there is a Japanese maple for every situation, with a wide range of sizes, habits, leaf colors, and leaf shapes; some varieties are more shade tolerant than others

Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)+: a reliable, low-maintenance shrub with amazing flowers; both dwarf and large varieties available; good dark red fall leaf color

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)*+: a.k.a. Indiana banana, this isn't the showiest tree but it's a good understory filler that makes delicious fruits

Serviceberry (Amelanchier species and hybrids)*+: showy white flowers, delicious early summer berries, and fantastic fall color make this small tree a winner

Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)*+: sweet-smelling white flowers and a tolerance for dense shade make this small shrub perfect for shady back yards

Witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis): this shrub has some of the earliest blooms in the garden with color starting as early as February; there are also varieties that bloom late in the fall around November


Astilbe (Astilbe species and hybrids)+: one of my favorites for shade, astilbe has bright feathery plumes of flowers in a range of reds, pinks, whites, and purples

Ferns (such as Cinnamon, Christmas, Autumn): ferns on the whole thrive in shade, and several do quite well in central Indiana; two of our favorites are cinnamon fern and autumn fern

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra species and hybrids)+: with a unique flower and convenient spring bloom time, bleeding heart is an old-fashioned favorite that's regaining popularity

Coral Bells/Foamflower/Hybrids (HeucheraTiarella, and Heucherella varieties)*+: these closely related native species and hybrids come in a range of leaf colors and sizes; they're perfect for getting a warm color palette in the shade

Ice Dance Sedge (Carex morrowii 'Ice Dance'): if you love grasses but have lots of shade, sedges are for you; Ice Dance Sedge has the tamest appearance and its white variegation helps it stand out

Epimedium (Epimedium species and hybrids): I consider this fascinating plant one of the most underused perennials; the spring flowers come in amazing shapes, and the foliage changes color through the year and can be evergreen in mild winters

Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra): another pick for grass-lovers, this one comes in greens and golds, and it waves beautifully in the lightest breeze

Lenten Rose (Helleborus species and hybrids): with a February to March bloom season and evergreen foliage, Lenten rose delights year round; be careful around kids though - it's poisonous

Ligularia (Ligularia species)+: the dramatic large foliage (nearly black on some varieties) is matched only by the brilliant yellow flowers that shoot up on spikes in mid summer

Pulmonaria (Pulmonaria longifolia): a low-growing foliage plant with a humble spring flower and interesting spotted patterns of variegation

Snakeroot (Actaea racemosa)*+: with leaves 2-3' tall and white flower spikes up to 6', snakeroot can fill space easily in a shade garden

Toad Lily (Tricyrtis hirta)+: toad lily has fascinating speckled flowers and a late summer/early fall bloom time that keeps the color coming after most plants are done for the year

Astilbe Photo by Maria Gulley

Photo by Maria Gulley

Bleeding Heart Photo by Maria Gulley

Bleeding Heart
Photo by Maria Gulley

Japanese Forest Grass Photo by Maria Gulley

Japanese Forest Grass
Photo by Maria Gulley

Toad Lily Photo by Maria Gulley

Toad Lily
Photo by Maria Gulley


Ajuga (Ajuga reptans)+: purple flowers in the spring are a special treat, but the low-growing foliage is a delight all year long

Bigroot Geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum)+: there are many kinds of perennial geranium, but only certain species and hybrids are adapted for shade; be sure to check the tag before picking one

Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon japonicus): this short, spreading, grass-like groundcover comes in green and a deep purple that approaches black

Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis): another old-fashioned favorite for its sweet-smelling white flowers, lily-of-the-valley is another poisonous pick to avoid if you have small children

Pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens* and terminalis): in addition to the more readily available Japanese pachysandra, there is also a native species; both are evergreen

Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum odoratum)+: the arching stems and identical oval-shaped leaves are the show-stoppers here, but you'll also find hanging white flowers in pairs in the spring

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense* and europaeum): another underrated superstar, you can find wild ginger in a glossy European variety or a more plain North American species; both are low-maintenance and trouble-free

Wood Phlox (Phlox divaricata)*+: this native shade phlox is a little trickier to find in garden centers, but its pale blue flowers and popularity with all manner of pollinators make it worth the hunt

Pulmonaria Photo by Maria Gulley

Photo by Maria Gulley

Lily-of-the-valley Photo by Maria Gulley

Photo by Maria Gulley

Solomon's Seal Photo by Maria Gulley

Solomon's Seal
Photo by Maria Gulley

Annuals and Tropicals

Begonia (Begonia species and hybrids): begonias are faithful, tried, and true; many varieties work in both sun and shade, so if you want consistency this is a great pick

Caladium (Caladium bicolor): sometimes called elephant ears (that name is more often used for other plants), these delicate foliage plants come with foliage in all kinds of patterns of green, white, pink, and red

Coleus (Solenostemon species)+: there is a coleus for every occasion, including some that take full sun as well as full shade; this leafy plant comes in oranges, red, yellows, greens, and combinations of all of the above

Cordyline (Cordyline): also known a ti plant, cordyline is a tropical foliage plant that likes light shade; it's a good upright plant to fill space in containers

Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia): this is currently my favorite trailing plant for containers, and it can also be used as a groundcover; the foliage is an almost yellow lime green in sunnier spots and more green in the shade

Lobelia (Lobelia erinus)+: lobelia offers one of the only true blues in the landscape, and it loves shade; it's a popular pick as a bedding plant or to fill little nooks and crannies in planters

New Guinea Impatiens (Impatiens hawkeri): I left non-new guinea impatiens off the list since impatiens downy mildew has become a major problem, but their cousins New Guinea impatiens aren't susceptible to the disease

Persian Shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus): silvery purple foliage with dark green veins stand on stems that grow to over three feet tall on this stunning shade annual

Philodendron (Philodendron species): there are many kinds of philodendron, but all of them can take the shade; they are also popular houseplants, so bring them inside overwinter to keep a little bit of green in your life

Wishbone Flower (Torenia fournieri)+: another good bedding plant option, torenia comes in purple, pink, blue, white and yellow

Lobelia and Japanese Forest Grass Photo by Maria Gulley

Lobelia and Japanese Forest Grass
Photo by Maria Gulley

Coleus and Creeping Jenny Photo by Maria Gulley

Coleus and Creeping Jenny
Photo by Maria Gulley

Persian Shield By Montréalais - Own work, CC BY 3.0

Persian Shield
By Montréalais - Own work, CC BY 3.0

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Pest Alert: Spider Mites

Hot, dry summers stress plants out, and some pests take that as an opportunity to strike. One common pest in the height of the summer is the spider mite, a tiny, spider-like mite that sucks water and nutrients from the undersides of leaves.

Yellow stippling is a symptom of spider mite damage.  By Rasbak - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Yellow stippling is a symptom of spider mite damage.
By Rasbak - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

How do I tell if I have spider mites?

There are a handful of different species of spider mites, some of which specialize on just a few plants while others attack a broad range, but the symptoms and treatments are all similar, so we’ll group them together. The first thing you’ll notice in a spider mite infestation is that the leaves of your plants will be covered in tiny yellow dots. If the infestation is bad enough, you may eventually have more yellow or bronze than green on the leaves. When spruces and other needle-bearing plants have a mite infestation, they look kind of dusty, like there’s a film of brown over the needles.

If you flip a leaf over, you’ll see the mites themselves as little orange specks. To see if they’re still alive and active, hold a white sheet of paper under the plant and shake it vigorously to knock some mites off. They will crawl around on the paper after being knocked off if they are still alive and eating your plants. In especially bad infestations, you’ll also see some webbing on the leaves.

What do they do to my plants?

Spider mites suck the moisture from your plants leaving an unattractive appearance and stressing the plants out. Since they tend to be a worse problem when plants are already experiencing drought stress, serious infestations can cause leaf loss, stunting, or even death in smaller plants, and they can leave larger plants more vulnerable to additional problems. In a healthy plant, a mild to moderate infestation is no serious problem, but if it spirals out of control in a stressed landscape you’ll need to start to worry.

What can I do to get rid of them?

In serious infestations, leaves become stunted and the mites start to create webs.  By Rasbak - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

In serious infestations, leaves become stunted and the mites start to create webs.
By Rasbak - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The best treatment is prevention. Spider mites have a whole host of natural enemies, so the best thing you can do to control them is to avoid using pesticides on your plants unless your are actively controlling another harmful pest problem. Excessive or inappropriate pesticide use actually creates more problems than it solves. Mites aren’t killed by many common insecticides, so they will survive while their predators are killed off if you use chemicals without having an actual need for them.

Since drought increases the threat of spider mites, keeping your landscape watered during serious dry spells can help protect them, and it can help reduce problems if mites have already invaded. For tips on keeping your landscape happily watered, check out last week’s blog post.

But if you already have an infestation, there are some steps you can take. Mites don’t move very fast or very far, so spraying plants with a strong setting on your hose can knock them off as long as you’re targeting the undersides of the leaves. Start with lower pressure on more delicate leaves and check to see if the pests are knocked off so that you don’t damage the leaves with the water. Since there may be eggs left behind or some mites may hold on tighter, you might need to spray the plants down weekly or twice a week while hot, dry weather persists.

In widespread, intense cases, chemicals may be necessary. Insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils work on spider mites during the growing season. Dormant oils can be used in the winter to smother the adults that overwinter on the branches. Miticides designed specifically to kill mites do exist, but they must be applied by a state licensed professional. If you think chemical action may be warranted, it’s not a bad idea to contact a professional or submit a sample to the Purdue Plant and Pest Diagnostic Lab first to get customized instructions for your situation. We are happy to help! If you want more information or to see more pictures, Purdue and Ohio State have excellent resources that go into more detail.

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Tips for Effective Watering

What is the single most important factor in the short-term and long-term success of a new planting? If you said proper watering, you're right. Newly installed plants don't have extensive root systems like more established plants, so they rely on the moisture present in their root ball. Even drought-tolerant species will need a little help at first. As new plants grow and root out into the surrounding soil, they become stronger and more resilient to changes in moisture levels. But be careful - there is such a thing as too much water, especially in the slow-draining clay soils common in the Indianapolis area. Also be aware that just because the hose is running, it doesn't mean that the right amount of water is going to the right place. Follow these instructions to make sure your new installation is happy and healthy.

When to water

Dig into the soil 2-4 inches with your hand or a trowel. If the soil feels damp, don’t water, but check the soil daily to see if it's dry. Soon you will be able to use the weather and the look of the plant will help you judge if it’s time to check the soil again so you aren’t having to check every day. If it's 90 degrees in July, and it hasn't rained in three weeks, a new tree or shrub might need to be checked twice per week, while perennials should be checked every 2-3 days. If it's 60 degrees in April and it has poured rain for a week, you should be fine checking once per week at most. Eventually, you'll learn what your property needs, and you may not need to dig into the ground often at all.

How to water

When the soil is dry, water the plant slowly and deeply. This means you should water slow enough that the water is absorbed without running off. Leaving the hose running on full blast at the base of a tree won't help much because the water will run off instead of soaking into the soil. Instead, leave the hose on a trickle within the root ball of a tree or shrub or set up a sprinkler to cover the area with new plants.

Periodic deep watering is better than frequent shallow watering because it encourages the roots to grow further, and so it prepares the plants to be stronger and more resilient after you stop hand-watering.

Fifteen to twenty minutes of gentle watering should be enough for a shrub or very small tree. For larger trees, water the tree for a total of about 45 minutes, moving the hose once or twice to make sure the root area is evenly covered (you don’t have to move it if you’re using a sprinkler). Tree irrigation bags can be helpful in the short run if you know you'll forget to water a tree. Follow the instructions provided with the bag to make sure you're providing the right amount of water for the size of your tree. In very hot, sunny weather, tree bags can actually hurt your tree by trapping heat and humidity against the bark. In these conditions, consider removing the bag entirely or at least taking it off between fillings.


Annuals and perennials don't need to be watered as deeply as trees and shrubs since their roots are shallower. A sprinkler or a hand-held hose nozzle works well. 20-30 minutes is usually enough time for a sprinkler on perennials, 10-15 minutes for annuals. When hand-watering, I like to slowly move over the area in 15-30 circuits depending on how dry the soil is. Annuals will need water more frequently than perennials, because we focus more on growing those for a showy display above ground rather than a durable root system below ground.

Keep in mind that all these numbers for watering frequency and duration will change depending on soil type and moisture and weather conditions. When in doubt, check the soil in the way we described above.

Water newly planted trees and shrubs throughout the first year from spring until late fall. Trees benefit from an additional season of watering, especially if they were planted late in the year. Perennials are usually safe to stop watering after 2-3 months, but keep an eye on them. Annuals should be watered all season long. Temporary irrigation can be installed for the first few months or the first season so you don't have to worry about checking the soil. If you’re interested in having temporary irrigation installed after your project is complete, talk to your account manager. Water plants in later years when they look wilted, such as during droughts.

Other Tips

  • Water between late evening and early morning to reduce water loss through evaporation (but don't wait if a plant is wilting now!).

  • Avoid watering the leaves when possible. This can cause leaf spot diseases on some plants, especially roses.

  • Frequent light watering is only good for annuals, and even they prefer deeper watering.

  • Wilted leaves can come from too much water as well as from too little water. Always check the soil, especially in containers without drainage.

  • A thick layer of mulch will help conserve moisture. Just make sure you apply extra water so that the soil still gets soaked to a depth of a few inches.

Download a PDF version of our watering instructions.

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Top 10 Benefits of Urban Trees

Street trees in Rome Photo by Maria Gulley

Street trees in Rome
Photo by Maria Gulley

Many people enjoy looking at trees, using photos of them as desktop backgrounds, or even occasionally planting one on Arbor Day (or when Keep Indianapolis Beautiful hosts a community tree planting in your neighborhood). While the general opinion is in favor of trees, we are sometimes hesitant to have them in urban or suburban settings near our homes and streets because we're intimidated by the damage they can cause or the effort they can require to maintain. In reality, a properly chosen and placed tree requires little maintenance after establishment, and as long as that maintenance is attended to, the chances of a tree crashing down on your house without warning are low. But over and above that, urban trees are important because they provide tremendous (I could have said "tree-mendous" but I stopped myself) benefits to our environment, communities, health, and even economy. Below are the top 10 benefits of urban trees from as ranked by David Nowak at the U.S. Forest Service and presented by the staff at Keep Indianapolis Beautiful.

1. Oxygen Production
If oxygen is so important, why are we placing this benefit at the bottom of the list? Trees do produce oxygen, but the amount produced by urban trees isn't much compared to the amount produced by the oceans and forests of the world, and that oxygen does a pretty good job of working its way through the atmosphere to areas far from oceans and large forests.

2. Noise Reduction and Screening
Trees can buffer the noise from a busy road or highway or help create a quiet spot in a city. Not only can the trees physically reduce some of the sound, but they also mask unpleasant sounds with their own soothing noises of rustling leaves and birdsong.

Trees along the Cultural Trail in downtown Indy Photo by Maria Gulley

Trees along the Cultural Trail in downtown Indy
Photo by Maria Gulley

3. Wildlife Habitat
Without trees, you can't establish much wildlife. Wildlife provides opportunities for informal education and nurturing curiosity, and it is essential to our urban ecosystem. Native trees are especially valuable, as a single species can host literally hundreds of species of native insects that in turn feed birds and other animals. In a few weeks I'll be writing about the value of native wildlife and biodiversity, so tune in for an exciting discussion.

4. UV Radiation Protection
A tree's shade can reduce UV exposure and delay sunburn. The benefit will vary depending on the density and spread of the canopy, but dense shade can offer up to a 95% reduction in UV radiation.

5. Greenhouse Gas Reduction
Trees use the carbon dioxide in the air to make the sugars they need to live, and this helps offset the carbon dioxide we produce both biologically and through burning fossil fuels. In one year, an acre of trees can consume enough carbon dioxide to match what is emitted by an average car driving 26,000 miles. Our urban forests aren't large enough to totally compensate for the amount of carbon dioxide we produce, but they certainly reduce it.

6. Air Quality Improvement
Producing oxygen and capturing carbon dioxide are types of air quality improvement, but urban trees don't stop there. They can also reduce air pollution as the trees catch particulate matter in the air that might otherwise turn into unhealthy smog.

7. Water Quality Improvement
Whenever we get a heavy rain in Indianapolis, we are at risk for a combined sewer overflow. What this means is that so much rain is running off of our paved surfaces and into our sewer system that raw sewage overflows and gets into our natural waterways (see the diagramon the left). Trees can reduce the number and severity of combined sewer overflows by collecting rain on leaves, bark, and in the soil. Indianapolis is doing great work in using green infrastructure to manage stormwater, and was even featured in a 2013 report from the Natural Resource Defense Council, but there is still a long way to go.

8. Health Benefits
Beyond reducing UV radiation, trees offer some surprising and substantial health benefits. Trees reduce asthma and respiratory disease by reducing air pollution. Being around trees and other plants can have psychological effects similar to antidepressants and ADD medication, and they have been shown to reduce stress. Hospital patients with a view of greenery recover faster, require less pain medication, and have fewer complications than patients without such a view.

9. Aesthetic and Socio-Economic Benefits
We intuitively understand the aesthetic benefits of trees. They're beautiful, and they make the spaces around them more beautiful. The socio-economic benefits of trees are less obvious, but studies show that trees reduce crime rates, increase business sales, and reduce traffic speeds, and we also know that they increase property values and strengthen communities.

Street trees in NYC Photo retrieved from Pixabay

Street trees in NYC
Photo retrieved from Pixabay

10. Cooling and Energy Savings
Not all of these benefits can be measured in dollars and cents, but this one can. Trees reduce heating costs through shade and evapotranspiration (as they pull water from the soil, more evaporates from the leaves and has a cooling effect), or they can provide a windbreak to reduce winter heating if properly placed. Adding greenery to cities can reduce or even eliminate the urban heat island effect. The urban heat island effect explains that urban areas tend to be substantially warmer than suburban or rural areas due to the lack of green space and the abundance of heat reflecting surfaces like glass and asphalt.

These 10 are by no means the only benefits of urban trees, and many of these could be broken down into several separate benefits, but this gives a glimpse about just how essential trees are in our communities. If you want some handy pamphlets summarizing some of these benefits, I highly recommend these fact sheets produced in collaboration by the Indiana DNR Community and Urban Forestry program and the Indiana Urban Forest Council. To delve into the tree benefits we can put a price tag on, check out the free i-Tree Design tool to calculate the value added by any tree. We don't need to be afraid of trees; we need to embrace them and the benefits they provide. What are some of the reasons you love trees? Can you think of any benefits I left off the list? Feel free to add to the conversation in the comments.

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Pest Alert: Spotted Lanternfly

Spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) adult winged, in Pennsylvania, on July 20, 2018. USDA-ARS Photo by Stephen Ausmus.

Spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) adult winged, in Pennsylvania, on July 20, 2018. USDA-ARS Photo by Stephen Ausmus.

Another major tree pest has emerged: the spotted lanternfly. This striking planthopper was first identified in Pennsylvania in 2014, and while it has not yet become widespread, it has the potential to spread quickly. Tree-lovers everywhere need to be on high alert. Spotted lanternfly targets grapes, hops, and the invasive tree of heaven first, but it can also attack and kill maples, oaks, fruit trees, pines, sycamores, willows, walnuts, and poplars.

How did it get here?

Spotted lanternfly is native to eastern Asia and parts of India where it is a common agricultural and forestry pest. It was first spotted in Pennsylvania northwest of Philadelphia in 2014, and it is not known exactly how it made it here. The grey egg masses are easy to miss, so it could have arrived in any number of ways. So far it has spread to some areas of New Jersey, New York, and Virginia, and those states are on high alert to identify and contain the insect.

An adult spotted Lanternfly (Photo courtesy of Bugwood)

An adult spotted Lanternfly (Photo courtesy of Bugwood)

What does it do?

In late spring to early summer, typically around May, eggs hatch and young spotted lanternflies (called nymphs) emerge to begin feeding. During the early nymph stages, they like to feed on leaves and soft stems. As they develop into later stages (called instars), they start feeding on tougher tissues, even thick branches and trunks. The adults prefer to feed and mate on tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima, also an invasive species), but they are not terribly picky, and they will still attack a wide range of plants. They use their straw-like mouths to pierce plant tissues and suck out water and nutrients. This saps the plants of valuable resources and creates weeping wounds that leave the stressed plants susceptible to other infections and infestations. Over time, even a tree can succumb to the prolonged stress and die. More tender plants like grapevines will die more quickly.

2nd and 3rd instar nymph (black), 4th instar nymph (red body) in Pennsylvania, on July 16, 2018. USDA-ARS Photo by Stephen Ausmus.

2nd and 3rd instar nymph (black), 4th instar nymph (red body) in Pennsylvania, on July 16, 2018. USDA-ARS Photo by Stephen Ausmus.

How do I spot it?

Partially covered egg mass, 11/15/15, photo by Emelie Swackhamer of Penn State University CC by 3.0

Partially covered egg mass, 11/15/15, photo by Emelie Swackhamer of Penn State University CC by 3.0

Fortunately, spotted lanternfly spends its entire life cycle on the outside of the plant where we can see it, and it is very distinctive. The egg masses are the most difficult stage to spot, but also the easiest to deal with. In October, adult females lay egg masses on just about any surface they find. The masses look like lumps of grey clay mud about 1” wide and 2” long. At first, they’re shiny, but over time they dry out to a dull, matte grey. They can be on trees, houses, cars, trailers, crates – just about anything. This is the species’ best way to spread quickly. When the eggs hatch, the first three instars are round, black, wingless little dudes covered in white spots. The final nymph instar is a brilliant red with black and white spots, and it doesn’t look like any other bug I’m used to seeing in the garden. The adults are about 1” long and ½” wide with brownish-grey outer wings with black spots and a netting-like pattern. When their wings are fully spread, the bright red inner wings are revealed.

What do I do if I find one?

If you think you find a spotted lanternfly, take pictures, collect it in a sealed container if you can, and contact the entomology department at the Indiana DNR immediately. You can reach them on the phone at 1-866-NO-EXOTIC (1-866-633-9684) or by email at You can also find your regional inspector and contact them directly. If you live outside of Indiana, you can go through this website from the USDA to find your state’s extension service, and they will put you in touch with the right people. Want to learn more about spotted lanternfly? The APHIS division of the USDA has all sorts of helpful information in their spotted lanternfly profile.

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8 Invasive Plants to Avoid

Did you know that some of the plants sold at many big box stores, garden centers, and nurseries are invasive species? An invasive species is a non-native species with the ability to grow, reproduce, and spread quickly to push out native species and cause ecosystem damage and/or economic harm. The classic plant examples are Asian honeysuckle and kudzu. Invasive species make their way into our ecosystems in all kinds of ways, but when it comes to invasive plants one of the most common ways they are introduced is through ornamental use.

Many of these plants are beautiful, easy to grow, and quick to establish. That makes them great candidates for low-maintenance landscapes, but sometimes they're just a little too good at thriving, and they can escape into our natural areas and wreak havoc on the environment. Not all easily grown and quickly established plants are invasive though: there are several rockstar hydrangeas, and none of them are invasive (some are even native).

There are two main arguments I typically hear when I encourage people not to buy these plants: “it’s not invasive in my yard,” and “if it were really that bad I wouldn’t be able to buy it”. You might be able to keep a plant under control in your yard pretty well with trimming and weed control, but when seeds or scraps make it into areas with less detailed oversight, they may quickly take off and cause significant problems. I agree that invasive plants should be restricted early and not sold, but regulatory wheels turn slowly. Some states take longer than others to ban species, and some states are more aggressive than others in which species they list. Right now, Indiana actually has no laws restricting invasive terrestrial plants, but a new rule is currently under review to ban the worst of the worst species.

Beyond official regulations, it’s up to an individual nursery, garden center, or landscape company to choose not to use these harmful species, and several companies have begun to self-regulate. Below we've listed ten plants widely available for purchase that should not be planted, and we’ve provided some well-behaved alternatives (*native species are marked with an asterisk). We have stopped using any of these, and we want to encourage you to join us.

Burning Bush

Euonymus alatus

Why it's planted: easy-to-grow-shrub with bright red fall color

What to plant instead:

  • Chokeberry hybrids and varieties*: medium sized native shrub with excellent red fall color, also has white flowers in spring and showy black or red berries in fall

  • Diervilla ‘Kodiak Orange’: medium to large shrub with an orange tint to leaves most of the year followed by brilliant red fall foliage, pollinators like the yellow flowers

  • Dwarf Fothergilla*: small to medium sized native shrub with sweet-smelling spring flowers and a rainbow of fall color


Euonymus fortunei

Why it's planted: easy-to-grow evergreen groundcover

What to plant instead:

  • Canadian Wild Ginger*: semi-evergreen native groundcover, spreads underground by roots

  • Allegheny Spurge*: native cousin of Japanese pachysandra, spreading groundcover

  • Epimedium: colony-forming groundcover with good spring and fall foliage color and delicate flowers in spring

Callery Pear

Callery Pear

Callery Pear

Pyrus calleryana

Why it’s planted: inexpensive small tree with tight shape, white flowers, and good fall color

What to plant instead:

  • Hornbeam*: has a tight oval shape and can even be sheared for an even cleaner look, attractive gray bark in winter

  • Hawthorn*: small tree with round to spreading canopy, white spring flowers, and bright red berries in fall and winter

  • Serviceberry*: small tree, often multistemmed, with white spring flowers and tasty dark red berries in early summer, good orange fall color


Ligustrum species and hybrids

Why it’s planted: low-maintenance, hedge-friendly shrub

What to plant instead

  • Boxwood: evergreen shrub that can be tightly sheared or grown in a more natural shape, somewhat shade tolerant

  • Yew: evergreen shrub that can be tightly sheared or grown in a more natural shape

  • Panicle Hydrangea: showy summer-flowering shrub available in a range of flower colors and sizes, with the right variety selection pruning is unnecessary for an un-sheared but still tidy hedge

Purple Loosestrife  By AnRo0002 - Own work, CC0

Purple Loosestrife
By AnRo0002 - Own work, CC0

Purple Loosestrife

Lythrum salicaria

Why it’s planted: low-maintenance perennials with attractive spikes of fuschia flowers

What to plant instead:

  • Bee Balm*: colony-forming perennials that pollinators love, firework-shaped flowers in mid-summer in shades of red, pink, and purple

  • Blazingstar*: spikes of vibrant purple flowers in mid-summer, very popular with bees and butterflies

  • Turtlehead*: a late bloomer to extend the season with pink or white flowers from August to October

Japanese Barberry

Berberis thunbergii

Why it’s planted: un-kill-able shrub with colorful foliage, thorns make a hedge that keeps people out

What to plant instead:

  • Chokeberry hybrids and varieties*: medium sized native shrub with excellent red fall color, also has white flowers in spring and showy black or red berries in fall

  • Ninebark*: medium to large dark-leaved shrub with arching branches and smallish white clusters of flowers, larger varieties are most suitable for natural styles

  • Diervilla: medium to large shrub with options for colorful foliage, brilliant red fall color, pollinators like the yellow flowers

Sweet Autumn Clematis  By Σ64 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Sweet Autumn Clematis

Clematis terniflora

Why it’s planted: quick-growing flowering vine, late blooming, delicious smell

What to plant instead:

  • Woodbine*: North America’s native clematis is virtually identical to sweet autumn clematis, just less vigorous with not quite as many flowers

  • American Wisteria*: North America has a native wisteria as well with smaller flowers and slightly less fragrance than the better-known Asian varieties that some consider to be invasive

  • Coral Honeysuckle*: native non-invasive honeysuckle vine, trumpet-shaped yellow and red flowers, popular with hummingbirds

Maiden Grass

Miscanthus sinensis

Why it’s planted: quick-growing, dependable ornamental grass with strong structure and attractive seed heads

What to plant instead:

  • Little Bluestem*: narrow, upright ornamental grass about 18-36” tall with thin, attractive seed heads, good reddish fall color

  • Switchgrass*: upright ornamental grass about 24-60” tall depending on variety, open and airy seed heads

  • Karl Foerster Grass: reliable designer favorite beloved for its tidy basal leaves and stark upright golden yellow seed heads

These are all plants that people loved (and still love) for a reason, and it’s not going to be easy for everyone to let go of them. Fortunately there are great alternatives, and I’m hoping you join us in embracing them. If you want to learn more about the proposed rule restricting invasive plants in Indiana, WFYI has shared some more details along with the full proposed list of banned plants. Still not sure why invasive plants are such a serious problem? The Indiana Native Plant Society does a great job going into more detail and linking to other resources. Got any other recommendations for alternatives to these invasives? Leave us a comment!

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Types of Turf Grass

Did you know that there are over a dozen different species of grass that can be used for lawns in Indiana? Chances are you’ve heard of bluegrass, and maybe zoysia grass, but most people don’t have any reason to think about different types of lawn grasses on a daily basis. Lucky for you, we do have reason to think about different types of grass on a regular basis, and today we’ll teach you the basics you need to help pick the right grass for you. There are two main things to think about when selecting a type of grass: warm or cool season and spreading or clumping. Once we touch on those, we’ll talk about some of our favorite grasses for the home lawn.

Cool season grasses green up early in the year.

Cool season grasses green up early in the year.

Cool Season vs. Warm Season Grasses

Cool season grasses do well in areas that get cold in the winter and don’t have extended periods of extreme heat and drought. They do the most growing in spring and fall, and while they get duller in the winter they still have a green tint to them all year long. They are more common in central Indiana and northern Indiana. Warm season grasses thrive in extreme heat, and they can often handle drought better than cool season grasses. Their down side is that they turn totally straw brown in the winter, and they take much longer than cool season grasses to green up in the spring. You’ll find them more often in southern Indiana than central Indiana, and it’s rare for them to be able to even survive in northern Indiana. In the deep south and Florida, that’s about all you’ll see. In the Midwest where access to water for irrigation typically isn’t a problem, the better bet is usually going to be to go with a cool season grass and then irrigate as needed in the summer to help your lawn keep cool with proper moisture levels.

Clump-forming vs. Spreading Grasses

The other big difference between different types of grasses is in how they grow. As you might guess, clump-forming grasses grow in clumps that very slowly expand. They primarily rely on seeding to spread and fill in bare spots. Spreading grasses send out roots and/or stems horizontally to spread much more quickly. Aggressive spreaders can become difficult to contain and can invade planting beds, but strict clump-forming grasses are not able to repair damage easily without help. For most settings, the ideal grass is a moderately aggressive spreading grass, especially for areas that expect high foot traffic from people or pets.

Some of Our Favorites

A new RTF lawn just two seasons after seeding from bare soil.

A new RTF lawn just two seasons after seeding from bare soil.

Our favorite grass for lawns, bar none, is rhizomatous tall fescue (a.k.a. RTF). RTF is a spreading, cool-season grass, but its benefits go far beyond that. It is drought-tolerant, disease-resistant, and pest-resistant, and it doesn’t require much fertilizer to form a lush, green lawn. In fact, pest or disease problems are usually an indicator of over-fertilization. It stands up to high heat much better than most cool season grasses. It has a deep green color and medium texture for a comfortable walking surface. It has a fairly quick germination time, so you don’t have to wait weeks for seeds to sprout. It even does well in shade! It’s not the most shade-tolerant grass available, but it’s one of the best for a lawn with mixed sun conditions. Is there anything it can’t do? Not really. It doesn’t do well in dense shade, especially wet shade, but in those conditions there’s no lawn that will thrive and also be able to survive our cold winter.

RTF is a relative newcomer on the turf grass scene, and before its arrival on the market in the early 2000s, bluegrass was the best selection for an attractive, walkable lawn. A well-maintained bluegrass lawn is truly gorgeous. But it falls behind RTF in several areas. It requires much more fertilizer and water, it is fairly susceptible to disease and pest problems, it doesn’t hold up to extreme heat as well, it isn’t as shade-tolerant, and it takes up to a week longer for seeds to germinate. But bluegrass remains a popular choice for its nostalgic appeal and because there are so many high quality bluegrass lawns around already. It can make more sense to repair an existing high quality bluegrass lawn with the same species for localized damage than to totally convert them to a new species.

Buffalo grass isn’t deep green, but it is dense and durable.

Buffalo grass isn’t deep green, but it is dense and durable.

Another grass we occasionally use is buffalo grass. It’s one of the only turf grasses native to North America. It grows naturally in dry, tough settings from North Dakota to Texas, so you know it can take some abuse. It also needs almost no mowing. Buffalo grass rarely gets above 3” tall, so it only needs to bed trimmed to encourage thicker growth, and it needs to be edged to keep out of areas where it doesn’t belong. It’s tough as nails, but it’s not conventionally attractive. It will never get a lush, vibrant green, and the more you try to fertilize it the worse it will look. We recommend it for areas where you want a lawn, but you don’t want to have to maintain it, and you’re not expecting a golf course look. We have also used it in settings where clients want to use only plants native to North America.

For really shady areas, we recommend going for mulch or gravel beds or a shade-tolerant groundcover instead (Stepables has some for high foot traffic), but if you really want lawn, and RTF can’t handle the shade, you have a few other options. Most hardware stores and garden centers will carry shade-friendly seed mixes that are typically a mix of fine and creeping fescues. Zoysia grass is a warm-season grass with pretty good shade tolerance, but since it is a warm season grass it will look dead for up to six months out of the year.

Ready for lawn repair or renovation? We have decades of experience and education in turf management, and we’re ready to put that knowledge to work to help you get a healthy, vibrant lawn, no matter what your starting point is. Contact us if you’re ready to learn more today!

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Keep Pollinators Around All Season Long

Keep Pollinators Around All Season Long

If you’ve been following our blog for a while, you have probably picked up on the fact that I’m a big fan of pollinator-friendly landscaping. Pollinators like bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds are responsible for reproduction in many of our favorite landscape and food plants, and they’re fun to watch. Nothing says “summer” to me like watching a garden buzzing with all kinds of pollinators. But summer isn’t the only season these critters are out and about, and one of the keys to ensuring that they maintain healthy populations is to make sure that we’re planting pollinator-friendly plants for the full season.

Salt Tolerant Plants

Salt Tolerant Plants

While we haven’t had a lot of huge snow events this year, almost every week there’s enough of a risk of snow or ice to put down road salt at least once. Over time, this salt can splash onto parking lot and roadside plants enough to damage the foliage, or temporarily shock the soil with too much salt for the plant roots. Salt draws water out of plant cells and leaves them looking burnt and stunted. In cases of soil salt accumulation, sometimes it just looks like a plant is smaller and struggling compared to the same plant a few feet further back from the street.

Plant Disease Alert: Boxwood Blight

Plant Disease Alert: Boxwood Blight

We love boxwood here at 317grow. It’s one of our favorite evergreens for its adaptability and tidy appearance. Right now it might be one of the only shrubs in your landscape with color beyond dull grays and browns. But boxwoods are under threat from a quick-acting and deadly virus: boxwood blight.