Trees instead of a Lawn

All trees with no lawn?


Q. I have an area in my lawn where grass just does not persist. Our lawn service says that it is too wet for grass because of the numerous springs in our area. I got some bids on what it would take to correct the drainage, but would prefer a less expensive option. Are there any plants that would thrive in area like that? It stays moist most of the year, unless we get into an extended drought. Water only stands on the surface when we get really hard rain. The soil underneath stays moist, though, almost all the time. It gets sun much of the day. I am not really a gardener, so I would prefer plants that I don’t have to fuss over too much, but that would still be reasonably attractive.

A. There are interesting, attractive plants that fulfill most of your requirements, but all plants should have some level of maintenance to remain attractive. At minimum, you should monitor new plantings for the first year or two to make sure they have a chance to become well established and prune them every few years.

Since you do not indicate a size limit, I will focus on medium and small shrubs and trees, along with a few perennial flowering plants that would grow happily in your problem area. Trees and shrubs generally require less maintenance than flowering plants.

The bright fall color of Maple leaves

The bright fall color of Maple leaves

Although young trees should be pruned to create an attractive, strong framework of branches, more mature trees rarely require more than removal of deadwood or the occasional branch growing out of scale with the rest of the plant as they as they were properly chosen for the site. Shrubs require periodic pruning to encourage the growth of young, productive stems that will bloom more or have more colorful winter stems than older stems.

Soil Test First

Be sure to start with a soil test so that you at least know the soil pH. Many of the plants listed below prefer an acid soil with pH 5.0 – 6.0. Check the brief bibliography following the plant list so you can learn more about individual plants and see pictures of them.


Serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.)
River Birch (Betula nigra, especially ‘Heritage’)
Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus)
Thornless Honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis)
Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)


Chokeberries (Aronia spp.)
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
Silky Dogwood (Cornus amour)
Redosier Dogwood (Cornus sericea)
Inkberry (Ilex glabra)
Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata)
Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)
Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica)
Dwarf Blue Arctic Willow (Salix purpurea)
Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
Snowberry/Coralberry (Symphoricarpos spp.)
Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
American Cranberrybush Viburnum (Viburnum trilobum)

Perennial Flowering Plants

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium spp.)
Swamp Sunflower (Helianthus augustifolius)
Japanese Iris (Iris ensata (I. kaempferi)
Sweet Iris  (Iris pallida)
Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor)
Siberian Iris (Iris siberica)
Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum)
Rough Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa)
New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)


  • Armitage, Allan M., Herbaceous Perennial Plants, Stipes Publishing, 1997. ISBN-10: 087563723X.

  • Armitage, Allen M., Armitage’s Garden Perennials, Timber Press, 2000. ISBN-10: 0881924350.

  • Darke, Rick, The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses, Timber Press, 1999. ISBN-10: 0881924644.

  • Dirr, Michael A., Dirr’s Hardy Trees, Timber Press, Portland, OR, 1997. ISBN 0881924040.

  • Dirr, Michael A., Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Stipes Publishing, 1998. ISBN: 875638007.


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