Dear Miss Floribunda,

The huge silver maple in my backyard is a monster and a menace. Not only do its long roots try to trip me, but the ivy that is its accomplice catches at my feet. Since I’m up in years and my balance isn’t very good, this is a real worry. I’ve taken a couple of tumbles and only suffered bruises but fear worse. HAP (Hyattsville Aging in Place) offers to bring in people to remove ivy from trees, and I’m thinking of having that done. Maybe I could hire someone to get rid of all of the ivy ground cover. I hope you know of a good replacement, preferably a native plant that helps pollinators and is attractive in winter.

Fearful of Falling on Farragut Street

Dear Fearful of Falling,

Silver maples are not necessarily villainous, if there is room for them. They are natives, and  feed and harbor many birds and pollinating insects. However, I sympathize with your concern about falling, and certainly agree that ivy is not a safe ground cover. Even if you hack a path or use stepping stones, it will quickly engulf them. You need something “steppable,” rather than “trippable.”

Dr. Greenfinger of Chesapeake Natives suggests the native sensitive fern, Onoclea sensibilis. He tells me it’s soft but tough, and spreads quickly. Its height ranges from a few inches to as high as 3 feet in fertile soil, but you would do well to maintain Spartan conditions to keep it low-growing. Pretty as it is — especially with its rosy fiddleheads in spring and the little green beads on its stalks — don’t be tempted to place it in a garden bed where a rich diet would cause it to become invasive. Although it is called “sensitive” because even light frost causes it to turn black, it remains upright and is prized by some gardeners for adding dramatic interest to the winter garden. 

Another choice Greenfinger offers is broadleaf sedge (Carex platyphylla), also known as silver sedge because of the soft gray cast to its celadon green. It is low growing, from 6 inches to 1 foot high, and does not die back in winter. It tolerates moderate foot traffic and even light mowing.

Wendy Wildflower, a four-season gardener, favors several tough evergreen ground covers. Among them is native ginger, Hexastylis arifolia, which forms a low mat of arrow-shaped leaves that remains green in our winters. Clustering Christmas ferns, Polystichum acrostichoides, which are a little taller (1 to 2 feet high) and a deeper shade of green, make a pleasing contrast. Wendy also recommends sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) as a particularly charming ground cover, even though it does lose its leaves for a few weeks in winter and is not a native plant. However, its spring to early-summer blooms of fluffy white flowers have a delicious fragrance that attracts bees and butterflies. It is low growing and does not mind being walked on. Like the sensitive fern, in well-fed flower beds, it could become invasive. It is deer and  rabbit proof, which would suggest a terrible taste, but in Germany, it is used to flavor Maiwein, the traditional drink of May Day celebrations. 

Next I turned to Capability Green, who strongly recommends our native woodland stonecrop (Sedum ternatum). It is evergreen and shade tolerant. Growing no higher than 4 inches, it is sold as a steppable, but you might want to place flat stones in high-traffic areas so as not to wear it out.

Another trusted expert, Hannah Honeywell, opines that completely eliminating all ivy is just too big a job. She believes you’d do better to keep it mowed twice a year —  not too closely. Although English ivy will eventually eradicate any native plants in its way, it is not ecologically useless in itself. It purifies the air, and it feeds and shelters some birds and beneficial insects. 

To discuss this and other gardening concerns, please come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society on Saturday, Aug. 20, at 10 a.m. in the garden of Virginia Singer, 4000 Queensbury Road.