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Q: The trees in my yard are getting big and beautiful, but the grass is dying around the trunks and has now spread out about two or three feet. I have put grass seeds there for the last several years and it comes up in the spring but dies over the summer. Are the trees toxic to the grass? What can I do, beside installing a ring of wood chips around the trees?A: The trees are not toxic to the grass; the shade is. Grass wants to live on the prairie with at least eight hours of full sun every day. That doesn’t happen under trees, so the grass dies as the shade increases during the growing season and as the years pass.If you do not want mulch or wood chips around the trunks, consider a shade-loving ground cover or separate, scattered plants. Plant the ground cover close to the trunks around the trees. As the grass dies back from lack of sunlight, the ground cover moves outward to fill the empty area.There are a number of choices, but start with the easiest to grow that require the least maintenance.Since your choices are all woodland plants, consider working in some compost to enrich the soil around the trees. These plants prefer soil with a higher organic content. But incorporate the compost into your existing soil — do not leave it as a layer on top.Some of the short ground covers include myrtle or periwinkle, ajuga, yellow archangel, lily of the valley, sweet woodruff, lamium and English ivy. Don’t discount common violets. They are drought resistant and almost disease and insect free. Choose pachysandra only if you know your soil is acidic. If it is not, the leaves turn a sickly yellow. Epimedium, also called fairy wings, does well in dry shade. You also may be able to have native mosses move in. They will be the shortest of all of the groundcovers.Taller plants include bishop’s weed, either Canadian or European ginger, jack-in-the-pulpit, wild geranium or ferns. Some, like ostrich ferns can get two or three feet tall. Ferns also include cinnamon, red-stemmed lady ferns or shorter Japanese painted ferns.Hostas come in a variety of sizes from teacup sized to some that could grow to be over two feet tall. They are vey slow growing and do not naturalize on their own. You would need to split existing plants or buy more. But if deer invasions are common, stay away from hostas — they are deer delights.Pulmonaria, also called lungwort, have attractive spotted or striped leaves but have a tendency to die down during hot, dry weather. Astilbe also could be used, but it requires damper soil than is found around most tree trunks.Q: I’m concerned that my father is losing it. He’s getting old and he recently told me something I cannot believe. He said that last summer he saw something he thought was a mouse but he said that it was hopping around like a kangaroo. He said that he has seen this critter by his pond several times. He swears this is true. Does this make any sense?
The Zapus hudsonius, aka meadow jumping mouse. (Image courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – http://mountain-prairie.fws.gov/preble)
A: Your father is not seeing things; actually he’s got really good eyesight.What he saw was a relatively uncommon mouse called a meadow jumping mouse or Zapus hudsonius. This mouse is found throughout Michigan and surrounding northern states, all the way from the west to the east coast. They are also native to Canada and Alaska.The meadow jumping mouse weighs in at about half an ounce to an ounce. They are a yellow-brown color with a dark brown dorsal stripe. The tail is longer than the head and body. But the most remarkable features are large kangaroolike hind feet.This mouse favors damp meadows, streamside vegetation and marsh borders. It feeds primarily on grass seeds and small fruit, like currants, but also consume fungi, beetles and caterpillars. When surprised, they can make leaps up to one foot in height.Winter is tough on this species and as much as 75 percent can die over the winter.Congratulate Dad on being so observant.Questions? MSU Extension Master Gardener Hotline at 888/678-3464. Gretchen Voyle is an MSU Extension Horticulture educator, retired.
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