Under Tree Landscaping Ideas
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Under Tree Landscaping Ideas

Pure misery: Woodland plants forced to grow out in the open in prairie settings.

One of the most unnatural yet common landscape practices is how landscapers and gardens plant individual trees in expanses of lawn. It flies in the face of how these communal plants prefer to grow – and it often stunts them for life.

It looks fine, of course, because we are used to it. But truth is, trees, understory shade plants, and woodland flowers and groundcovers, grow very well together – and can look great. It’s absolutely natural to underplant large shrubs and trees with other stuff, and is usually easier to care for.

Not only will the combination of plants look fantastic, especially if you plant for all seasons, but also it will make for an easier place to rake or blow fallen tree leaves every autumn.

Every area of the country has its favorite shade-loving plants, both native and imported; your local Extension office will have lists and recommendations for great starter plants that do well in your area. Note that a few may be considered invasive in some states.

Some of the more popular shade- and root-tolerant woodland plants include understory shrubs such as oakleaf hydrangea, azaleas, euonymus, variegated aucuba, soft-tip yucca, nandina, many hollies, mahonia, and spirea. These generally do very well, as you can see from a drive around any older, established neighborhoods.

You will also see lots of great “starter” shade perennials to start with such as hellebores, liriope, trillium, variegated hakonechloa grass, aspidistra, Solomon seal, cyclamen, wild ginger, an incredible selection of both summer and evergreen ferns, bits of moss, and native phlox, columbine, dicentra, epimedium, tiarella, and heucheras.

In warm climates where northern mainstay hostas and astilbe don’t thrive, substitute small tropical gingers and groundcover bromeliads. And even if some iris may not get enough sun to flower as well as you’d like, most have fantastic foliage for an all-important contrasting texture effect.

There are too many good groundcovers for shade to even start listing here, but keep in mind that their very nature means they tend to spread aggressively, so “interview” them by noting in older gardens how they look before deciding if they are good fits for your own garden.

And be sure to leave a few pockets of good soil for tucking in season shade annuals such as caladiums, impatiens, salvias, coleus, violas, asparagus fern, and begonias.

To get understory plants started well, you need to do as good a job of soil preparation as possible, particularly under older, shallow-rooted trees where soil is typically poor and dry, and set out smaller plants that have the best chance of getting established quickly.

I agree entirely with my friends at the National Gardening Association that you should not pile a lot of fresh dirt over the roots directly beneath mature trees, which can suffocate the important, shallow “feeder” roots. No more than two or three inches of new soil should be hauled in, and even that should be worked into the existing soil, digging gently between older main roots close to trunks. And avoid piling soil up on tree trunks, which can lead to decay.