Creating a garden around tree bases

Pairing plants with trees can create a beautiful and harmonious landscape design. Yet, not all plants are suitable for growing together, especially in shaded areas beneath dense canopies. Flowers and plants that typically thrive in sunlight may struggle under thick tree foliage. Moreover, fruit trees have active root systems that can deplete soil moisture, making the selection of companion plants critical. It's essential to carefully consider the conditions and determine which plants are best suited for planting in the shade under trees. Let's explore the best options for creating a thriving garden in these challenging conditions.

Environmental accounting

When planning to cultivate plants under trees, understanding the unique microclimate each tree type creates is crucial for gardening success. Different trees cast various shadows and have distinct root systems, affecting the growth of plants beneath them.

Apple trees, for example, are known for their friendly relationship with underplantings. Their dappled shade and deep root systems allow sufficient light and nutrients to reach plants growing in their vicinity, making them ideal hosts. Similarly, pear, rowan, viburnum, hawthorn, and pine trees offer a conducive environment, akin to that under apple trees, for a variety of plants to thrive. However, it's important to note that pine trees acidify the soil with their fallen needles, which might limit the types of plants that can grow well under them.

On the other hand, walnut trees release substances from their leaves that can inhibit the growth of many other plants, making them challenging hosts for underplantings. Linden trees create a dense shade that only shade-tolerant plants can survive under. Spruce trees, with their dark and dry conditions due to a thick canopy blocking light and rainwater, along with their needle drop acidifying the soil, are among the most challenging trees under which to cultivate plants. Soil under cherry trees, while not as dense in shade, can become quite dry, requiring regular, thorough watering for plants to prosper in its vicinity.

This information underscores the importance of selecting the right combination of trees and plants in a garden to ensure both beauty and productivity. By understanding the specific needs and conditions created by each tree type, gardeners can create a harmonious and thriving garden ecosystem.

Preparing the space

To cultivate a vibrant under-tree garden with flowers and groundcover plants, a methodical approach to soil preparation and planting area delineation is required. This involves a sequence of actions distinct from traditional garden bed preparation:

  • Grass Removal: The initial step involves the careful removal of all grass directly beneath the tree canopy. This process should be done by hand to avoid the use of herbicides, which could potentially harm the tree.
  • Garden Edging: Following grass removal, establishing a clear boundary for the garden space is essential. This boundary can be crafted from various materials, including commercial garden edging, bricks, stones, or creatively repurposed items like plastic bottles, to demarcate the garden area effectively.
  • Soil and Compost Application: The final step in preparation is the addition of a nurturing foundation for the plants. A balanced application of garden soil and compost, each layer measuring between 1-2 inches (2-5 cm), will enrich the planting area. This ensures plants have access to the nutrients they need without excessively raising the soil level or disturbing the tree's root system.

Adopting this structured approach not only safeguards the tree's health but also sets the stage for a successful under-tree garden, blending beauty and biodiversity in the shaded sanctuary of your garden.

Choosing plants

When considering what to plant under trees, a variety of bulbs, shrubs, and groundcover plants come to mind, each bringing its unique charm and beauty. Let's delve into some of the most beloved options.

Crocuses are among the first heralds of spring, poking through the last of the winter snow with their vibrant hues of purple, yellow, and white. Their low-growing nature and early bloom make them perfect for creating a splash of early color under trees.

Daffodils, with their bright, cheerful blooms, are resilient and can thrive in the dappled shade under trees. Their distinctive flowers, ranging from classic yellow to white and orange, are a sure sign that spring has arrived.

Tulips offer a rainbow of colors to any garden space. Planted under trees, they can provide a stunning contrast to the natural greens with their red, pink, yellow, and even multicolored petals, blooming heartily in the early to late spring.

Glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa), true to its name, blankets the ground in a glorious array of blue, white, or pink flowers, creating a mesmerizing effect under the canopy of trees. This low-maintenance bulb thrives in the cool shade, blooming early in the spring.

Netted Iris (Iris Reticulata), with its delicate flowers and striking coloration, ranging from deep purples to vibrant blues and yellows, adds a touch of elegance to the garden. Its preference for well-drained soil and partial shade makes it an ideal choice for under-tree planting.

Periwinkle (Vinca) is a robust groundcover known for its glossy, evergreen leaves and delicate, star-shaped blue flowers. It spreads effectively under trees, providing a dense carpet that suppresses weeds and adds year-round interest.

Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia) is a fast-spreading groundcover that features vibrant green or golden foliage, depending on the variety, with small, cup-shaped yellow flowers. It's ideal for adding a splash of color and texture under trees, thriving even in the dappled shade.

Lungwort (Pulmonaria) is cherished for its decorative spotted or variegated leaves and clusters of pink, blue, or white flowers that emerge in early spring. This plant is well-suited for the moist, shaded conditions found under trees, offering both foliage and floral interest.

Canadian Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), with its heart-shaped leaves and hidden, bell-shaped flowers, serves as an excellent groundcover. It's a North American native that prefers the cool, shaded environment under trees, adding a lush, green layer to the garden floor.

Sister Violet (Viola sororia) brings a touch of whimsy under trees with its heart-shaped leaves and delicate purple flowers. This low-growing perennial is a hardy choice for shaded areas, spreading gently to form a charming groundcover.

Hostas are the quintessential shade garden plant, known for their lush foliage that comes in a variety of colors, sizes, and textures. Under trees, they contribute a dramatic and sculptural element, with some varieties also producing tall flower spikes.

Liriope (Lilyturf), with its grass-like foliage and spikes of purple or white flowers, offers a low-maintenance, tough solution for under-tree areas. It forms dense clumps that can withstand dry shade, making it an ideal border or groundcover plant.

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis) is celebrated for its iconic, heart-shaped pink and white flowers that dangle from arching stems in spring. It's a stunning addition to any shade garden, thriving under the canopy of trees with its fern-like foliage.

Ferns of various kinds can add a prehistoric or woodland feel to the garden, with their feathery fronds unfurling in the shade. They require minimal care once established, making them perfect for the moist, sheltered areas under trees.

Bellflower (Campanula) encompasses a range of species and varieties, many of which are well-suited to growing in shaded conditions. With their bell-shaped flowers in shades of blue, purple, white, or pink, they add a classic charm to the under-tree garden.

Incoporating these plants under trees not only enhances the beauty of your garden but also takes advantage of often-overlooked planting spaces. Each of these options has its unique charm, contributing to a layered and textured garden design that celebrates the succession of the seasons.

Further care

Caring for a garden under a tree involves attentive watering and fertilization to ensure the plants thrive alongside their larger companion. Plants nestled under the canopy of a tree often require more water than those in open spaces because they compete with the tree for moisture. This competition necessitates more frequent watering to meet their hydration needs adequately.

As for fertilization, the quantity and type depend on the specific needs of the plants you've chosen for your under-tree garden. Each species has its own requirements for nutrients to flourish. Tailoring your fertilization practices to these needs will help your garden under the tree become a lush, vibrant oasis.

Creating and maintaining a garden under a tree requires thoughtful selection of plants suited to the unique conditions of shade, competition for resources, and the microclimate created by the tree. By choosing the right plants, preparing the site carefully, and providing consistent care through adequate watering and tailored fertilization, you can transform the space under a tree into a beautiful, thriving garden. This not only enhances the aesthetic appeal of your outdoor space but also creates a harmonious ecosystem where both the tree and understory plants can flourish together. With dedication and understanding of the specific needs of your chosen plants, your under-tree garden will become a serene retreat that enhances the natural beauty of your landscape.