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Shade - Growing Perennials and Annuals Under Trees

What and how to successfully grow flowers under trees is a common question for many gardeners. This article will go over the basics of growing flowers under trees.

Contributors: Dr. Rick Schoellhorn

What and how to successfully grow flowers under trees is a common question for many gardeners. This article will go over the basics of growing flowers under trees.

Growing plants under trees is always a bit of a tricky situation, especially where there may be a lot of surface roots, as you would find in a raised beds or planter situations. So first let's address that problem and then we can talk plants.

Surface roots & competition between flowers and their woody landscape counterparts.

The top 6-10” of the soil is a brutal competition for nutrients & water. All plants need these two things and most roots are located in this horizon of the soil. While you can help to establish deeper roots on your plants by less frequent deeper watering, that won’t change what is already in place. The first thing you will need to do for this area is provide a LOT of excess water and fertilizer to get whatever you plant established. There is so much competition below the soil under trees that any new flowers will be under a lot of stress just trying to get a foothold. So whatever you plan to plant, you also need to expect they will require about twice as much water and fertilizer as any other part of your yard. The secret for success is to look at annuals or perennials with deep roots, as these can get below that surface root competition and begin to become established. Another thing that can really help is a think layer of mulch throughout the planting area to help hold water in the soil and keep it from evaporating off the surface of the soil. 

Some sources suggest burying either plastic bags or nursery pots in the soil to provide some protection for plants that are near or under the canopy of neighboring trees and shrubs, but for most folks this is simply to much work and usually damages the roots of the woody plants due to the size of holes needed to accomplish this.

There is one other option and it can simplify things, but I don't know if it will work for you. This would be to just add flowering potted plants below the trees. It avoids all the competition and allows you to get maximum color but may require hand watering which some people would prefer to avoid. It is also more difficult to keep perennials from year to year in containers unless the containers are large. Using large containers can create a neater, cleaner look. If you have wanted to buy large decorative pots for flowering or foliage plants, this is a great place to use them. Remember however that if you plan to leave the pots out all year many ceramic pots will freeze and break under freezing winter conditions.

Plants for use under trees:

Some of the best truly tough perennials for this type situation are Hosta, Vinca major, Heuchera, Lamium and Sweet woodruff.  There are lots of great shade perennials, but you will really need to focus more on the watering and fertilizing and mulching. If you are maintaining this, the rest should be relatively easy.

From the Proven Winners perennials line I would look for the following plants: Pink Chablis® Lamium, Pulmonaria Gaelic® Spring, Black Scallop Ajuga, Dolce® Heuchera, also look into Columbine of any type as they have a tap root and get deep roots down pretty quickly, though they are only spring blooming. For fall try adding a selection of fall blooming asters such as Sapphire, they are tough and durable but only flower in the fall. All these plants are searchable on our website; just put the name into the quick search box and you can look more closely at each plant.

Remember that the area under or very near trees and shrubs is a highly competitive area where the roots of the trees are stealing all the water and fertilizer from the plants below. So you need to compensate for this.


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