Can you plant shrubs and flowers under trees?

Can you plant shrubs and flowers under trees?

Yes, you can plant shrubs and flowers under trees, but there are a few caveats and considerations to make. First of all, planting under trees is probably the hardest place to grow plants in your garden. Not only do trees leave no root space, but their leaves reduce light and they are thirsty, leaving little water for other organisms. They also tend to change the soil pH, taking away essential nutrients for other plants. All of these aspects make it difficult to grow plants under them and many, quite simply, won’t make it.

What can you do to make plants survive under trees?

Consider the following…

What type of trees are you planting under?
Large evergreen conifer trees offer the worst conditions to plant under! You will find they will have large shaded areas around them and the soil will be powder dry 12 months of the year. Your plants will need to be drought tolerant. Deciduous small trees with open canopies, such as Rowans (Sorbus) or most fruit trees, will be a smaller obstacle to overcome in all ways.

The age of the tree(s)
More established trees will also change what options you have available to you. Newly planted trees can be underplanted with shrubs that will establish without issue. By the time a tree gets greedy with resources your shrubs will have their roots down deep enough to get what they need.

The aspect of the area
Don’t overlook which side of the tree you’re looking to underplant. Only planting areas to the north side of a tree will be in full shade. The south side of a tree will be in full sun and so that completely changes the list of plants you can use. The west/east sides of a tree will be in part shade, with the areas only being shaded by the canopy of a tree for part of the day.

Money and time available
To successfully plant under large established trees, you will need quite a bit of free time and money. The larger the area, the greater the resources you’ll need to put into making the project a success. Often it can be cheaper to remove the tree altogether and instead install screening and/ or replace the trees with young less greedy species.

Other low cost and low maintenance options to consider: Make a barked seating area underneath your tree or even create a wildlife sanctuary where you can let nature take over by not removing weeds.

The Soil
Most planting areas under established trees will be acidic due to rotting leaf-fall. Soil under conifer trees may be dangerously acidic and severely limit plants you can grow. It’s always a good idea to do a soil test and even lime the soil if needed to bring the pH up to 6-7.
A clay soil is usually the wettest; under a tree it can become compacted and solid, not letting water through the top crust however this also means nutrients will be held onto better. Sandy soils will be easier to water but you will struggle to get nutrients to your plants. Beech and yew trees famously add toxins into the soil to discourage other plants. If these are the established trees you’re planting under, you will struggle.

Wind & Pests
With all new planting it’s important to consider damage from rabbits, hares, cats and wind. If these are not a problem where you live then you don’t need to worry. If in doubt either choose wind/ animal resistant plants or protect your new planting area with fencing.

Top Tips

For more top tips for growing plants around trees see our last blog: Top tips for growing plants around trees.

Choosing the right plants
Choosing the right plants will play a massive role in their survival. Each plant must be suitable for the situation around it.

To help with plant selection under trees, we’ve put together a list of plants that can be used in different situations:

Drought tolerant plants for part-full shade (for under evergreen trees):
- Viburnum tinus
- Viburnum x bodnantense
- Euonymus japonicus
- Sedum spectabile
- Pulmonaria officinalis
- Begenia cordifolia
- Eranthis hyemalis
- Narcissus (any)
- Cotoneaster (any)
- Berberis darwinii
- Choisya ternata
- Mohonia x media (don’t use in high winds)
- Populus deltoides ‘purple tower’
- Lamium maculatum
- Alchemilla mollis
- Galanthus (any)
- Hedera (any)
- Ilex (any)
- Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae
- Dryopteris wallichiana
- Matteuccia struthiopteris
- Cornus alba
- Cornus kousa
- Cornus mas
- Parrotia persica
- Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Atropurpureum’
- Sorbus hupehensis
- Buddleia (any)

 

Dry shade / part shade plants (for raised beds or under small deciduous trees):
- Everything in the list above
- Hosta (any)
- Rhododendron (any)
- Hakonechloa macra
- Anemone japonica
- Anemone blanda
- Astilbe (any)
- Leucanthemum (any)
- Thalictrum (any)
- Astrantia (any)
- Origanum (any)
- Acer Palmatum
- Acer campestre
- Carpinus betulus
- Liriope muscari
- Brunnera macrophylla
- Most ferns
- Symphyotrichum cordifolium
- Skimmia japonica
- Viburnum davidii
- Meconopsis (any)
- Berberis (any)
- Ophiopogon japonicus
- Acuba japonica (don’t use in high winds)
- Fatsia japonica (don’t use in high winds)
- Persicaria bistorta
- Phormium tenax (plain green variety)
- Filipendula (any)

 

Drought tolerant plants for full sun
(on the south side of a tree):

- Populus purple tower
- Santolina chamaecyparissus
- Kniphofia uvaria
- Stachys byzantina
- Nepeta (any)
- Jasminum nudiflorum
- Cupressus macrocarpa
- Sedum spectabile
- Cupressus sempervirens
- Perovskia atriplicifolia
- Rosmarinus officinalis
- Euphorbia characias
- Origanum vulgare
- Stipa tenuissima
- Helichrysum italicum
- Lavandula (any)
- Thuja orientalis
- Cupressocyparis leylandii
- Artemisia (any)
- Cytisus
- Euonymus (any)
- Phormium tenax
- Salvia (any)
- Phlomis (any)
- Ceanothus (any)
- Senecio viravira
- Thymus (any)
- Achillea filipendulina
- Cistus (any)
- Salvia officinalis
- Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine'
- Caryopteris x clandonensis
- Iberis sempervirens
- Rosmarinus officinalis
- Festuca glauca
- Elymus magellanicus
- Buddleia (any)
- Acer Rubrum
- Quercus ilex

For more information on planting design and garden design, contact Papillon directly. We have our in-house plant experts who can advise.

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