Life is not easy for plants under a mature shade tree. They have to squeeze their little roots into spaces around the trees larger roots, deal with a lack of light, and there is always competition for moisture and nutrients. You are not crazy for wanting to create a little garden of pretty plants under a mature tree (who doesn’t want to use every space available!), but in order for this to work, you’ll need to choose carefully. Below are some tips for how to plant under a tree. Please do read them because they can really help you be successful. (Note, these are recommendations for leafy trees, not conifers.)
All that said, here are 12 shrubs and perennials (of course ferns and many rhododendrons are fine–see a few in the links at the bottom) we think you will love, and that will be plenty happy in the shade of a grand old tree.
No garden is complete without a surprise! Turns brilliant red with sweet white flowers. From Dan Hinkley Collection. Reaches up to 1′ tall and 2′ wide. Partial shade.
TIPS FOR PLANTING
Choose plants that thrive in shady, and typically more dry conditions.
Soil prep is important, however avoid bringing in loads of new soil. 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.
Take care when planting so as not to disturb existing tree roots any more than necessary.
After planting, cover the area with a thick layer of natural, easily compostable mulch such as chopped tree leaves or bark. More than just making things look neater, this will help keep roots of tender new plants moist longer.
Finally, don’t turn the area into a swamp with daily watering, but do water deeply and as frequently as needed the first summer or two. And wait until the second year to start pushing new plants with fertilizer – let them get established in the roots before loading them up with a lot of top growth.