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Shade - Growing Perennials and Shrubs 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 raised beds or planters. So first let's address challenges with roots and then we can talk about which plants can handle these challenging spots.


Surface Roots & Competition between Fowers and Their Woody Landscape Counterparts

For plants growing under trees, the top 6-10” of soil is a brutal competition for nutrients and water. All plants need water and nutrients, and most roots are in those first six or so inches of soil. You can help to establish deeper roots for your plants by watering less frequently but allowing the water to penetrate more deeply into the soil. Roots will seek water, so if your soil is moist, roots will grow into that soil. This deep, extensive network of roots is the best way to help your plants thrive when they have to compete for water and nutrients.

The first thing you will need to do when growing under trees is provide a LOT of excess water and plant food. The first 2 to 3 years will be critical to help establish the root network these plants need to thrive.  This will give your plants the best possible chance to get established.

There is so much competition below the soil under trees that any new flowers will be under a great deal of stress just trying to get a foothold among the root competition. Whatever you plan to plant, you also need to expect the plants will require about twice as much water and fertilizer as any other part of your garden. The secret to success is to look at annuals or perennials with deep roots, as these plant roots can get below that surface root competition and begin to become established.  Another thing that can really help is a thick layer of mulch throughout the planting area to help hold water in the soil. 

There is another option, and it can simplify things when growing plants under trees. You can just decide not to compete with the tree roots and instead add flowering potted plants below the trees. This avoids all the root competition and allows maximum color with less frustration. The challenge with container gardens is they may require hand watering, which some people would prefer to avoid.

Another drawback to using containers is it is more difficult to keep perennials from year to year when they are planted in pots. Perennials in pots are not as cold-tolerant as those that are planted in the landscape. 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, if you plan to leave the pots out all year many ceramic pots will freeze and break under cold winter conditions.

You could also utilize both containers and plants in the landscape to create your perfect shade garden. 

Plants to use under trees:

Perennials To Grow Under Trees




Tiarella 'Cuttng Edge'



Aruncus 'Chantilly Lace'




Shrubs To Grow Under Trees

Oakleaf Hydrangea






Cornus (Dogwoood)



Remember that areas under or very near trees and shrubs are highly competitive spaces where the roots of the trees are stealing all the water and fertilizer from the herbaceous plants below. So, you need to compensate for this by watering and feeding these plants regularly. If you keep them fed and moist, especially for the first two or three years, these plants will put down roots and can thrive when grown under trees.


Learn More:

Learn how to Overwinter Hardy Plants in Containers
Explore Colorful Garden Ideas Most of the ideas in that article are impossible to achieve in the shade, so I would link to the shade hub instead.
Explore more Beautiful Shade Garden Ideas for Your Home
Browse EZ Scape Perennial Garden Recipes




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