October 2002
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Garden design using shade plants and shade trees   

Gardening Newsletter - October 2002, Issue 2

Here we are with the second issue of the My Shade Garden monthly gardening newsletter.  I got my schedule a little backward earlier this month and sent out a My Deer Garden newsletter when I should have sent a My Shade Garden newsletter.  My apologies to those of you who only get this newsletter.  I bet it feels like a long six weeks !

Things are a little lonely at the Discussion Forum - it started on August 11th and we still have questions or comments posted.  L The Discussion Forum at My Deer Garden has been quite popular with over 566 messages posted.  We answer each and every question posted and read every comment.  So if you have a shade garden question that been burning in your mind, stop by the Discussion Forum and Post a question !

This issue has two articles, both are oriented around planting beneath trees - an obvious shade area.  The first discusses the general conditions and the second discusses an appropriate selection of shade plants.

Rebecca Green
Horticulturist

Planting Beneath Trees

Planting directly beneath mature trees is perhaps the biggest challenge of shade gardening. The soil is generally dry and root bound, and there may be little light.

As with any project, proper preparation is essential. To prepare to plant beneath a tree existing unwanted plants need to be removed. This should ideally be done by hand, but a garden fork may be used if care is taken not to dig too deep. If the area is large and the unwanted vegetation is thick a non-selective systemic herbicide may be used, such as Roundup. The active ingredient in such herbicides works by being absorbed through the leaves and travels through the plant to the roots. As such, if care is taken not to get the herbicide on the tree it poses little or no threat to it.

Don’t amend the soil beneath the tree. Amending the soil will only disturb the tree’s roots, assuming you can dig enough to add the amendments.

Care needs to be taken to avoid damaging the tree’s roots when planting. A common misconception is that most tree roots run deep and end roughly at the drip line. In fact, most tree roots are in the top six inches of soil and may extend far beyond the drip line. Cutting roots with a diameter less than an approximately one inch will not cause the tree any harm, as new roots will grow where the root is severed. However, move your planting hole to avoid disturbing larger roots.

In an effort to minimize root damage, don’t plant annuals beneath trees. Annuals need to be replaced every year, necessitating the roots beneath the trees being disturbed annually. By planting perennials beneath trees the tree roots are disturbed only once, at the time of the initial planting. Gradually both the tree and perennial roots will grow intertwined cohabitating.

When planting beneath trees smaller is generally better. Smaller plants require smaller planting holes, inflicting minimal damage on the tree toots. Remember, the plants you are planting will grow so don’t feel too disappointed by their initial small size, and leave the appropriate amount of space for them to comfortably reach their mature size.

Resist the temptation to raise the soil level beneath trees. The added soil reduces the amount of air and water that reaches the tree’s roots. This will result in the gradual decline and possibly the eventual death of the trees.

It’s a good idea to mulch around your new plantings. Mulch insulates the roots from temperature extremes and prevents the evaporation of moisture. However, never let mulch pile up on tree trunks. This prohibits the routine exchange of gases through the tree’s bark, a condition that may lead to the trunk rotting.

If the amount of light is inadequate prune the tree to allow more light in. If the tree is a tall shade tree limb it up so that you can walk beneath it. The increased air circulation that will be realized by a good pruning job will also go a long way toward reducing fungus disease.

Plants for Beneath Trees

Not all shade plants are suitable for growing beneath trees. Not only is it shady beneath trees, but the soil is dry and bound together with tiny root hairs. Once planted, the new plants will have to compete with the trees for water and nutrients, so their needs must be minimal. The following is a summary of a few plants that can easily withstand these conditions.

Pachysandra terminalisPachysandra terminalis – pachysandra.  There’s a reason why pachysandra is so widely used. It can withstand deep shade, is totally undemanding, and is evergreen. Hardy to zone 5, its only need is acid soil.

Pachysandra procumbens, commonly called Allegheny spurge, is similar to Pachysandra terminalis, with a few important differences. Allegheny spurge is hardy to zone 4. However, it doesn’t spread as well, being more of a clump grower.

Plant pachysandra in the spring. If planted in the fall it doesn’t have adequate time to become established and may die during the winter.

Vinca minor – periwinkle or myrtle.  Hardy to zone 4, Vinca minor (also called periwinkle or myrtle) is an evergreen vine. It doesn’t do quite as good a job choking out weeds as pachysandra. In the spring it gets tiny blue or white flowers.

Vinca major is similar, but a much bigger plant. It is only hardy to zone 7.

Lamiastrum galeobdolonYellow archangel. Lamiastrum galeobdolon needs soil that retains a little moisture. It does well in clay soil. In the spring it gets yellow spikey flowers. The leaves have white variegation. It is hardy between zones 3 and 9.

Lamium maculatumDead nettle. Lamium maculaturm use to be in the genus Lamiastrum, but has been reclassified into its own genus. Rated to zone 3, there are numerous cultivars with white, pink, and purple flowers. Like Lamiastrum, the leaves are variegated white.

That's all for now. If you have any comments or questions on the newsletter, please email us at

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