What to plant under Maple trees

schifferle(5b NE Kansas)February 8, 2010

I have Red, Shantung and Amur maple trees in my yard. I planted hostas under them & I found out the hard way how difficult it is to dig under maples and how difficult it is for the hostas to grow (my Japanese maple doesn't seem to be posing any problems). I love my maples, but they'd look even better with something growing under them (besides grass or weeds which never seem to have any problems). Does anyone have any ideas for something that could cope with root competition. I suppose I could always put something in pots underneath, but that doesn't appeal to me much.

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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

If you simply add a nice, wide ring of mulch around your tree, in the same area you thought to plant something, you might be surprised at how it sets off the beauty of your trees.

I've always felt that planting under trees distracted from the architectural interest of the trunks. Mulch solves the weed problem, too. Just don't pile it up against the trunk.

    Bookmark   February 8, 2010 at 4:29PM
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I second that.
I challenge anyone to find and post fotos of a professionally designed & installed landscape that had plants in the root zone of trees.

    Bookmark   February 8, 2010 at 4:45PM
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Baltic ivy works ok for me & is hardy in zone 5. Here's a link to more info:
I'm sure there are others.

    Bookmark   February 8, 2010 at 4:51PM
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schifferle(5b NE Kansas)

Guess I'm not a minimalist. Without trees, I'd have no shade in my yard and then the inability to have any sort of shade garden except directly by the North side of the house where I'm growing hydrangeas. I have the mulch look under some of my trees and I prefer the look of perennials there (without so many & so close that you can't see the base of the tree at all). Mulch helps, but never completely solves the weed problem.

    Bookmark   February 8, 2010 at 5:27PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

3 burly men with running chainsaws.. and a chipper truck in the street


    Bookmark   February 8, 2010 at 5:33PM
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lou_midlothian_tx(z8 DFW, Tx)

I've seen azaleas and Japanese maples growing underneath Trident and Shantung maples. Not sure about Amur but red maple seems to have more aggressive shallow root system that is hard to work with. I'm trying to recall which maples are grown at Dallas Arboretum where bushes, etc are grown underneath. It's mostly Japanese maples with large oak trees. They also have some shantung maples, Chalk maple (small version of southern Sugar maple) and some Bigtooth maples. I didn't see any red maple and others.

Here is a link that might be useful: Metro Maples' arboretum

    Bookmark   February 8, 2010 at 6:21PM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

"I challenge anyone to find and post fotos of a professionally designed & installed landscape that had plants in the root zone of trees."
....what? I'm sure you've been to a botanical garden before!lol!

How big are these trees?

I did not plant these...but there is a Rose of Sharon and Lilac growing succesfully under a 15 year old freeman maple. The lilac is 4' from the main trunk...its a dumb decision but its healthy and flowers.

Just a few suggestions...
gro low sumc
Viburnum farreri 'Nanum'
Clethra alnifolia 'Hummingbird'
Cornus sericea 'Kelsey'
Daphne x burkwoodi 'Briggs Moonlight'
Lonicera x xylosteoides 'Miniglobe'

    Bookmark   February 8, 2010 at 8:41PM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

    Bookmark   February 8, 2010 at 9:20PM
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If hostas won't grow under these trees, I think you'll have trouble with almost anything else nice I can think of, because hostas are able to grow under my shallow-rooted birch trees.
I've wondered if it makes a difference if all the smaller plants and trees are planted together as "babies" and they just learn to deal with each other as they grow? (as opposed to trying to plant under an established, mature tree) because trying to dig and plant - even ivy sprigs - under my maples was an ordeal! Never saw such thick mats of roots in my life!!

    Bookmark   February 8, 2010 at 9:23PM
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I challenge anyone to find and post fotos of a professionally designed & installed landscape that had plants in the root zone of trees.

And I'd invite you to look at my portfolio, except that it's not online. That is such a preposterous statement, it is hard to comprehend. I am not sure why many seem to think this is an impossible planting situation -- it is NOT. As long as one selects plants that are dry shade tolerant, which tends to be the prevailing situation when underplanting trees, it is very possible to have a full, layered planting consisting of small shrubs, perennials and groundcovers under the canopy/within the dripline of virtually any tree.

It is certainly a matter of personal preference to underplant or not but I dislike trees (outside of a park setting) that are plunked down in the middle of a lawn with just a ring of mulch. There is nothing that anchors them or ties them to the landscape - they look like afterthoughts. And in many natural situations, one encounters all manner of undergrowth happily established under the canopy or within the dripline of trees.

Some plants to consider:
Deadnettle - Lamium maculatum
Barrenwort - Epimedium species
Bigroot Geranium - Geranium macrorrhizum
Fernleaf Dicentra - Dicentra eximia or formosa
Sedges - Carex species
Siberian Bugloss - Brunnera macrophylla
Periwinkle - Vinca minor
Anemones - A x hybrida (Japanese anemone), A. sylvestris
Christmas fern - Polysticum acrostichoides
Sword fern - Polysticum munitum
Salal - Gaultheria shallon
Oregon Grape Holly - Mahonia aquifolium
Sweet Woodruff - Galium odoratum
Gladwin iris - Iris foetidissima
Sweet Box - Sarcococca humilis
Wood Spurge - Euphorbia robbiae
Hardy cylcamen - Cyclamen hederifolium, H. coum
Bergenia cordifolia
Lungwort - Pulmonaria species
Huckleberries - Vaccinium ovatum and V. parvifolium
all manner of woodland ephemerals

and the list goes on.........Even hostas will grow under tree canopies, provided they are started small and watered properly during establishment. Hostas are a lot more drought tolerant than most think.

That is not my garden but merely an illustration that disproves iforgetsonevermind's statement. If I didn't have an assortment of shrubs, perennials and groundcovers underplanting the trees in my garden, there wouldn't be anything BUT trees - I have a quite a few, including native Western Red cedars, Doug firs, bigleaf, vine and Japanese maples and a smaller assortment of other ornamentals.

    Bookmark   February 8, 2010 at 10:08PM
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schifferle(5b NE Kansas)

The only reason a couple of my trees still only have mulch around them is because I'm gradually putting plantings in. Each year more & more gets planted. Even Mother Nature has other plants growing underneath trees. I had no problem planting under my other trees or the Japanese Maple. My hostas under the maples seem to not grow much bigger than when they were first planted. The Shantung is a young tree about 5' & nothing is planted by it yet, but the Amur Maples were around 20' and the Red Maples around 40' when I tried to plant under them. It's a trial to get through the roots. The problem mostly is trying to plant within a few feet of the base of the tree. I'm wondering what I'm doing wrong. Maybe an extra dose of water & fertilizer for them would give them the boost they need? Obviously, it's possible to have underplantings. Just mulch doesn't do it for me. I can't plant shade plants under my trees until the trees get bigger or else the shade perennials would cook under all the sun & heat.

    Bookmark   February 9, 2010 at 3:45AM
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mainegrower(Z5b ME)

I've gardened among sugar and Norway maples for more than 30 years - we all have to adapt to the space we have rather than what we wish we had. I totally agree with gardengal48; much can be done under even the worst trees. Some key things to do:
Limb up the trees so you're not fighting dense shade as well as roots.
Add compost, leaf mold, mulch each year.
Water when needed.
Don't try to cut tree roots prior to planting; it just stimulates greater growth. Instead add soil on top of the roots and plant in that. (No it will not kill the tree. Only a chainsaw is likely to kill a Norway maple.)

    Bookmark   February 9, 2010 at 5:25AM
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lou_midlothian_tx(z8 DFW, Tx)

Oh, your shantung maple is only 5 ft tall. I wouldn't worry too much about it. I checked out 28 ft shantung maple's root system and it doesn't look like it has aggressive shallow root system at all. The owner of Metro Maples said the shantung maple's root system is more like Japanese maple's root system. I suppose that is true with most of Asian maples if not all of them.

    Bookmark   February 9, 2010 at 9:06AM
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Sorry gardengal, I've honestly never seen that done before.
You may just get enough of all the right growing conditions there to make that work. Outside of the Northwest there's so much competition for water and nutrients and heat stress that it just doesn't work. So let me extend that challenge to someone in a climate that isn't a cool, constantly moist climate.

    Bookmark   February 9, 2010 at 9:48AM
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The first photo (with the hostas) was taken in garden in Kirkwood, MO, so it's not just in the Northwest that successful underplanting can be accomplished. The following photo is a similar underplanting in a Chicago garden:

This garden is located in SW Kansas and those are walnut trees that are underplanted with liriope and impatiens:

It really doesn't make any difference where one is located - it is entirely possible to underplant any type of tree in any location. You just need to select the correct plants for the situation, start small and water and/or fertilize well until they are properly established. Mulching will help to conserve soil moisture as well as provide nutrient supplementation. Serious gardeners can accomplish amazing things.....it just depends on your determination :-)

btw, the PNW is not nearly as wet as most folks think. Our average rainfall total is far less than in many other areas of the country. And this is a recurring summer drought area as well. It can also get quite cold (we hit the single digits in December) and quite warm - we broke a record this past summer with 104F.

    Bookmark   February 9, 2010 at 1:04PM
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schifferle(5b NE Kansas)

iforgotitsonevermind, Plants grow under trees, even maples, all over the country. Nature must know something that some professionals don't. I wish I had pictures to show you, too, from Powell Gardens in MO and the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens in Kansas. They have perennials growing under trees, but I'm trying to figure out what I'm not doing right and I don't necessarily want the specific plants they have growing there. I don't expect my Kansas garden to be as lush as gardens in the NW (those pictures are gorgeous btw), but I guess I need to compensate for the tree root problem using some of the suggestions given me. There's a hosta nursery in Olathe where I got many of my plants a few years ago (Made in the Shade Gardens). He has a lush backyard. I don't remember the kind of trees he has, but there are plenty of hostas and other shade plants growing under them. I'll have to go check out his hostas in the spring and ask him his opinion, too.

    Bookmark   February 9, 2010 at 1:11PM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

My pic is from the windy city...I can get some more in spring for you.

    Bookmark   February 9, 2010 at 1:19PM
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I'm not talking about ground covers like liriope, I'm talking about flowers and building a border around a tree, piling up topsoil, digging around replacing flowers etc. I guess I wasn't clear.

    Bookmark   February 9, 2010 at 3:45PM
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schifferle(5b NE Kansas)

iforgotitsonevermind: As an example of underplantings by a landscaper, here's a local KS landscaping business.

Some trees have nothing around or under them and some do. There are both young & old trees in the various photos.

    Bookmark   February 9, 2010 at 7:04PM
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I don't know what the limit is for adding soil around tree trunks, but there must be one. I imagine it would vary according to the tree type.
Some people in our neighborhood put a 5 ft. diameter border - made of bricks - approx. 1 1/2 feet high around a Norway maple (?) and planted flowers. The tree started to die in sections and around 3 years later the whole tree was dead.
But since it was a Norway, maybe they were trying to kill it, lol.

    Bookmark   February 11, 2010 at 2:53PM
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There is very definitely a limit to the amount of soil one can add over the top of a root system and it's not all that dependant on species. Most trees will have the bulk of their root system located within the top 12-18" of the soil and most feeder roots are located just beneath the soil surface. As the feeder roots are those most responsible for accessing oxygen and moisture, adding more than a couple of inches of soil over a widespread can easily disrupt the oxygen exchange and prevent sufficient water penetration. Eventually the tree will die. Removal of a significant amount of soil from around the tree will have a similar effect. After a tree is established, anything that changes the soil level/condition or the oxygen and water supply can be extremely detrimental.

Piling up 12-18" of soil all the way around the tree is a sure recipe for tree death :-) Not to mention the rot it can cause with moisture build-up against the trunk.

    Bookmark   February 11, 2010 at 7:20PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

I grow ferns, daphne, coneflowers, strawberry guava, rosemary, artemisia, lavender, sage, rhubarb, garlic, and lots of other things below my trees.

Ferns, coneflowers, daffodils, and daphne grow beneath my maples primarily.


    Bookmark   February 13, 2010 at 4:39PM
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terrene(5b MA)

I have 1 large Silver maple, 1 large Sugar maple, and used to have 5 large Norway maples in this yard. In my experience, there is a significant difference amongst the 3.

The Silver maple is very greedy about water and has large gnarly surface roots that grow aggressively into the gardens that are irrigated. These trees have a high anaerobic tolerance, can tolerate seasonal flooding, and I wouldn't worry in the slightest about piling mulch or soil in the root zone (1 foot of soil is a bit much - on the other hand, the roots might be gleeful to have more soil to grow into). I also regularly hack away at large roots to cut them back from the perennials and septic system, with little apparent effect. It's not easy to grow under these trees, but drought tolerant plants do okay.

The Sugar maple has much more well-behaved roots. Only, these trees don't tolerate root disturbance, salt, suffocation, or compaction. I dug out 2 large Burning bush from one side of this tree and within months it suffered die back on the trunk on that side and a strip of bark peeled off. So I only dig gently around this tree or not at all.

Norways are near impossible. They have dense shade, allelopathic roots, and they suck the soil dry. Not to mention they are extremely invasive. I had 4 of them cut down. The only thing growing happily in the root zone of the remaining tree is Vinca minor.

I love the native maples, but they aren't easy to garden under, and I'm not interested in pampering plants to be able to do so. But I have other places to garden.

    Bookmark   February 14, 2010 at 12:45PM
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Actually, Acer saccharum - Sugar maples - tends to have stronger allelopathic properties than does Acer platanoides, Norway maple. But then a great many plants exhibit some sort of allelopathy that can inhibit the growth of other plants. This would not be my first criteria for evaluating underplantings unless the tree in question is a walnut. Generally the effect is isolated to specific plants or not significant enough to be a factor.

Here is a link that might be useful: Potential Allelopathy in Different Tree Species

    Bookmark   February 14, 2010 at 1:04PM
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cyn427(z7aN. VA)

Ken-again, LOL!!!! Seriously funny.

    Bookmark   February 14, 2010 at 6:45PM
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