Planting Under Pine Trees

thepodpiperDecember 21, 2010

For years I have been trying to get something to grow under my Blue Spruce without success I may add. So every year the wife and I put annuals underneath which do really well but we are looking to put something in that will flourish and come back every year. Has anyone had any luck under pine trees with perennials?


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I have been successful; key of course is to match the situation with the plant (or vice versa, actually). Your spruce casts shade and strips the soil very quickly of available nutrients and, especially, water. So unless you address it, you will have dry, dusty soil. So you would do well to work a lot of organic matter into the soil for nutrient and water retention, and to mulch well with something like hemlock mulch that will again, assist with water retention and organic matter. Running a soaker hose around underneath the mulch would be a great add, but regardless you should water deeply and often for the first year or two (or really, indefinitely).

Plants suggestions that occur are hostas (or probably better, lungwort) and heucheras (I see you have one alredy), plus japanese ferns. Epimediums are great and more resilient regarding the poor, dry soil issue.

I have had success planting under trees by letting the plants get a head start on the competition by planting in peat pots for small plants or in little "basins" lined with wet newspaper (many layers) filled with good soil...this will break down quickly, and the tree roots will invade, but in the meantime the added perrenials get a good root system started...or at least this is a theory and my anecdotal experience supports it.

I also think, for the same reason, that planting in the fall or early spring, when it is cooler and wetter, gives the plants a chance to establish.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2010 at 11:07AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

ok.. your title says pine.. then you show a picture of a spruce .... shall i presume you are a newbie???

all kidding aside ... wait.. one more.. your spruce.. does it have pine cones ... ok.. its out of my system ... hope you have a sense of humor .. forgive me if you dont ...

anyway ....

yes.. anything will grow under there ... because the crown has been lifted.. and there should be sufficient light for most anything ...

your issue is going to be actually getting a shovel through all the roots.. and once you do that.. getting PROPER water to whatever you plant there ... when you dig a hole.. return all the native soil.. do NOT amend.. or the spruce will grow roots in the primo amendments.. and we dont really want that ...

then, that 20 to 30 foot conifer.. is going to be a super competitor .... thirstily taking all the water you try to give to the plants.. so you are going to have to learn how to PROPERLY water under there...

that would include defining the soil type.. and making sure.. thru the use of your index finger.. that the soil stays as moist as the plants you plant there, need ...

we can give you all kinds of lists of all kinds of plants.. but it will be simply about whether or not you can take care of your soil.. under your picea pungens ... a good cover of mulch will help the whole situation, once the garden is planted.. [and no.. we do not favor landscape cloth under it ...]

but before we get to the plants.. tell us about how much sun that soil gets.. and what time of day ... hosta would do just fine there.. but for blistering hot late afternoon sun ...

give us some more info.. and we will enable you to your hearts desire ...

sorry about pulling your leg...


    Bookmark   December 21, 2010 at 11:09AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

i would not go under any large tree ... and start amending soil.. by severing every single feeder root under there ...

the tree will generate 5 or 10.. for every one severed.. and in the long run.. it will end up worse than when you started ..

under large trees ... dig hole.. nearly bare root the plant.. refill with what you dug out..

and broadcast all water and fert [after the first good drench, of course] ... NEVER spot water or fert just your plant .. trees are NOT stupid.. they will grow their roots where the good stuff is ...

mulch and PROPER watering will be the key beyond that ...


    Bookmark   December 21, 2010 at 11:53AM
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Look for plants that prefer dry shade - the area under the canopy of large conifers (or for that matter, any large growing tree, evergreen or not) is typically considered to fit into that planting condition. Both the canopy of the tree in question as well as the root system will limit the amount of sunlight, natural rainfall and available nutrients the plants will be able to receive. Plants that are adapted to flourish under those conditions will do best but even then will benefit from regular irrigation to get established and periodic fertilization to supplement the lack of nutrients typically present.

The variety of plants you can use will of course be limited by your climate zone but in addition to those mentioned by simcan, consider Geranium macrorhizum or phaeum, Euphorbia robbiae, Iris foetidissima, hellebores, Lamium maculatum, dicentra, foxgloves, pachysandra, vinca, lady ferns, sword ferns and groundcover forms of cotoneaster. Epimediums are an excellent choice.

FWIW, I have found that heucheras perform best if in a highly organic soil that is somewhat moisture retentive, so I would not consider them the best plant for this type of situation. But their cousins tiarellas fair better and so by extension the heucherella hybrids that are a cross between the two.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2010 at 12:04PM
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Dry shade, such as your area, is the most difficult growing situation. The list of plants that endure such conditions is short. You can dig great holes with a pickaxe, add great soil--and within a short time, the trees will have filled those holes right up with their own roots. I speak from experience.

The only way to succeed is to give the plants a good start with those holes and lots of compost and from then on til forever, give the plants what they need topside. That is, frequent, even daily, watering--extra fertilizer--topdress with compost once a year.

I have a dry shade garden in maple roots and it has succeeded for 20 years with this treatment. It is mostly hostas, epimediums, our native Geranium maculatum, a sedge or two, some lungworts, and variegated Japanese Solomon's seal, plus a few others. The list of plants that I tried and failed is very long....

It can be done but you will have to give it more care than a garden in better conditions.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2010 at 12:18PM
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squirejohn zone4 VT

Some folks seem to have luck with "tree bags". Check out and look at SpinOut and Tex-r.
I looked at these as potential for growing hosta under red maples. However they seem to be too small in diameter and too deep for my needs, but may work for you.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2010 at 4:50PM
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Thank you all for the quick and helpful replies. First I am going to put in a much needed watering system, I have all of the materials but I am very good at procrastinating. I think the watering issue has been my biggest setback. There are some perennials already in this area but again I think it is a water issue more than anything.

Ken, yes I am a perennial newbie and know absolutely nothing in regards to pine trees or conifers if you will. I thought everything that looked like a Christmas tree was called a pine tree. LoL. Well that is for a later addiction. My expertise (that's what I call it anyway) is in peppers and tomatoes mostly peppers, I have a collection of over 1,000 varieties of capsicum.

Ken, what do you call a pine cone from a Blue Spruce if it is not actually a pine tree?? (I am being serious.... in a humorous kinda way).

I will do some research on all of the suggestions and see what I have in the line of flower seeds and will go from there.


Here is a link that might be useful: pp's Pics

    Bookmark   December 21, 2010 at 6:34PM
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hostaholic2 z 4, MN

"what do you call a pine cone from a Blue Spruce if it is not actually a pine tree??" A spruce cone!

    Bookmark   December 21, 2010 at 10:54PM
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Thanks hostaholic2, I set myself up for that one.


    Bookmark   December 22, 2010 at 8:08AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

conifers are conifers.. because .. they have cones ...

and conifers are trees ...

so name the tree .. then add 'cone' ...

so.. as noted.. your spruce has spruce cones ... go figure on that logic.. lol ...

anyway.. enough on that ...

there are 3 basic things plants need PROPERLY ...

to be PROPERLY planted ...

to be in PROPER light ... [you arent going to grow sunflowers under there, eh .. being rather literal] ....

and PROPER watering ...

and i will focus on water like a laser ...

new transplants need more water than an 'established plant' ... until they can grow the roots needed to support the plant ... or get those there.. working again after you disturb them thru planting ...

for the first month or so ... most perennials should NEVER dry ... no matter if it is a plant that can TOLERATE dry shade ...

but once they get going ... then their true characteristics come out.. and tolerance to dryness will surface ...

make sense???

anyway .. perennials can take years to grow into large plants.. so what you do .. next season.. is put in BOTH perennials for the long run .. and some annuals for instant impact ... but be aware .. there are very few annuals that are dry tolerant.. other than weeds.. lol ...

once again.. you have not.. or i missed it .. the actual sun on the space.. i might consider ringing the rocks with impatiens if shade.. and maybe allysum or petunia if sun ... covering about the first foot in .. then some other annuals .. interspersing them with perennials for the following year ...

it looks like you have a struggling heuchera or coral bell there ... so that indicates that with a little more TLC.. those will grow there ...

below is a pic of maple roots ... to show you the 'potential' of what you are dealing with under the soil .... a spruce is NOT going to be that extreme ... but i hope it makes you appreciate what i meant when i said trees are super competitors ... i really have no clue what the grass is growing in .... that is the neighbors septic rebuild.. it took me two years to convince him to get rid of that maple or face another rebuild in the future ... he finally did last summer [4 years???] ... i gave up long ago.. trying to grow much of anything under maple.. but i digress ....

good luck


    Bookmark   December 22, 2010 at 9:22AM
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calistoga_al ca 15 usda 9

I had a similar problem at my old house, same tree as yours. I finely settled on pachysandra which did very well with minimal watering. I have solomons seal here under cedar trees with more water dispensed with mini sprinklers.Agapanthus also does well. Without your zone it is just a guess what will grow for you. Al

    Bookmark   December 22, 2010 at 9:35AM
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flora_uk(SW UK 8/9)

Gaultheria procumbens, while not a herbaceous perennial, is a US native which grows in pine forests. I don't suppose it would mind if the pines were spruces.

    Bookmark   December 23, 2010 at 6:57AM
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Ken, the conifer thing is making sense to me now.

The far left edge gets the majority of the sun and the closest rock edge gets some in the mornings depending on if the cars are in the driveway. impatiens is what we plant every year under the pi..... spruce tree and they look good until i come home from work on occasion and they have not been watered. I will plant something along the edges of the rocks that needs a little sun. I would like to put something there that would hang down over the rocks that has some long lasting color.

"it looks like you have a struggling heuchera or coral bell there ... so that indicates that with a little more TLC.. those will grow there ..."

Yes , I believe those are Coral Bells and they need more TLC than we have given them for sure. They do pretty good there and have multiplied nicely over the years they have been there. They look much nicer in the summer months though. This pic was taken recently right before we got the snow here in Mi.

    Bookmark   December 23, 2010 at 3:02PM
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hostaholic2 z 4, MN

Sorry Dale, I just couldn't resist!

    Bookmark   December 23, 2010 at 9:28PM
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Part of the issue is whether you want just something growing there, in which a groundcover like Lamium, vinca, pachysandra, or some of the spreading epimediums would do well to fill the area, especially if you follow directions above to mulch well, water regularly and deeply, and topdress annually with compost and/or fertilizer.

If you want more variety of flower and foliage, you have a bunch of good plant suggestions to work with. I would also add that on the sunny edge some plants that will spill over your rocks would include some of the groundcover sedums which have a variety of foliage color and size along with flowers, or ornamental thymes. Neither will work well in shady areas. Some of the creeping bellflowers, such as Campanula poscharskyanna or C. cochlearifolia, might work also well in the sunnier spots to crawl amongst your rocks, though you may end up with them crawling into your lawn as well.

    Bookmark   December 24, 2010 at 10:45AM
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On the morning walk I took for many years there was a large
pine under which a large spread of anemone blanda grew. It grows from a bulb (corm??) and has daisy like flowers in blue,
pink, or white. These were blue. It is ephemeral, blooming before hardwood trees have their leaves and disappearing. This is the only place around here that I have seen anemone blanda. Beautiful! Later foxgloves bloomed there.

    Bookmark   December 26, 2010 at 2:30PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5


i thought that might look like royal oak or ferndale or one of those woodward corridor 'hoods ... i am down just south of tecumseh .. with an adrian zip code ..

so where are you ...

you said: spruce tree and they look good until i come home from work on occasion and they have not been watered.

===>>> and that is proof of your water management issue ... there is enough water available during the cool part of the day.. but by late afternoon.. the tree has made it an desert under there ...

impatiens are very high water plants ... and they become stressed at the slightest inkling of lack of water in heat ...

you should move toward plants that have a lessor need for always being moist.. with the understanding that even those.. will not appreciate getting dry every afternoon.. for the first year or two ...

now .... i think others asked you to define your goal.. and then we could go from there... just some green ground cover... or do we want some flowers???

and just what is your irrigation dream ...


    Bookmark   December 26, 2010 at 6:20PM
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Pachysandra Terminalis, aka Japanese Spurge -- thrives under pines.

They're evergreen, and fill in nicely within three years.

I planted mine 8 inches apart so they fill in faster.

I have had in both sun and shade, and they perform equally well. They like acid fertilizer, and do well in my clayish soil, and can pretty much be neglected once established. Easy to rake over, and keeps weeds out.

Pachy would be my first choice. My neighbor had them planted under his pines for a groundcover.

Here's a pic planted along my retaining wall...

    Bookmark   December 28, 2010 at 5:29PM
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