How To Landscape Around Trees And Avoid The Most Common Problems -

How To Landscape Around Trees And Avoid The Most Common Problems

how to landscape around trees

One of the challenges that many homeowners face - and one that we've seen many times - is how to landscape around trees; either in the middle of their yards or in their gardens. We've seen all kinds of things, from doing nothing and letting weeds grow, to putting large rocks around them and planting perennials that just don't bloom.

Indeed, it's a challenging area because not only is the ground underneath usually shaded and therefore can't grow grass, but the tree's canopy prevents enough water from reaching the underside. What's left is bare, brown dirt and the occasional weed. It's no wonder then that most people want to dress up the bare ground underneath a tree.

In this article we wanted to give you some practical advice and give you some tree landscaping ideas along with pictures. These ideas are things we've either done ourselves or seen that work well.

First, we want to clarify what we mean by a tree. What we're talking about here is both large trees such as oaks and maples, to ornamental trees that grow fairly tall too, say 20-30 feet.

Smaller ornamental trees are not the subject of this article because almost anything can be planted around these smaller trees and usually, no special considerations are necessary. Most ornamental trees don't shade an entire garden and their roots don't take over the ground, which makes landscaping around ornamental trees a much easier task. Larger trees however, have their challenges

Larger trees can challenging for a number of reasons:

  1. Because of tree roots and hard ground, it can be difficult to dig holes deep enough to stick plants in the gound.
  2. Trees take up a lot of water, which means they take it away from other plants that need it.
  3. Depending on the tree, you may have a limited number of plants to choose from.

Many homeowners we see try different things but often times don't see success because they don't know how to overcome these problems so the first thing we want to do is give you tips to address these challenges.

Once you finish reading here, you'll have a much better sense of how to landscape around trees that will give you the most chance of success.

Problem #1: Roots Around The Tree

Different tree species have different root systems. For instance, maples are noted for dense fiberous roots that are near the surface whereas oak tree roots extend deeper into the ground, with some larger ones at the surface - sometimes even breaking the surface of the ground.

You've probably seen tree roots coming up out of the ground. This is common.

The problem with landscaping around trees comes from disturbing roots.

Some tree species will tolerate root disturbance better than others so it's important to know which ones would be better candidates for lanscaping around them (see our list below).

In a perfect world, none of the tree roots would be damaged and you'd have a happy and healthy tree. Unfortunately, if you want to landscape around and under trees, you're going to need to disturb some roots.

The goal then then is to disturb as few as possible to give the tree the most chance of growing healthy.

It's impossible to know for sure if the tree will be damaged. It might take years to show stress. It might live healthy and then one day, show signs of stress and eventually die. There's just no perfect solution. However, there are ways you can landscape under trees and do it in a way that gives the tree the best odds.

Here are some things you can do to minimize damag to roots:

  1. The closer you dig to the trunk, the worse for the tree. Therefore, the further out from the trunk you plant, the better.
  2. Use plants that are shallow rooted. Therefore, you won't have to dig deep to plant them. A classic ground cover to plant under trees is pachysandra because it can literally be planted only a few inches deep.
  3. Plant around tree species that have deeper roots - a tap root even (a tap root is a root that extends vertically into the ground).
  4. Build up the soil. It's generally accepted that adding up to 2-4 inches of soil around a tree should not hurt the tree. However, more soil will. In fact, burying the surface roots of a tree any deeper might do more damage than disturbing roots.

    The fact is trees "breathe" and get oxygen through the roots at the surface. Covering them means the tree will be smothered and the chances are good it will not survive. This goes for the trunk as well.

    It is wise not to let soil or other planting medium touch the trunk of a tree either. A good option is to slope new soil and/or compost upwards away from the trunk. For instance, keep the ground near the trunk flat and add your soil 1 foot or more away from the trunk, making a donut like shape around the center trunk. Adding rocks in a ring around the trunk is also an option that will keep soil away from it.

  5. The more roots you disturb, the more you're cutting off water and nutrients that the tree needs. So cut as few as possible.

Now that we've explained why disturbing roots may be a problem, you still might want to dress up the ground under a tree. If so, then we say go for it, but follow the precautions we outlined above and, more often than not, your tree will be OK.

In our landscape careers, we have needed to dig out the roots of trees at different times - even in our own yard - sometimes to plant other plants, at other times to build a gravel driveway and shed. In all instances, the homeowner's priorities were their new projects and if a tree was lost in the process, so be it. However, we have yet to loose a tree by doing this.

Of course sometimes the stress of disturbing or cutting roots won't be known until years later so just knowing what can happen and following the guidlines will increase your odds of success.

Another issue with roots is that the digging is hard and you just can't dig a hole deep enough for your plants. What should you do in the case? Pick another location or you use plants that require a shallow hole such as pachysandra.

Problem #2: Dry Shade Issues

The second issue you might encounter is plants drying out. Indeed, if plants you have elsewhere on your property are doing well but under a tree they are not, it could be that they are not getting enough water. It could also be that they are not getting enough sun. Are they sun or shade plants? It matters.

The ground under a tree's canopy is typically called dry shade, meaning it's shady but also dry because it's shielded from rain.

It's especially important to keep the plants watered after planting so they can thrive and expand into the surrounding ground. If you plant perennial or evergreen ground covers, once they are established they should do well with very little care at all.

Not so with flowers. Flowers, especially annuals, will generally need to be watered, depending on how much rain you've been getting and how much water is able to get to the plants under the tree.

If you want to plant annual flowers, you can do it by creating a ring of flowers near the outside of the tree ring, where sun and rain water is more likely to reach the plants. In fact, we know several people that do this and the gardens under the tree look fantastic.

If you want to plant annuals, stick with plants that will do well in dry shade - impatiens and begonias are two that are popular plants for around trees.

Water is important for a plant's growth so it's important to know how to tell if they are getting enough. Read here for moore information on watering plants.

Problem #3: Plant Selection For Landscaping Around Trees

As you're probably aware from reading above, selecting the right plants is essential for a good outcome.

For instance, if the tree you're wanting to landscape around is a large deciduous tree such as an oak, the ground underneath will be in shade during the summer and in the sun during the winter.

In this case, you'll want to use shade plants, not sun varieties. Why? Because in the winter when there are no leaves on the trees, plants are in dormancy and not growing - so the fact that sun is getting to the ground makes little difference.

On the other hand, if you've planted some early blooming perennials that need sun, they should do well before the leaves come out. Later blooming perennials may not do as well. You would need to make your plant selection based on these factors.... and this is not a perfect choice.  All we can do is make the educated decision and evaluate the results so changes can be made in the future if needed.

In many instances the best types of plants to use under large trees are perennial ground covers, many of which do well in shade. In addition, they require virtually no care, so you can plant it and forget it.

Another common palnting around trees are daffodils, which need sun but bloom early, before leaves come out.

image of daffodils as landscape around a tree

Notice in the spring image above these daffodils are doing great under this big oak tree.  Also notice that they are not planted directly next to the trunk, but spaced a little further out, away from the trunk.

Next are some examples of how to landscape around and under trees. Keep in mind that all of these options are good ones. The only thing that matters is your taste in plants and choosing the ones you like the most.

You can also use these examples by planting multiple varieties of the same plant, or combining several different plants into one design.  Use your imagination to come up with designs of plants that make a statement.

Understory Plants For Around Trees

#1: Hostas:

hostas under treeHostas make great plants to use under trees. Not only are they suitable for shade, there are a wide variety available so you can create a design with the different varieties.

If you use hostas, keep in mind the size of the tree ring versus the size of the hostas. The perspective is important. Larger trees call for larger hostas and the reverse is also true.

green line

#2. Loriape:

blooming liriope under treesLiriape is another reliable ground cover that looks great under trees. This grassy looking plant will not only fill the area, but they will multiply over the years and you'll be able to dig them out and use them in other gardens around your property.

As a bonus, liriope blooms mid to late summer with nice purple blooms.  When plants are sepereated, the blooms are an afterthought but when planted in mass, they form a carpet of purple - as in the photo.

An idea that always looks great is to use loriape as the shorter outside border of the garden, around the edge, then fill the inside with larger hostas. Since both plants come in solid and varigated varieties, a great ideas is to use solid hostas with varigated loriape or visa versa.

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#3. Pachysandra:

pachysandra used as landscape around treesAs mentioned above, pachysandra is a great ground cover to use as landscape around trees because it's shallow rooted. It's commonly seen in English estates, so it tends to give that classy look to your gardens. This ground cover stays low, around 6 inches tall, and produces small white flowers in the spring.

If you purchase pachysandra, be sure to buy enough. You'll want to space each plant about 6 inches apart so figure out how many you'll need based on the size of your garden. It will take them a couple of years to fill in but once they do, you'll see a carpet of green never need to care for that garden again.

As mentioned elsewhere here, you could actually plant pachysandra you've dug out of other people's gardens which will give you a free landscape.

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#4. English Ivy:

Another plant will shallow roots, english ivy wil creep along the ground and fill out all the space under a tree.

Keep in mind that if you use English Ivy, it can also grow where you don't want it, such as into the surrounding grass or even up the tree trunk. Therefore, you'll want to trim it occasionally.

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#5. Lilly Of The Valley:

lilly of the valley next to treeAlthough called a lilly, this plant looks more like ground cover than the classic lilly you might picture. It stands about 6 inches tall, sports white flowers in early summer, and spreads out the same as other ground cover.

This is another plant that will do well when planted in the shade in shallow soil.

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#6. Ferns:

fern garden under treeIndeed ferns like shade, which means they do well under trees. However they also like moisture which means they may or may not work out. The tree canopy often keeps the ground underneath from drying out quickly, so depending on your climate, they may work out fine.

In fact, it's our experience that if you have a few ferns on your property, they will seed themselves and grow under trees on their own.

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Using Stones For Landscapes Around Trees

Another common way to landscape around trees is to not use plants at all, but decorative rocks or small stones. You could also space out some other plants within the stone - being sure not to plant them too close so they don't grow together and obscure the stone completely.

stones around tree in landscape

A great idea is to use stone in the center area of the tree ring and use a green ground cover around the perimeter.

The downside to planting within the stones is you'll likely have to weed the garden every now and then.

To help with this problem, use weed control fabric under the stones. This is one of the times where using weed control fabric is a good idea. However, make sure the fabric is pourus so water can reach the tree roots.

Not all planting situations warrent using weed control fabric though so it helps to know the dos and don'ts of this fabric.

How To Landscape Under Trees - What Not To Do

So far we've mentioned the challenges and ways to overcome them, plus given you ideas of what you can do around trees. However, there are things you shouldn't do so being aware of these important points will give you better results.

What shouldn't you do?

1. In a few words, disturb too many roots . . . by doing the following:

First, planting large shrubs that require large holes, meaning lots of roots disturbed plus needing lots of water. Simply don't do it or even consider it, but if you must, plant them further out, closer to the drip line of the tree (the drip line is the point where the tree canopy ends, in other words, where water will drip from the tree canopy onto the ground below).

Second, planting annuals every year and too close to the trunk, which will disturb the roots every year and not give them a chance to grow back.

2. Cut roots to dig the tree ring.

We have several clients that want mulch rings around their trees. We always do it, but never cut a trenched edge for the tree ring that would cut through roots and you shouldn't do this either. Instead, create the ring of mulch by shaping it into a circle on the of the ground and roots.

List Of The Best Trees To Landscape Around

The following is a list of trees that tolerate root disturbance better than others:

Red Maple
Eastern Redbud
Washington Hawthorn
Honey Locust
Southern Magnolia
Norway Spruce
Blue Spruce
Virginia Pine
Red Oak
Chestnut Oak
American Holly

Conclusions - How To Correctly Landscape Around Trees

We know. We like the area under trees to look as good as it can and you do too.

The good news is that you can add landscaping and plants around trees with some consideration of where they are planted and which which plants you are using.

Don't be discouraged by the downsides we mentioned here. Now that you know them, you'll be able to make an educated choice as to how you want to proceed and because you've read this article, you choice should be sound and you're tree will most likely live to see more years go by and the gardens underneath it will shine as well.

For more one-on-one advice that is specific to you, visit this post:

Ask The Pros Landscape Consulting – Answering Your Urgent Questions

For more information and even more details, check out this highly informative pdf article here:

Happy gardening!

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