10 thoughts on successful underplanting

A COUPLE OF YOU COMMENTED when I posted a spring “walk in the garden” photo gallery, asking for help with the subject of underplanting trees and shrubs (including my oldest magnolia, above). True confession: I have come very slowly and painfully to this lesson, dragged by some much more talented friends, Glenn Withey and Charles Price of Seattle. The lessons have involved some yelling, and even some tears (mine, not theirs). Still interested in learning how to “think mosaic,” as I now call underplanting?

My real education in underplanting began eight years ago, when (20-plus years into my gardening life) I learned the most important lesson of all: Ask for help, preferably early and often. So rather than remaining embarrassed that I wasn’t as confident in making complex and large mixtures of plants, despite all I knew about them individually, I asked Glenn and Charles to come and teach me.

Things got started really badly, and I feared for the friendship. The lowpoint was Day 1: I came around the corner of the house to find Charles (below, in full Pacific Northwest-style rain gear) holding my most treasured plant—in pieces. Without asking, he’d uprooted it and sliced it into tiny chunks. I shouted. He shouted right back. And so I cried, feeling out of control on so many levels.

charlesOf course Charles had done exactly the right thing when the goal is underplanting large areas, such as beneath trees: You need more, more, more of a few key plants to make it all come together. He was making more of my Hylomecon japonicum. At that moment, I didn’t feel quite so philosophical about it, however.

hellebores-etcJust this spring, Glenn and Charles, who curate the wonderful Dunn Gardens in Seattle and have a design business as well, visited again for two days. Being much bolder now and with years’ more practice, I uprooted precious things myself with abandon—trilliums and yes, the Hylomecon and goldenseal and other shade-loving treasures. Under two more big, old apples we replicated the successful pictures they’d taught me to create under my oldest magnolia (top) and oldest apple, (carpeted with hellebores and more, just above) that inspired some of you to ask “How’d you do that?”


apple-upltg11. No ring-around-the-rosey, thanks anyway. Rather than circling the dripline of trees or shrubs (or a group of trees and shrubs) with groundcovers and bulbs and such, you have to get all the way in there, even right up against the trunk (like this old apple’s above), to make it look UN-manmade…as if it just happened.

polkadots2. No polka-dots (except at first): Like I said, It’s all about learning to “think mosaic,” which doesn’t mean polkadots of onesies, but sweeps and drifts and deliberate repetition of said sweeps and drifts. At first, though (as above in a newly laid-out bed under an unseen smokebush in front of the house) no matter how many plants you buy or what you feed them, the new underplanting will look like hell (well, like polka-dots). Which leads to the next lesson:

3. Patience is required. (If you did not know that already, I suspect you have not started a single seed let alone planted a young tree.) This gardening nonsense is all about patience—frankly I think it’s a patience-building practice more than anything else. Your bed will look better next year, and almost great two years after planting. After the third or fourth year you can start harvesting divisions of some plants to repeat your success elsewhere.

june-mosaic4. Select a palette that relies on several key plants, with a few others as punctuation (the little gems to pop up from the carpet beneath them). Buy (or divide) so you have lots of each mainstay to get you started. The late-spring-to-fall palette under my oldest magnolia, top photo and above, is glossy European ginger, yellow Hakonechola macra ‘All Gold,’ Japanese painted ferns and Hosta ‘June,’ with a couple of young ‘Lime Rickey’ heucheras picking up the gold grass.

magnolia-bed5. Include ephemerals, early spring bulbs or perennials that come and take advantage of the sunshine before the canopy leafs out, then vanish underground or at least don’t take up much space. Winter aconites, or trilliums, or hylomecon, or Dutchman’s breeches, or bloodroot, or Virginia bluebells…the list goes on. I get about six extra-early weeks of color from my underplantings, before my mainstay plants fill in, by using ephemerals lavishly. That’s the same bed (just above), in April-into-May.

6. Include some “groundcover” types, meaning plants that form thick mats (but not English ivy or pachysandra or vinca!). I am partial to epimediums, European ginger, Hackonechola macra ‘All Gold,’ hellebores, perennial geraniums of a semi-evergreen nature (like ‘Biokovo’ or macrorrhizum), among many.

7. Make space for some real gems. Gems might include species peonies, choice hostas like ‘June’ (a favorite of mine), or even bulbs, like an outburst of martagon lilies or primulas, like the orchid-pink P. kisoana (below, in that same magnolia bed but another two weeks into spring) for an unexpected moment.

magnolia-farthr-along8. When choosing plants, remember that leaves are your best friend. Plan on a mix of textures and colors, coming mostly from foliage (as the leaves will be there all season or even all year, and the flowers just come briefly). Think of the color range of heucheras alone you could employ, or hostas—foliage is hardly boring. Which relates to this lesson:

9. Texture is also a great ally. Work it. I cannot imagine “mosaics” working without some linear things (grasses like Hackonechloa, or sedges), contrasted against some ferny things (like, well, ferns) and against some large-textured things (like bigger hostas, or perhaps mayapple, or Diphylleia cymosa).

10. Once you’ve selected a palette, repeat, repeat, repeat. Not just in the first area you underplant, but (if it works) in another area in need of some extra interest, where it may be all mulch right now or a sea of a single groundcover. Soon your first mosaic will fill in and afford you some divisions, and on to making the next beautiful carpet you will go (maybe with help from a great teacher like Charles or Glenn, below, having at it under another apple).

June 16, 2008


  1. Cathy says

    We have lost ALL of our old silver and Norway maples in the back yard due to damage in our Oct. snowstorm in West Hartford, CT. Our property is a little down hill from the closely settled yards behind and a little above us. The old trees used to provide some perimeter privacy and definition. For many years hemlocks stood along with them, but later failed from wooly adelgid and were cut down. We also had to take down a giant (100+ years?) Silver Maple in the center of the backyard which offered a sizeable canopy and focus there. The yard is quite wide, about 3 times more so than deep. We would like to try and plant some large trees this spring to recover some of our altogether lost sense of landscape and personal space. Our soil is heavily clay based with a high water table as we are near a large stream. I am also very concerned that there are such mass networks of multiple old and large root systems, that any effort to replant would be doomed. The back boundary is west of our 2 story house with a 6 foot stockade fence. We live on a corner, and the side by the street is south. Is there any hope to preparing for successful replanting of mature trees? Can you advise what kind(s) of soil and site preparation would be required? We really don’t know where to start.. Thanks in advance for any guidance you can offer.

    • says

      Hi, Cathy. Sorry for the loss of trees, though the Norways are of course considered “weed trees” so maybe you will love the ones that come next even more! (Silver lining, etc. — trying to be positive.) Rather than try to guess what will work from afar, I would say this: You need a consultation on-site with the VERY BEST woody-plant nurseryman within an hour or two of there, who can look at what’s what and make a plan with you — seeing every issue first-hand. For instance, I have had Dennis Mareb of Windy Hill Farm in Great Barrington, MA (actually not horribly far from you) help me in some dire straits, when I really needed someone to come look and evaluate and talk it through. That’s the first step. There are so many tree choices — but first someone really needs to help you see past what WAS there and imagine what you WANT to see there, if you know what I mean. If you want big trees to start, they will have to grind stumps and dig with tree spades and other equipment…so again, you need a consult with a really qualified woody plant person.

  2. Maddybee says

    Your post on FB on this topic which lead me right to these wonderful instructions is very timely because I am about to put pencil to paper and start sketching a couple of new beds on the side of my house that will be a continuum and revitalization of a bed with only vibernum and 2 dead dogwoods (will be removed). And you have inspired me to revitalize a mess going on under 5 white birch that has weeds and some spring bulbs that previous owners planted that don’t do well (north side…too damp too I suspect.) Question: I will not be embarrassed to ask (following your coaching about this topic…) about preparing the soil under the tree. What do you typically do to create the proper growing conditions for beds and particularly under trees. Thank you!

  3. Marian says

    How do you remove fallen leaves in Fall without damaging the plants underneath? Very gentle raking? I don’t have a leaf blower and don’t want one.

    • says

      Hi, Marian. Yes, or in smaller area by hand, but generally with very light raking. In late fall the perennials are going to collapse and go underground anyhow, so as long as you don’t pull them out of the ground… I use a bamboo rake, by the way.

  4. Marguerite says

    I live in an oak grove. I have 3 large oaks in my yard. There is nothing but holes and weeds under them. The voles love living under them and my dogs love digging until they get the voles – tasty snack, I guess. RoundUp eventually takes care of the weeds eventually but, that still leaves holes and bare ground. I am told even if I were able to rid myself of the voles you should not plant inside the drip line of the oaks as it will eventually rot them and I have seen this happen to some beautiful, huge old specimens. What to do? Do you have an idea to make the area under the trees less of an eyesore?

  5. Terri H. says

    I have a rake with a very small head–maybe 8″ across–that I use for getting leaves out from around plants.

  6. Terri H. says

    I’m very glad you posted this because I’ve just started to think about doing a little more under my maple tree. Previous owners created a hexagonal raised bed around it, but only put in hostas and lily of the valley and grape hyacinth. BORING except at bloom time! I think some ferns right up by the trunk… and I really wanna put some hellebores in there.

  7. Marguerite says

    Perhaps, I didn’t leave enough information for some help. I live in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern California on a cattle ranch – zone 9. We get into the low 20s in the winter but not for more than several hours. In summer we can see several days 100+ degrees. Sandy soil. Bark is the only solution I have come up with.

  8. Mary says

    One recommendation: Do NOT use lilies of the valley! I started a bed under some maples a few years ago, and they’ve taken over, crowding out everything else. I’m going to pull all but a very few up this fall and start over, and then keep them contained. They also look terrible for most of the summer.

    • says

      Hi, Kay. I start with only very young, small plants (perennials that aren’t yet very grown up) and tuck them carefully in with a small digging tool like a Japanese weeding knife (hori hori) or very small trowel. I never dig in big things, so it takes time for them to fill in, but does no damage to roots.

  9. says

    Hi Margaret,

    I love this post and I’m replicating your ideas in a couple spots, but completely off topic, did you make the cement spheres in your garden or purchase them? I literally have the cement sitting in my garage ready to go but have been putting off the project for fear of disaster. Any advice???

    Thanks so much!



  10. Lisa DePalma says

    I love your site, and all the helpful photos and info. Do you have any recommendations for landscaping a hill? I loved your photo with the stone wall that had some ivy growing then the low growing conifer, Microbiota decussata.

    I have about 54 feet of split rail wall about 16 inches high, that is going to be put in at the base of the hill. The area has a woodline at the top of the hill with hickory trees, and oaks. It gets morning sun then mostly shade. The previous owner of the home cut down all the beautiful pine trees that were growing in the hill and made more of a “polka dot” formal looking landscape. Meanwhile both homes on either side of mine have the beautiful natural looking hill side of the woodline.

    I live in CT, which is zone 6. Any suggestions for deer resistant, and shade tolerant trees and ground covers, that will grow fast and spread up hill?

    I appreciate your help!


  11. Mimi says

    This is the third time I have read this post. The pictures are beautiful! I haven’t tried it yet, but I do have some areas where one plant has expanded sideways under a shrub in an enthusiastic way. I have a weakening rhododendron; and I keep thinking that the multiplying hellebores below it are hogging the nutrients. Doesn’t each plant need a little real estate to call its own?

  12. cintra says

    Of course I was starting the ring around the magnolia with pachysandra and then I read your post…..my magnolia gets pretty full in the summer and I have deer…..Can you suggest plants to underplant in this situation? I am ripping out the ring!!

  13. OutdoorMama says

    Wondering where you get these tiny sprigs of plants for underplanting? or are most of these things dividable (hostas, grasses) anyway so you divide whatever you buy?

leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *