recap: 10 thoughts on successful underplanting

A COUPLE OF YOU COMMENTED when I posted a spring “walk in the garden” story years back, asking for help with the subject of underplanting trees and shrubs (including my oldest magnolia, below). 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 (including in the little video above)?

underplanting of perennials under magnolia treeMy 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.

underplanting an old apple tree with ground coversOf 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 and other perennials underplanted below a treeA spring or two later, 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 (divide them like this) and yes, the Hylomecon and goldenseal and other shade-loving treasures.

Hylomecon and other perennials underplanted below a magnoliaUnder two more big, old apples, we replicated the successful pictures they’d taught me to create under my oldest magnolia (above, with celandine poppy and Hakonechloa and Hylomecon in April) and oldest apple (carpeted with hellebores and more, two photos up the page) that inspired some of you to ask “How’d you do that?”

10 tips for underplanters

how to plant under a tree1. 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.

newly planted bed of perennials2. 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) 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 or three years after planting. After the fourth year you can start harvesting divisions of some plants to repeat your success elsewhere.

3a. Notice I say “divisions,” because when working in the root zone of trees and even established shrubs, you want to work with a small trowel or a hori-hori, and plant small things. I use divisions made from older plants, or order “liners” from my nursery (the baby plants they get wholesale in late winter, then grow on in their greenhouses to sell to you). No digging with a shovel (or tiller, heaven forbid) in root zones. Again, patience is required, and a gentle hand, too.

Hakonechloa, painted fern, European ginger, Hosta June4. 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,’ plus Japanese painted ferns and Hosta ‘June,’ with a couple of young ‘Lime Rickey’ heucheras picking up the gold grass.

early ephemerals under magnolia5. 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. Oh, dont’ forget twinleaf (Jeffersonia). 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.

hellebore trillium hylomecon6. 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 (above, in bloom), perennial geraniums of a semi-evergreen nature (like ‘Biokovo’ or macrorrhizum), among many.

Lilium martagon hybrid 'Claude Shride'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 like ‘Claude Shride,’ above, or primulas, like the orchid-pink P. kisoana (below, in that same magnolia bed but another two weeks into spring) for an unexpected moment.

Primula kisoana8. 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:

japanese painted fern and autumn fern 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; those are the autumn fern and the Japanese painted, above) and against some large-textured things (like bigger hostas, or perhaps mayapple, or its cousin Diphylleia cymosa, below).

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 a few years back).

Glenn Withey planting perennials

  1. Maggie says:

    I am really enjoying your blog. It’s crammed full of interesting and useful articles and gorgeous pictures. Thank you.

    I recently created new beds under an old magnolia and weeping willow; however, I’m new to gardening and I’m trying to learn more about what I might successfully grow under them. I love the beds you’ve created above, particularly in the first and third images above and was wondering if you could tell me the names of the various plants so I could research them and see if they might work in my garden – I live in the UK.

    Hope to hear from you.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Maggie. They’re the plants mentioned in the article: golden Hakonechloa grass, shinhy European ginger, Japanese painted ferns and Hosta ‘June’ in the first photo; hellebores and Hylomecon under the big apple tree. The names are all linked for more info in the story; click the underlined green links for details.

      1. Jan says:

        GOod Morning, Just found you and – THANK YOU! I have been too nervous about planting close to trees. Just onw question, you say to plant right up to the trunk, what about all that water there? How do you avoid overwatering the tree with all that underplanting? I mean, don’t all those little plants with relativelty shallow roots to the tree, need more frequent watering?
        Thank you so much.

        Best, Jan

    2. GREAT POST! I am planning an upgrade of our HOA’s landscaping. Many of the beds have not been updated since they were first put in 20 years ago. While our budget won’t allow us massive underplanting, I have new confidence we can divide and fill in over time. You’re right it IS a patience game!!!!

  2. Cene says:

    Excellent Excellent !!!!! Great great info, pics…. So blessed by your blog ! Especially loved the follow up for the mosaic under planting. My mosaic under my pecan tree is in its 4 th season.. & is really starting to look like something…. Finally !!!!! Really appreciate your work, Margaret. Thank you !

  3. Holly says:

    Why do you say (but not English ivy or pachysandra or vinca!)? I’m working on a large bed with heavy shade. I’d like to create as much ground cover as possible but with interesting plants and color. I have hosta june and several other species of hosta, adjuga, some ferns, heuchera, astilbe and others. I was planning on edging the entire thing in pachysandra to create a defined border that I could contain on each side with edging in the ground.

  4. Maria Uhlenbrock says:

    Hi Margaret,
    Have been fallowing you since I saw you when you appeared on Martha Stewart’s original garden show where she introduced your book “A Way To Garden”. I have owned your book ever since and a year ago found you on the website which brought me sheer joy! At that time a small group of friend and I started a garden club and find your blog an amazing source of inspiration and information. We live in a rural area in Indiana with same zone as you – 5B. We will be discussing underplantings since all of us have acreage with lots of trees and I was wandering if the ephemeral plants you suggest are deer resistant like ferns, hellebores, trillium and ginger are. If you could share this information with me I will be able to include it in our next meeting as we discuss your blog. Although your place is very far from us, I have great hopes to be able to visit with our garden group as you are among the top 5 gardens on my bucket list. Please keep blogging and thank you in advance for considering my request.

    1. Deborah Banks says:

      Hi, another devoted Margaret Roach fan here. I’m surprised that you find trillium to be deer resistant. The deer here eat them. Could we arrange a swap: my deer for yours? Other shade lovers that my deer don’t eat include epimediums, pulmonaria and primulas.

  5. Shelley says:

    I read the part about seeing your favorite plant in pieces and the yelling match in your book and it reminded me of a similar experience I had. I had a tree peony that pretty much looked like 3 dead twigs in the winter and our pug decided to use it as such. He gnawed off all the buds and broke the stems. I was devastated and mad! Then the following year I gained 3 new branches which not only gave the plant more buds, but shaped it more into a gorgeous and full tree. A hard lesson at first but it taught me to accept things I cannot control and not to be so quick to assess the damage. Sometimes you get rewarded for being patient!

  6. Bob Hennessy says:

    In addition to the challenge of shade in the understory, I have the added challenge of deer browsing. Hostas are eaten as soon as they spring up. Are any of your recommended understory plants the least bit deer resistant? Also, do I use mulch when I plant or will that discourage spreading of the plants?

  7. Sally says:

    I’ve tried and tried to underplant but every time I try to place a plant I run into tree roots. Do you ever have that problem?

    1. margaret says:

      I use small divisions of plants, or young plants sold in small pots (or ordered from the nursery as “liners” — young plants). So I tuck them in an dlet them grow, rather than use big shovels and disturb roots.

  8. Hilary says:

    I’m going to repeat the question about ivy, vinca and pachysandra… When you’re working with a very large property, do you still see no role for these weed suppression f groundcovers?

    1. Caryn Jennings says:

      Hi Hilary, I will comment on the plants you have listed here from my personal experience and my master gardener classes. I would say no to the ivy! It is just so invasive. I do have vinca under my hydrangeas and it is blooming now and looks nice. I also have pachysandra in the north side of the house which is shady and it was put in when we were very first landscaping. If I had to start over I don’t think I would use it again. If you had a big area you wanted to cover it might work though. I really do like the low growing sarcacocca, it is so fragrant when it blooms in winter.

  9. Liane says:

    First, those Primulas (kisoana) are just too beautiful and robust for words. Maybe some day my three little ones under a trimmed up camellia will look like that. I am grateful for the N.C. rock gardener who dug one up for me, since it isn’t available locally. Second, I’ve made so many of these mistakes through the years! Ring around the rosy. Clumps that don’t blend. Then there were the evil epimedium that strangled everything else out and didn’t look pretty enough of the year to justify. Lots of minor bulbs, asarums, heucheras and hellebores work best for me. I also love the nearly year round color of Hypericum ‘Brigadoon’ underplanting trees. Personally, I find that hostas can really underperform when close to trees. The worst part of making these underplanting mistakes has been the attempts to salvage worthwhile plant material and move it someplace else! A couple of hostas under a maple await that fate the moment I see their buds come up.

  10. Mary C. says:

    Hi Margaret, It’s raining here today in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California. Tomorrow’s the first day of Spring! Hurray! My question is…how is it possible to underplant successfully under an old apple tree (which still produces), maintain the beauty of the understory plantings, keep the tree pruned, and clean up leaves and debris in the fall. I’m thinking more clean understory where an orchard fruit tree is concerned. Thoughts? PS. Your blog makes me happy every time I see A Way to Garden in my inbox, even before I click on it! Thank you!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Mary. My old apples do bear fruit, but are more cherished as ornamentals at this stage in their lives. I do prune (in late winter before the perennials are up), I do rake in fall and pick up fruit and fruit-tree debris (and rake again in early spring), I do tend the perennials through the season (deadhead etc.). I only have 5 old trees but Ihave intensive plantings under them all, and three still produce apples.

      I think for good hygiene/orchard management of multiple trees — a proper production orchard — an orchard mix cover crop that can be mown occasionally as needed is more the thing, but I do OK with these crazy mosaics under my old trees.

  11. Cene says:

    Loved this article when you posted last year & the update & am grateful. On year 4 of my largish underplanting mosaic of a pecan tree. Everyyear when it’s good & up- I fill in & every season too, to get 4 seasons of interest. Must say – It’s my most fun project.

  12. Linda says:

    Hilary, my answer to your question about ivy, vinca and pachysandra is that (in addition to being boring and way over-used) all three of these non-native ground covers are potential thugs, if not downright invasive, especially English ivy. Once they escape into the landscape or, in the case of ivy, start climbing your trees, they are nearly impossible to eradicate. Most of the other plants Margaret is suggesting can do a good job suppressing weeds once they are established and spreading to cover the ground. Until then, mulch and regular weeding will be in order, alas.

    1. Pamela Moulton says:

      Thank you, Linda. I was just writing the same response about “why not” vinca, pachysandra and ivy. As a former NYC landscaper, entrenched ivy was one of our worst maintenance nightmares (multiple clients). This spring I am going to have to rip out vinca that has migrated from a bed where I planted it into our more “pristine” woods.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Dianne. Yes, you can apply any well-aged compost — an inch or two, not super-deep — each year to “top dress” the area, sort of adding a little fertility and organic matter. Good plan!

  13. Carol kale says:

    I would love to under plant but have two large street maple trees and their roots come up into the yard everywhere…they are just matted and thick…how do I deal with that and would any massive dig hurt the trees?

  14. Sharon Gresk says:

    I have Barren Strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides) that I am moving to my shrub garden as a ground cover this year along with Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbent) which is a native pachysandra that is much more interesting for leaf colors and blossoms than the invasive imported pachysandra. Both these plants are native to the US and I find natives seem to work out much better for me.

  15. Carolaj says:

    What a wonderful article. Just in time. I live in VA Bch zone 8b and I just had the yard totally cleaned up and I find that I have a lot of space that needs some new plants. My daughter just moved to D.C. and wants her yard updated. Certainly enjoy your columns.

  16. Lorie says:

    When you live in the woods, you learn, one way or another, to underplant…unless you have hit the lottery and have the funds and time for huge numbers of annuals. It is one of the joys of spring (and it night be here after the next snow) to see each of the plants peek out and then fill in for the “mix” you have worked so hard to attain…or shed a tear for what opted out. I find the emerging ritual to be just as joyous as the final product.

  17. Elizabeth says:

    I have a large tree that currently has turf — Kentucky Bluegrass — underneath. Do you think I could use a sod cutter to remove the grass before under planting? Or do you have a better suggestion?

  18. Anita Berlanga says:

    oh my gosh! this was so inspring. I have a river birch that is in an ‘unfortunate’ space (right next to an unused walkway and planted right up against a fence, with ground infested with Creeping Charlie) so I’ve had to really work to get the roots happy. Now that they are, I can focus better on underplanting. Your ideas here have given me much to think about – and also instilled some much-needed hope that I can ‘manage’ that little corner of wilderness a bit better.

    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge!

  19. Margot says:

    Have just discovered your wonderfully informative site. I live in Australia and have a medium sized back garden with 5 large trees I planted 50 years ago. I am very interested in tackling some under planting mosaics. How does Seattle climate compare to Melbourne Australia?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Margot. Thanks for the kind words. I am in the Northeast, not the Northwest, in New York State, where winters can get to minus 20 degrees F or slightly colder, and we have about 40 inches of rain a year or so, and frost comes from sometime in October-ish to later April or in May. It’s what is called USDA Climate Zone 5B, if you want to look it up to compare more. And then of course there are the different soil types to consider…I have a silt loam, generally, with the occasional clay areas.

  20. Hope says:

    I’ve “inherited” a lovely huge oak, suspecting it’s a red oak due to the pointy leaves. Wondering, since I’m reading that so many things are not happy growing under oak, if those darling aconite would do well under my oak. Part of the reason I bought my house is the lovely yard and your blog is my go-to for information and encouragement. With fall on it’s way I’ve been happily getting my fingers into the dirt, first chore is removing all the inherited English and poison ivy!

  21. This thoughtful article keeps on giving. Thanks so much. It inspired me to estimate our Liriodendron (tulip tree) magnolia height. The reportedly tallest tree in the NYC metro area is one of these stern ladies.

    To say it’s dominant is like saying the sun is hot.

    This magnolia not only produces heavy shade, but produces chemicals to discourage competitors, which is distributes with dropped leaves.

    Risk of damaging the roots is a concern, because any weakening of the tree would be devastating in the next Sandy-grade storm.

    Thinking small about underneath plant size is counterintuitive, but it makes sense. There’s invasive ivy here and there so some things will grow. I just wish there was a more definitive way to measure effects of underneath planting on the root ecosystem of the tree.

    1. margaret says:

      I only underplant established trees with either “plugs” (tiny seedlings like cell-pack size) or equivalent-sized little divisions, or with seed. Never anything bigger than I can plant with a tablespoon! : )

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