an update on underplanting trees and shrubs

mature-underplantingWHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES. Inspired by the underplanting of hellebores and trillium and other earlybirds and ephemerals under the oldest of my old apple trees (above), a year ago I underplanted two more of the big, aging apples.  On their first anniversary, the new areas are already shaping up…

year-old-underplantingNo, I don’t like that the plants don’t touch yet, but each little division has more than doubled in size and compared to where we began (below), it’s a great improvement.


Early spring is the perfect time for this kind of project, when divisions of perennials are plentiful and there’s a long growing season ahead for everyone to settle in and get growing.

Successful underplanting involves selecting the right mix of plants, and then being patient: There are 10 things I think about when I am tackling a new area, creating another botanical mosaic to cover the ground beautifully instead of a mass one one thing. Ready to create some of your own?

  1. Johanna says:

    What a lovely sight! I’m hoping to put in a few apple and crabapple trees this year (assuming my drainage problem is solved), and it looks like I should be including some beautiful spring color in the planting plan. Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Catherine. Yes, they hopefully will fill in a lot this second year; very exciting. Thanks for your visit, and don’t be a stranger.

  2. Once again, you inspire me to get off my well-upholstered duff and get digging. I’ve a long drive flanked by enormous shrubs, really more hedgerows, and am slowly underplanting them with a variety of flowering and fruiting things. Very slowly, as money allows, but I can feel in the future it will look wonderful.

  3. Ailsa says:

    Yes, I concur! No ring around the tree. I think it ends up looking like an elephant wearing a tutu!
    Patience is definitely required when creating such a gorgeous underplanting. Can’t wait to see on the 31st…

  4. Kathy says:

    I have been trying to improve my underplanting techniques after seeing your previous post. Spring has brought some good results. Wish I was in the garden, stuck at work. Love the photos.

  5. Brian G. says:

    You are inspiring so coincidentally, that is exactly what I did this weekend under an old lilac near the back door. I even included some of your beloved Hylomecon Japonica. Hate to be a copy cat but they look so good!

    BTW, bought the Hylomecon and some Primula Rosea mail order from Evermay Nursery in Maine. FANTASTIC sized plants for a song and the proprietor includes a hand written thank you note with each order!

  6. gardenden says:

    Hello and Happy May Day!
    We moved the firewood pile a few weeks ago…Any advice on underplanting Norway Maples? (I know, but they came with the place.) I have read that natives are the best suited to survive with these thirsty trees. The site is dry shade, or mud, depending on the week. Any comment is appreciated.

  7. arythrina says:

    Looks great! I like how the bed runs out to the dripline of the tree – it makes it seem as though the tree branches are hugging it in.

  8. Julie says:

    For underplanting Norway Maples:
    Senecio aureus – it’s a native, has a nice yellow flower in spring and spreads nicely.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Julie, and thanks for the suggestion. Or you could cut down the Norway maples. :) (Kidding, sort of…just such a weed tree where I grew up, ugh.) Nice to see you and do visit again soon.

  9. Lynell says:

    I just recently found your site and have been pouring over it the last few days as the gardening bug has bitten me! I was looking for design inspiration for a new garden because I have many perennials that could use a division.

    I’ve been reluctant to do any under-plantings, because I thought it would be too hard on the trees, but your posts on this topic have inspired me to give it a shot.

    Thanks for the great site and all the helpful information! I’ll definitely be back (and have put a link on my blog to your site too).

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Lynell. If you are going to get a big, this is a good one to get. :) I am glad to be of help, and hope you’ll keep me posted on your adventures in underplanting. See you soon!

  10. Janey says:

    Some basic questions. Is it ok to underplant all types of trees? I have heard that some trees need their roots above the soil like (mine are pine).

    And is it ok to just get a lot of soil trucked in to cover the roots?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Janey. No adding soil (not more than maybe an inch, and not at all on top of old surface roots). It’s OK to underplant all trees (starting with small plants that you tuck into little pockets here and there and then wait to grow in — not digging up giant holes int he established tree root system)…but the other issue is this: Besides not ripping up tree roots in a big way, many plants you’d like to tuck in just won’t be able to thrive in that root zone. The tree will outcompete them for water and nutrients (and sometimes shade them too much, too). So choose carefully (seeking things that will handle dry shade), and start with small things.

  11. Karen Kennedy says:

    Hi Margaret,

    I just saw you on The Martha Stewart Show & loved your segment. I’ve been on your site for over an hour, enjoying every minute of it! I noticed you said not to use English Ivy as a ground cover, just curious, why? We bought a summer home in Flat Rock, NC that has a very steep front yard it gets filtered sun & I was thinking of taking out the Coton Easter that is planted there & replace with ivy. The Coton Easter is very woody & leggy & it’s not easy to maintain. I would love to know your thoughts as I am stumped. You’re welcome to come and see it for yourself, anytime. Thank you in advance for your thoughts….Karen

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Karen. I only say all that about ivy because it’s so boring…but it is tough, of course. You should probably watch this slideshow on groundcovers and link off to the related posts I list after the pix. Ivy may indeed be right for you — some spots are SO tough — but worth a look.

  12. Lisa Parker says:

    I also have been impressed with the resilience of hellebores under dogwoods, maples and oaks. They seem to multiply very quickly and look amazing. Also liriope under mature oaks, mixed with lovely hostas. Certain trees like pines, spruce, magnolia (Southern) don’t “need” underplanting, but the deciduous trees seem to need it more. Thanks Margaret for the thumbs up!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Lisa. Liriope — I always forget it because we don’t really grow it here too commonly, but you are right: tough! Amazing though how the hellebores do in so many situations. Love them.

  13. lyn crum says:

    Hi, help please with under planting a conifer hedge thats got a bit bare at the bottom, need to fill the gap. Laurel didn’t work and I was wondering about New Zealand privet

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Lyn. Not sure what you want to do — leave the conifer hedge in place, though bare at the bottom, and somehow plant something else alongside it to disguise the bareness?

  14. Sharon says:

    Just wondering what you do about all the leaves in the fall (or spring) in the mosaic gardens. Do you just leave them for mulch, try to get in and rake them out or what? My giant sugar maple produces leaves that end up 6-8 inches deep at the end of the fall and I’m never sure if I should blow most of them out, try to rake them out, leave them for the spring…and then what to do with them?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Sharon. i do not leave them on top — to inviting for mice, voles, etc., and also just can really weigh down and stay too wet too long. I rake them out gently (you could blow them out), and among delicate things i use my hands sometimes. I compost the leaves (shredding them with the blower or mower first) and turn them back into the vegetable gardens when rotted and srumbly, or use them chopped/partly composted as mulch.

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