making mosaics: my video on underplanting

THE PLANT CATALOGS look delicious, but what plans have you made for where those wishlist items might go, and how many of each do you need to make them really say something in the garden? I love creating mixed plantings of shade treasures–bulbs and perennials, and especially extra-early bloomers–under deciduous trees and shrubs. I call the process “Making Mosaics,” and it’s one of the how-to sidebars in my 2013 book, “The Backyard Parables.” It’s also a video, with photos I’ve taken here at my place.

more shade-garden ideas

  • I first wrote about the “mosaic” strategy of shade-garden design in 2008 on this website, in a still-popular story called “10 Thoughts on Successful Underplanting” that you may want to read, and then in this followup.
  • Still hunger for more plants after watching the video? Here’s my slideshow of 51 top shade plants, with links to their full profiles and more design ideas.
  • All my shade-garden stories are archived here. Remember that when making mosaics, you need more than onesies of each plant. Start dividing those clumps of good candidates you have to create some drifts, or make sure the plant orders you place are for serious multiples!

more about ‘the backyard parables’

the backyard parables by margaret roachMY BOOK ‘THE BACKYARD PARABLES: Lessons on Gardening, and Life” is part memoir and part handbook. I wanted to bring some of the book’s most luscious how-to bits to life in videos such as “Seed-Shopping Rules,” and now my approach to successful underplanting, “Making Mosaics.”

  1. Just the inspiration I needed this morning, Margaret. But I wonder if you would write an addendum post about just how to build a bed under a mature tree? I have a couple of lovely, big maples and they’re in places where a mosaic bed would be delightful. I wonder though, with all those roots right at the surface, is it really possible? (Right now they have grass under them.)


  2. SandyG says:

    What a great idea! I second Johanna’s request for help with planting under mature trees. We have mostly large oaks with a few dogwoods and a magnificent saucer magnolia. The ground under them is compacted and usually dry. We don’t want to harm the trees by adding lots of topsoil and/or mulch but it’s nearly impossible to grow grass under them anyway and this looks like an excellent solution. What do you suggest?

  3. Barb says:

    It is a really lovely concept and encourages me to do more research. My trees are the lovely Ponderosa and although I amend the soil the pine sheds the needles each year leaching acidics into the bed. I find the plants do well the first year or so then they fade out. Hostas do not do well at all which really surprised me. The only plant that has really thrived there is the hearty Bleeding Heart. I have a large area under our Pines that would be so lovely with a mosaic bed. Your video is a delightful.

  4. Excellent video! I keep delaying implementing your mosaic planting approach (like I keep delaying stocking up on Indian spices so I can make some authentic curries!), but this season, I will start, even if it means just transplanting bluebells close up to the apple tree’s trunk and then taking it from there… What I like most about this method, is that it will force me to learn more about perennials, to find out what would be suitable in my area and for my soil, etc. I am afraid I am not as adventurous or curious as you are with plant varieties.

    However, I do know I must have some Japanese painted ferns regardless. Hmmm, think your lust for plants is contagious. :-)

  5. Honeybee says:

    I was wondering, too, about how to deal with tree roots. Birch roots are everywhere, and so near the surface. And I’m afraid to disturb my redbud tree too much. Should we build up the soil?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Honeybee. No, don’t add soil; suffocating the tree roots is not a good idea. I work with young plants/small divisions, and tuck them in and let them grow in themselves. I don’t try to dig giant holes for large pots of nursery perennials. I think of it as “pocket planting,” layering in little bits of things, then waiting.

      1. Kathryn Biddle-Dutton says:

        Margaret reading here that you don’t add anything mulch or soil when planting. That is amazing to me. I have nothing but very dry soil and roots under my magnolia. So you’d still suggest to simply find a pocket and add a plant thinking Carex? Much watering would be needed to keep it alive. I’m down a rabbit hole now trying to figure out how I can accomplish this. Will have your book soon …thanks Kath

  6. Jason says:

    Great video, it really makes systematic what I have been trying to do in some shady areas without thinking it through step by step. I would add that people should not be afraid to use violas in this kind of planting, even though some consider it a weed. Also, people should be clear that “no polka dots” does not mean you cannot have the occasional accent plant.

  7. Karen Budnick says:

    Very inspirational! I, too, would love to plant around the base of my magnicent oak tree. However, it’s very dry shade because no matter how much I mulch, there’s not enough soil to hold the water. This spring I’m moving my hydrangea Lady in Red and my hellebores out of there as they are barely surviving. The cement statue can stay but he’ll look very lonely all by himself :(

  8. Kristin says:

    Thank you for the inspiration as this is one of the larger items on my “to-do” list this spring/summer. I will be planting under a large, mature tree in my front yard- but I too would like more info on the actual process of disturbing the soil under the tree. After years of being untouched- just mowed- the soil is compact , and well not great for a garden bed. I am so tempted to add some compost to the area… can I smother the area with cardboard or will that cut oxygen to the roots of the tree?… and really how much mulch can I add?… what else can I do to make the soil healthier without actually “disturbing” it?

  9. Tami Bator says:

    Your video is very inspiring – thanks so much posting. I have just one question. In your video, here was an interesting plant that you featured while discussion texture. Its leaves were “lobey” and in the center was a “nub”. Can you tell me the name of this interestingly beautiful plant, please? Thanks again.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Tami. The mottled leaves are of Trillium sessile. The flowers will come from those buds in the middle. A really beautiful woodland creature!

  10. Dahlink says:

    My mother-in-law was a great gardener, and when we bought this house she filled her car with treasures from her Midwestern garden and drove them halfway across the country to us.
    We still treasure her trillium (which she called Wake Robin), old-fashioned lambs’ ears (not the larger leaf varieties you see now), and Virginia bluebells. The thing I love about the lambs’ ears and the bluebells is how they move around the garden, multiplying and creating new garden mosaics. I would plant in one spot, but the plants say “No, we like it better over here!”

  11. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    What a lovely morning break! I love this idea of mosaic plantings! I have achieved this in the front of my house – very sunny – with sedums and herbs and other textural perennials but wish to carry this “tapestry” (what I used to call it – but mosaic says it so much better!) through to the back of my house which is (will be) more shady as trees mature. This video is the perfect inspiration. By the way, I am really enjoying your new book.

  12. Eileen J says:

    Roots growing near the surface are the biggest obstacle under my trees. It is hard to cultivate that soil. But I have found that strawberries thrive under trees. They don’t make many berries but they are lovely plants.

  13. Allison says:

    I loved both the video and the NYTimes article about seeds. I am inspired to rip out some of my large swaths of ivy and pachysandra and go for more color.

  14. Chris says:

    I loved your video about mosaics. I have been doing similar mosaics in shade with many of the plants you name and in sun, drought areas of our gardens, with mostly sedums, euphorbias, dianthus,aubrieta, crocus, iris, and self seeding verbena bonariensis and poppies. This area takes some serious editing but is its own little show piece. My inpiration for mosaics was, as a child, seeing a hillside planting at Pt. Defiance Park in Tacoma,WA of heaths and heathers. A great sedum
    display is at the garden designed and maintained by Thurston County Master Gardeners at the Hawks Prairie Landfill in Lacey, WA. This was featured in the Martha Stewart Living Magazine a couple of years ago. Thank you, Margaret, for this video and others. I am going to do the pallet garden this year and put it at the end of one of our compost bins for a little bling.

  15. Carole Edie Smith says:

    thank,Thank,Thank you!!! I asked my husband to watch it and after a few minutes he asked”What did you want me to see?” I told him to go enjoy his muffin. I am thoroughly enjoying the underplanting excerpt, again. I can feel myself starting to find colors, textures, fragrances I hope to work with in at least 2 areas in my yard. One will replace grass. Thank you again, Margaret. Hope to get to your garden when you are having an open-garden time.

    Carole Edie Smith

  16. Emma says:

    I’m now inspired to finally start underplanting this spring, thank you! However, I have a question: in the fall, do I need to remove all the fallen tree leaves off the area, so that in spring the plants are free to grow without having to push through these heavy, often wet, leaves?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Emma. Good question. If they are a crumbly and nice and composting themselves right in place, I don’t worry so much. But if (such as with maples) they are matted and thick layers, I do tease them off the area and put them in the compost heap.

  17. Debbie says:

    I am asking the same as Kristen, large maple tree, patchy grass underneath with compact soil and moss due to heavy roots. Would love to see a mosaic but am tempted to put lots of topsoil to give plants something to root in. Do I have to dig up the area, the tree is gorgeous, wouldn’t want to ruin it as the October snowstorm took out the rest of our front yard trees

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Debbie. Do not dig up the root zone of the tree, or add soil (beyond a VERY small amount in little pockets here and there where you remove moss and tuck a small plant. What you do is start with what are called “plugs” or “liners” – the small wholesale-sized plants that local nurseries order in late winter and pot up to grow awhile into a potted nursery plant for you. They’re grown in what look like deep cellpacks. You work with a trowel, and “pocket plant” the little babies with a small trowel of soil into pockets around the root zone.

      Now here’s the hangup: I do this under old apples, magnolias, crabapples…not under a giant old maple, whose root system is more formidable. I would plan to water very well and often as the young things settle in, and try a small section first to see how you go. Also: use the toughest plants that can handle dry shade, so epimedium, for instance.

  18. Debbie says:

    I’m quite anxious to give this a try. Where would a person buying retail purchase plugs for this type of planting? I did find many nurseries that sell plugs but they sell wholesale.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Debbie. You can ask your local nursery if they will order them for you and mark them up slightly (but far less than if they potted them up, grew them bigger, and then sold them to you). Classy Groundcovers (which I have not ordered from myself, but friends have) offers small “bulk” plants (I think in sets of 24 per variety).

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