Gardening under your trees

Story by Theresa Badurek

I am a true Floridian and I often seek out shady spots for relief from the sun. I will even park my car far from an entrance if there is a shady place beneath a tree: Shade before convenience. But shade can be less than convenient in the garden – many plants require sun to thrive, especially for flower and fruit production. If you are fortunate enough to have trees in your landscape, you may have challenging or shady areas to plant. But gardening under trees can be rewarding for several reasons, personal comfort included!

Don’t be afraid, embrace that shade! A shady spot under a tree can become a favorite outdoor garden room. The branches overhead enclose and define space, making a more defined “room.” Follow these tips and enjoy your oasis under the trees.

Gardens under trees often have a mix of sun and shade, which allows for greater plant diversity. Photo courtesy of Doris Heitzmann, Uf/Ifas Extension, Pinellas County.

Understand Your Shade
Some trees, such as pines (Pinus spp.), have a tall canopy and create light dappled shade, while other trees, such as oaks (Quercus spp.), may create densely shaded areas. Shady areas can be very wet or very dry, so you must also know your site’s water situation before planting. Observe the area throughout the year before making decisions. Watch the sun come up and set to see how the shade patterns vary. Be mindful of deciduous trees that let in more light when during the winter. 

Respect the Roots
The majority of tree roots are located in the top 18 inches of soil. Be careful when planting under trees and try to avoid disturbing too much of the root zone. Hand dig, avoid cutting large roots, and consider planting in phases rather than digging up the entire area at once if planting a large area. Planting smaller plants is also helpful, and it saves you money! Bonus: Smaller plants are easier to establish with less water and quickly catch up to their larger counterparts. 

Color and Contrast Make a Difference
Many plants that thrive under trees do not have colorful, showy flowers. For the greatest impact under trees or in other shady areas, focus on light, bright colors, such as white and yellow. Dark flowers won’t show up in the shade. Other good color choices include light green, white, or yellow foliage to contrast with the darker, shadier greens. Variegated plants also work. Vary leaf textures and sizes for greater visual impact.

This blend of colors and textures makes a shady garden lively. Note the use of color in the building to add interest. Photo courtesy of Theresa Badurek.

Introduce Color In Creative Ways
Plants aren’t the only things that provide color. If you can’t find a suitable plant for a particular spot, consider a brightly painted bench, pavers, or art to add a splash of color to your shady area. The key is to have one main focal point or feature – don’t clutter the space. 

Various shades of green and diverse leaf sizes and shapes make this garden “pop,” even without flowers. Photo courtesy of Doris Heitzmann, Uf/Ifas Extension, Pinellas County.

Always Keep Water Needs In Mind
Many (not all) shade plants like moist soil, but don’t let that fool you into overwatering. The shade itself will help keep the soil moist longer than the surrounding landscape. Try to choose plants that only need water during their establishment period. Be sure to match new plants with similar water needs to the tree you are planting under – don’t drown your tree!

Beware Invaders! 
Many invasive plants thrive under trees, but don’t plant them! Some clamber up your trees and can cause serious damage; some will spread throughout your yard, making more weeding work. All of them threaten our natural areas and our native wildlife. Some common invaders spotted under Florida trees include tuberous sword fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia); oyster plant (Tradescantia spathacea); nandina (N. domestica); elephant ear (Xanthosoma sagittifolium); and in southern Florida, golden pothos (Epipremnum pinnatum ‘Aureum’). 

Check the invasive potential of new plants for your garden – many are still sold in nurseries. The University of Florida/IFAS Extension has a website where you can search plants by common or botanical names to see if they are invasive: assessment.ifas.ufl.edu. There’s also the Florida Invasive Species Council (FISC website), which also lists plants by both common and botanical names. Both are excellent resources. 

These plants are only suggestions. Now that you know what to think about, you can find many more that will suit your garden perfectly. Plants listed as understory trees and shrubs are typically great choices for planting under trees. Generally pines and palms with more dappled shade are more likely to partner with part-shade plants; oaks and other shade trees will likely need full shade plant companions. With careful plant selection and some color and contrast in the design, your garden room under the trees might just become your favorite summer garden sanctuary! 



Thinking about pruning trees to let more light in?

Trees are valuable and great care should be taken to preserve them. Consult an arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture. 

• Never top or head a tree; this will damage (and possibly kill) the tree.
• Do not remove growth from the inner canopy, this is called lion’s-tailing and will make the tree less wind resistant and damage the tree.
• Understand that your tree’s health and structure are more important and valuable than the ability to grow a certain plant under it.  
• Work with your tree, not against it.

This is bad pruning (lions-tailing) done to increase light below. This tree is likely to fail in a windstorm.


If you are looking for plants that will bloom well under trees you might consider: 
Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) N/C, native; marlberry (Ardisia escallonioides) C/S, native; azalea (Rhododendron spp.) N/C/S, natives available; camellia (C. japonica, C. sasanqua) N/C; thryallis (Galphimia glauca) C/S; gardenia (G. jasminoides) N/C/S; firebush (Hamelia patens) C/S, native; oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia) N/C/S, native

TOP LEFT: Holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) TOP RIGHT: Silver saw palmetto (Serenoa repens ‘Silver’) BOTTOM LEFT: Wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa) BOTTOM RIGHT: Variegated ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’) Photos courtesy of Theresa Badurek.

For plants with fancy foliage you could find inspiration with: 
Copperleaf (Acalypha wilkesiana) C/S; variegated ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’) C/S; grape holly (Mahonia fortunei N/C; wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa) C/S, native; lady palm (Rhapis excelsa ‘Variegata’) C/S; silver saw palmetto (Serenoa repens ‘Silver’) N/C/S, native; coontie (Zamia pumila) N/C/S, native

Finally, if you have dense tree cover, the following plants will still deliver: 
Southern maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris) C/S, native; pipestem (Agarista populifolia) N/C, native; marlberry (Ardisia escallonioides) C/S, native; cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) N/C/S; holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) N/C/S, native; needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) C/S, native; lady palm (Rhapis excelsa ‘Variegata’) C/S

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