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Architects’ Secrets: The Best Plants to Grow Beneath a Tree


Architects’ Secrets: The Best Plants to Grow Beneath a Tree

October 4, 2013

A large tree by the house is a privilege to have, its moving branches filtering light through the windows. But trees make some of us nervous: is it going to fall on the house? Can you grow anything under it? The second question is easy to answer: Some of the best plants in the world grow under trees or around them.

For inspiration, we looked at how some members of our Remodelista Architects and Designers Directory have successfully integrated large trees into landscape projects. Below, we offer some suggestions for how to translate their ideas to your garden.

Above: Photograph courtesy of Specht Harpman Architects.

This modern American barn is built around a venerable stand of trees. Despite their considerable size, the trees do not overpower the house but complement it brilliantly. This arrangement may not need much attention at its base, but we’ll guide you around some that do.

Above: Photograph by Casey Dunn.

Living with a Tree Near the Door
If a tree trunk is frequently looked upon, near a door or window, it sometimes gets the skirt treatment. For instance, it is planted out around the base in a purposeful way in this Austin, TX residence designed by Specht Harpman Architects.

Above: Plant photographs by Kendra Wilson.

One of our favorite plants at the base of a tree is Euphorbia “Mrs Robb’s bonnet’ with woodland anemones at its feet.  Both thrive in dry shade. Add to this list: fern, hosta, or white-flowered Vinca minor ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ (which stays compact). For UK gardeners, Euphorbia Amygdaloides Var. Robbiae is available from Woottens;  £6.30 per pot. For US gardeners, Euphorbia Robb’s is $13 per plant (available seasonally) from Plant Delights.

Above: Photograph via Coen and Partners Architects.

Living with a Monoculture of Trees
You may find a clump or “stand” of trees of the same variety already in your garden, or they may be planted as a natural barrier, a kind of informal pleaching. Birch, shown in this Minneapolis garden by Coen and Partners Architects, is particularly amenable to this.

If you have a clump of the same tree, treat the underplanting in a fairly uniform way as well. Yes, you could have box, but for flowers and some coming-and-going, try hardy Geranium phaeum, above, mixed with an evergreen variety. Alternatively, epimedium provides a floating layer of fresh foliage in spring and tiny flowers in autumn. Alchemilla mollis can do neat and it can do range-y but is perfectly happy in dry shade.

For US gardeners, Geranium Phaeum ‘Joan Baker’ (Above) is $7 per plant from Geraniaceae. In the UK, Geranium Phaeum ‘Joan Baker’  is £7.50 per 3-liter pot from Crug Farm Plants.


Above: East Hampton cottage by Wettling Architects.

Living with Medium-sized Trees

A medium-sized tree on the lawn is a lovely thing, providing shade in the right place and not casting the whole area into gloom. It is perfect for a light smattering of seasonal color, which would not compromise the simplicity. But remember to plant your bulbs and plugs away from the main thoroughfare.

Beneath a medium-sized tree, spring bulbs thrive in the early sunshine before the canopy fills out, with purple Crocus tommasinianus naturalizing readily in grass. Spring meadow plants such as cowslip can be started off with plugs, allowing them to seed around. Cyclamen hederifolium (Above) begins to appear in September and will rapidly increase in your garden if the soil is not too heavy, in which case add grit.

For UK gardeners, three tubers of Cyclamen Hederifolium are £7.50 at Avon Bulbs. In the US, Cyclamen Hederifolium ‘Sweetheart Sensation’ is $12 apiece from Munchkin Nursery.

Above: Bunny Lane residence by Heliotrope Architects.

Living in the Woods
If your house is in the woods, emphasize the informal landscape with drifts of woodland bulbs, followed by self-seeding perennials and biennials to take root where they want.

plants for trees_kirengeshoma palmata

For shrubs, choose something interesting. Kirengeshoma palmata, above, flowers from late summer in the woodland garden of UK garden designer Beth Chatto. She recommends planting them with ferns and hostas, in lime-free soil. Japanese anemones are a good accompaniment, flowering at the same time. For earlier in the year: grow foxgloves, tiarella, thalictrum. All of the above need to be repeated; one or two clumps will look threadbare in an open landscape.

For UK gardeners, Kirengeshoma Palmata is £4.95 per pot at the Beth Chatto Gardens Nursery. For US gardeners, Kirengeshoma Palmata is $12; available seasonally from Far Reaches Farm.

Above: Photograph of North Beach residence by Heliotrope.

Living Deeper in the Woods, with Pine Trees
There is nothing wrong with leaving well alone. If the tree canopy is very low your best bet is to plant around the trees, not under them. Mulching essential.

With spruces near the house, the soil is perfect for rhododendrons. For a wilder look, allow rhodos to range around by the trees, remaining very visible from the house. For an understory, anemone blanda is a tough but cheerful woodland flower for spring. Burncoose Nurseries in Cornwall has a massive selection of rhododendrons, about £18 per 3-liter pot. For US gardeners, Wayside Gardens has a large selection of Rhododendrons, at prices ranging from $12.57 for a Hellikki Rhododendron to $29.95 for a Yaku Prince Rhododendron.

Is shade a challenge? See Shady Secrets of an Expert Gardener

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