Garden: Tackling plants under trees conundrum

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

One of the biggest challenges for gardeners who love color is gardening in dry shade under trees. Colorful flowers thrive in sun and moist organic soil that’s loaded with nutrients, and you don’t find those conditions under trees. Plants living under trees must compete with extensive root systems that suck up moisture and nutrients at an astonishing rate.

Plus, digging holes in root-bound soil under a tree is gut-busting work and obviously does damage the tree. Large root balls of container plants have difficulty moving out into root-packed soil making it tough for the new plants to become established, so they often struggle and are not a pretty sight.

It’s been my experience that the best way to establish a garden under an established tree is to start with small pots of shade lovers that are relatively easy to plant, and be prepared to water them on a regular basis for the first season.

In my first garden I was able to establish shrubs under a 60-foot maple, by planting tiny whips and letting them worm their way into the matrix of roots. Mother Nature starts her understory plants from seed.

To bring big bang color into a dry shade garden at the OPC garden in Rochester, I started with a couple of the large beautiful and bodacious annual shade plant containers that Fogler’s Greenhouse on Rochester Road in Rochester is known for. The combination of Dragon Wing Begonias and large, brilliant leafed coleus give substance and height to the garden, as well as season-long color. We plan to add more containers over time.

Here are a few perennials we’ve added that are also working for us in dry shade and so far have proven deer resistant.

Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate,’ commonly called spiderwort, sports long thin chartreuse strap-like leaves that glow in a dark garden. Their quarter sized-deep lavender blooms provide an elegant accent on and off throughout the summer. At 16 inches in height, they from colorful clumps.

If the foliage becomes tatty by mid summer, a quick haircut will stimulate fresh colorful growth, but be sure to water regularly for a few weeks after surgery.

The groundcover Lamium produces elegant silver frosted variegated leaves and tiny shell-like flowers in your choice of pink, white or purple and make an elegant carpet under trees.

A new kid on the block, Aralia ‘Sun King,’ is a golden leaf, shrub-like perennial that rises to 3 feet and sparkles in a shade garden that gets about 4 hours of sun.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears on Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at