The Q&A Archives: Groundcover Under Fruit Trees

Question: We have a hillside that was covered with Aptenia, on which we planted some fruit trees. The trees did okay there, but not fantastic. We later terraced the hillside and removed the Aptenia, and the trees suddenly thrived, presumably in the absence of competition from the Aptenia. On the sunny parts of the terraces, I plant vegetables, but that's not possible under the trees. Geraniums, fuchsias, and impatiens do well under the trees, and keep the weeds down, but will any or all of these give me the same competition problem the Aptenia did? Or is there something else non-greedy that will do well in shade? I'd like something under the trees; it's hard to keep coming up with enough mulch.

Answer: I wonder which had more effect on the increased vigor of your trees; the terracing, or the removal of the Aptenia groundcover? Sloped areas shed water quickly, but flat areas provide a place for water to rest and percolate down into the soil. This increased moisture may have been all that your trees needed for better health. While it's true that groundcovers can compete with tree roots for moisture and nutrients, usually it's the trees that win. Aptenia has a relatively shallow root system, but it can grow thick and dense so perhaps it was deflecting water rather than allowing water to percolate down to the roots of your trees. In any event, I'm happy your trees are doing well. A well-behaved groundcover replacement for the shady areas under your trees could be Bergenia, Cornus canadensis, Galium odoratum or Oxalis oregana.

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