The Q&A Archives: Gardening under a mature conifer

Question: I have recently purchased my first home and I am curious about my back garden. There is a huge conifer tree in the back (40ft tall)and it looks like someone plotted out a garden underneath the tree but as far as I could tell, nothing was growing in it. From what I understand, the needles that fall from the tree cause the soil to be inhospitable to alot of plants. Is this true? What type of flowers and plants do you suggest for this type of garden, a shady garden under a towering conifer tree? Thanks for any help you can provide.

Answer: Mature conifers can be difficult to garden beneath for several reasons. It is a large tree with strongly competitive roots taking moisture and nutrients from the soil and then the canopy blocks rain and sun from reaching the ground. And many years of fallen needles can acidify the soil as well. So establishing new plants there can be a challenge. You might try hosta, epimedium, and lamium. These will need careful watering the first year or two while they become established. You could also try shade tolerant annuals such as impatiens in a large container for additional flower color during the summer. Sometimes too it makes more sense to put a comfortable bench beneath the tree and then plant your garden in spot you can see easily from the bench -- and with better growing conditions. Your local professional nursery staff may have additional suggestions based on a more detailed understanding of the planting area and your overall design goals.

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