Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
October, 2008
Regional Report

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Consider creating a more naturalistic planting beneath shade trees.

Dealing with Shade Beneath Trees

Trees in our home landscape are a source of beauty, help to buffer the winds, provide shade, and add structural balance to an otherwise stark setting. As they grow larger in height and spread, however, the lawn growing beneath them often thins out or appears diseased, becoming a concern to homeowners.

If we take a lesson from nature, a landscape under maturing trees is an ecosystem of adapted grasses, ground covers, soil, and organic mulch. So rather then fighting a battle to grow the perfect, thick lawn under trees, my suggestion is to create a more naturalistic, functional, and permanent setting.

Consider how you use the area underneath larger trees. If the area is used for shady retreat or as a playground, consider mulching the surface with soft materials rather than living ground covers. A combination of paths made from stepping stones that are surrounded by mulch would be more appropriate. Most shade-tolerant ground covers, although tough and adaptive, won't tolerate lots of foot traffic.

When considering planting ground covers beneath trees, consider other factors beside shade. Tree roots will affect the growth and spread of ground covers. Many tree species produce roots close to the soil surface, especially if the soil is compacted and the roots need oxygen. This, in addition to the leaf canopy that diverts water during rains, can greatly reduce water availability to the plants you're trying to grow beneath the trees. Therefore, you must be vigilant and water regularly to establish ground cover plants and to maintain them. Good soil preparation, without damaging the tree roots, will also be an important element in getting shade-tolerant ground covers to establish and grow.

Another situation that occurs for ground cover plantings underneath trees is the accumulation of leaves that can suffocate the plants. Though it is natural for ground covers to have some leaf mulch present, they should not be totally covered with leaves. While a covering of fallen leaves and evergreen needles is not harmful during the late fall and winter, the covering should be thinned to allow the foliage of the ground cover to receive light and so that natural moisture can filter down to the roots. Leaf removal from ground covers can be a somewhat more labor intensive project, but a leaf blower can help remedy this problem. The leaf accumulation can be shredded for compost and eventually re-spread around the ground covers as nature intended.

Now is a good time to evaluate those areas beneath shade trees and create a landscape setting that is easier to maintain rather than planting new sod every spring. You may discover some ideas that will add interest and more function to those areas and reduce the water demands in your landscape.

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