Practical Permaculture – Planting Under Pine Trees

"Sweet Woodruff" - © chriscondello 2013 - Wilkinsburg, PA - Private Garden - Although plants will grow... Don't expect them to be the most prolific bloomers in your garden...

“Sweet Woodruff” – © chriscondello 2013 – Wilkinsburg, PA – Private Garden – Although plants will grow… Don’t expect them to be the most prolific bloomers in your garden…

The space underneath of a pine tree is one of the most difficult places to garden, sometimes it may seem impossible. The extreme microclimate created underneath can challenge even the most experienced gardener. It is tough, but it is by no means impossible. Carefully chosen plants, coupled with a few secrets, is all one really needs to green up an otherwise brown and lifeless corner of your yard.

Some of the challenges presented under a pine tree include extreme shade, lack of moisture, a heavy layer of pine needles, and rarely, extreme acidity. In all honesty, the biggest challenge is a lack of moisture, as a pine tree can create a solid rain shield underneath its branches.

If your pine tree has branches all the way to the ground, your first step will be pruning off all of the lower branches to allow enough room to work underneath. This also allows for sun, air and rain to access the ground… I have found in the days after doing this, weeds will quickly grow underneath of the tree… Take it as a good sign… And study the hell out of it… Everything you need to know will grow right in front of your eyes…

If your tree has already been pruned up… Start by simply observing your space, often times you will find some weeds, or a patch of grass already growing somewhere under the tree… Get my point?.. I feel pretty comfortable saying that if weeds already grow under your tree, plants of your choosing will also grow under said tree. A lot can be learned by simply studying the area, careful observation is always the key to choosing your plant locations… In fact… Careful observation is the key to any garden… And it does not stop once the plants are in the ground… When… In fact… Your observation is just beginning…

"Hanging In There" - © chriscondello 2013 - Wilkinsburg, PA - Private Garden - I planted this hosta 3 years ago... It was not much smaller than this when I planted it...

“Hanging In There” – © chriscondello 2013 – Wilkinsburg, PA – Private Garden – I planted this hosta 3 years ago… It was not much smaller than this when I planted it…

There are many plants that can survive with minimal water, and a lot more that can survive arid conditions after a year or so of establishment. Sedums are little cactus-like plants that never need watering once they are growing on their own, they do not grow as densely in the shade, and they do not flower as profusely… But they will be there for years to come.

Hosta and sweet woodruff work well under conifer trees once established… And by established… I mean watered once a week for the first year… Once these plants are established, they will grow, slowly, but they will grow… Cut the recommended spacing in half under a pine tree if you are going for a mass-planting… Leave the pine needles under the tree to serve as mulch, it will extend the amount of time between watering…

Any acid tolerant, shade loving annual will do well under a conifer tree. If you grow annuals, then I’m sure you will be out watering once a week in the summer anyway, what’s a little extra time watering your plants under the pine tree… In fact… Any shade tolerant annual will work well under a pine tree… If you baby it…

"Minimalist" - © chriscondello 2013 - Wilkinsburg, PA - Private Garden - Another hosta that has remained relatively the same size as when I planted it... This garden was a test for me... Now that I know how the plants will act... I can begin to fill it... And others like it...

“Minimalist” – © chriscondello 2013 – Wilkinsburg, PA – Private Garden – Another hosta that has remained relatively the same size as when I planted it… This garden was a test for me… Now that I know how the plants will act… I can begin to fill it… And others like it…

Acidity… Is really only a problem in myth… As pine needles… Although acidic in nature… Take a really long time to break down… Unless you are standing in an old growth pine forest that has been around for hundreds of years, I doubt that tree has had much of a chance to drastically alter the pH of the soil. A cheap pH meter available at any garden supply center will answer this question for you, I recommend having one regardless of where you are gardening.

A way to cheat the acidity factor is to dig your planting hole two, or even three times the size of the plant you intend to grow. Remove all of the soil from the hole and put it somewhere else, then fill in the hole with clean topsoil… Acidity problem solved… I wouldn’t recommend digging out every square inch of soil underneath the tree, just remove the places you want to plant… And dig around those roots for crying out loud…

If you are the type of gardener that can’t consistently water their garden for a full year, you probably aren’t trying to break ground in every available corner of your yard… I would suggest picking an easier place to put your garden… Unless you want to install a drip irrigation system… In that case… By all means garden away…

"Heuchera" - © chriscondello 2013 - Wilkinsburg, PA - My Garden - Not under a pine tree... But up against a north facing wall that gets no sunlight... And very little rain...

“Heuchera” – © chriscondello 2013 – Wilkinsburg, PA – My Garden – Not under a pine tree… But up against a north facing wall that gets no sunlight… And very little rain…

For the sake of giving you a place to start, try some of these plants… They will work under any tree… But are a little more tolerant of the conditions presented under a pine tree…

Hosta – I wouldn’t choose the exotic varieties as they can be finicky. Go to a big box store and purchase the largest plants possible as they will grow very slowly, it’s best to just buy them the size you want them. Hosta can often be easily obtained from a friends garden, in my neighborhood they grow behind every abandoned house, I just move them to the front yards.

Sweet woodruff – Really a cool plant that produces insignificant white flowers in the spring that when growing in profusion can permeate the air with a super sweet scent. Woodruff tends to spread rapidly in the shade, if babied for a year it will grow forever. Don’t expect it to bloom a lot… Or every year… But it will bloom…

Lily of the valley – Another plant that can commonly be acquired from a friend, when it is grown in ideal conditions it will naturalize quickly. Another plant that needs around a year of care before it will take on a mind of its own. Beautiful bell-like white flowers grace this plant in spring, with a sweet scent to boot… I would consider it one of the cooler spring flower scents…

Fern – another plant that I would skip purchasing the exotic varieties, you want the regular old, every day ferns for under pine trees. Your first attempts should not be with twenty-dollar a piece plants, there is a good chance you will fail at first. Keep your eyes open when you are out and about, you will find them eventually… Ferns transplant easily as long as you limit the time between digging and planting… Just be quick…

Bleeding heart – These plants really do not need water other than the first week or two after planting, they can handle some pretty extreme conditions. Many of the plants in this family form fern leafed mounds of green, choose the low-growing, spreading types and let them do their thing.

Azalea – A seriously acid tolerant plant that is at home under any pine tree, to be safe I would plant it closer to the edge… A pine tree flanked on either side by mature azaleas is really a stunning thing to see in spring… They are really at home with each other…

Rhododendron – One of my favorite ornamental shrubs,we had one in our front yard that was always beautiful this time of year. Not only does this plant tolerate acidity, it is also very shade tolerant.

Blueberry – When grown in the shade, they do not produce lots of fruit. But, they are a stunning plant year round. In the fall the foliage turns a bright red color that is striking against a pine tree… Just saying…

Hydrangea or Oak leaf hydrangea – Very shade tolerant plants that grow well under conifers, also drought resistant once established.

Wild geraniums – This family of plants will grow anywhere, under almost any circumstances. Many of them have scented leaves that deter deer, and some flowers are edible.

Yarrow – Attracts so many beneficial insects that you will find it listed as a companion to almost everything… Enough said…

Tea berry – Small, creeping plant with slightly mint flavored berries, like the gum. The berries are typically hoarded by the wildlife, but that’s not such a bad thing. If you can get your hands on a few, they are like eating mint-flavored church wafers… At least that’s what they remind me of…

Trillium – If you can get your hands on them… Plant them everywhere… They are beautiful… And we need to protect them… And yes… They are at home under a pine tree…

Impatiens – This year will be difficult again due to the downy mildew, but they will figure that out soon enough. Impatiens are built for shade, but they do require water… Water at a minimum once a week when there’s no rain…

Heuchera – One of my all time favorite plants… It will do great in any amount of light… But they really shine in full shade… Many of the newer cultivars come in bright leaf colors, these are designed to glow in the shade.

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

I now have prints available to purchase online… You can find them here – www.society6.com/chriscondello – This site… And all the photographs and information presented within… Are provided free by the author… Me… At one time I had considered asking for donations… But that’s not me… So I have decided to sell prints of some of my photography… It is by no means a requirement… But it helps… If you have a few minutes to check them out… Then by all means… Please do…

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6 thoughts on “Practical Permaculture – Planting Under Pine Trees

  1. Mark Parker says:

    great article.. thanks for sharing such a nice post.. waiting for other post related to trees.

    “instantshadeinc.”

  2. alicia davis says:

    ohhh you have listed great plant’s names to plant.. thanks for sharing such a great information.

    “treespecialist”

  3. Jennifer Blusk says:

    Wonderful article. Thank you! I have grass growing very well under my very tall and mature…and lovely… Scotch pine. I would like to plant azaleas and sweet woodruff under it. I’m not sure how to remove the grass first, though. I was going to smother it by laying cardboard and mulch down for a year, but i’m afraid that I will harm the trees roots. Any thoughts?

  4. Pedro Palhoto says:

    The settlement’s name I live in translates into “Friars’ Pine Forest”. Though mostly sub-urbanized, there are still areas with several pine trees from the past century’s forest. This article will be an asset for the transition initiative. A huge thanks from Portugal.

  5. Very nice article. Have downloaded the info to have a look see. Although I don’t have pine trees in the garden, there are enough of them in the plantations, there is a huge avocado tree under which things battles to grow on account of the shade.

  6. Thanks for this one. This is the information that I have long been searching for as I also have pine trees at home.

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