What Can You Plant Around the Base of a Tree?

Last updated on October 24th, 2023 at 07:39 pm

Planting around the base of a tree can be an excellent way to enhance the beauty of your garden and make the most of the available space. However, there are some important considerations to keep in mind when selecting plants for this area. In this article, we’ll explore various options and provide tips on what you can plant around the base of a tree.

Choosing the Right Plants:

Before selecting plants to place around the base of a tree, it’s essential to consider the following factors:

  1. Shade Tolerance: Most trees create shade, so choose plants that thrive in partial to full shade conditions. Plants that require full sun won’t do well in the shadow of a tree.
  2. Root System: Be cautious about the tree’s root system. Some trees have shallow roots close to the surface, and aggressive plantings can compete with and damage these roots. Avoid planting anything that might interfere with the tree’s health and stability.
  3. Size and Growth Habit: Consider the mature size and growth habit of the plants you choose. Low-growing groundcovers or small perennials are often the best choices, as they won’t overwhelm the tree or compete with its root system.
  4. Soil Type: Assess the soil type around the base of the tree. Some trees prefer acidic soil, while others thrive in alkaline or neutral conditions. Choose plants that are compatible with the tree’s soil preferences.

Options for Planting Around a Tree:

  1. Groundcovers:
    • Groundcovers are excellent choices for planting around the base of a tree. They help suppress weeds, conserve soil moisture, and create a lush, low-maintenance look. Some groundcover options include:
      • Hostas: These shade-tolerant perennials offer a variety of leaf shapes and colors.
      • Pachysandra: A low-growing, evergreen groundcover that thrives in shade.
      • Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia): A trailing groundcover with bright yellow-green foliage.
      • Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense): Native to North America, this groundcover has unique heart-shaped leaves.
  2. Perennials:
    • Perennials can add seasonal color and interest around the base of a tree. Opt for those that thrive in partial to full shade, such as:
      • Astilbe: Known for its feathery plumes of flowers in various colors.
      • Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis): Produces distinct, heart-shaped flowers.
      • Ferns: Various fern species work well in shade gardens and add a touch of elegance.
  3. Bulbs:
    • Spring-flowering bulbs can create a burst of color around the base of a tree before the leaves emerge. Consider planting:
      • Snowdrops (Galanthus): Early bloomers with white, drooping flowers.
      • Daffodils (Narcissus): Vibrant, trumpet-shaped flowers in a range of colors.
      • Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica): Tiny blue flowers that naturalize well.
  4. Native Plants:
    • Incorporating native plants into your tree garden can support local wildlife and reduce maintenance. Native options may include:
      • Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis): A native wildflower with distinctive, nodding red and yellow flowers.
      • Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia): Features feathery white or pink flower spikes and is attractive to pollinators.
  5. Mulch or Wood Chips:
    • Sometimes, the best solution around the base of a tree is to use mulch or wood chips. This not only helps maintain soil moisture and reduce weeds but also protects the tree’s roots and trunk from lawnmowers and trimmers. Ensure that the mulch is spread evenly, without piling it against the tree trunk.
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Tips for Planting Around a Tree:

  1. Plant at the Right Depth: When planting around a tree, be mindful of the root system. Dig planting holes that are shallow and wide to avoid damaging tree roots.
  2. Provide Adequate Water: Ensure that newly planted vegetation receives sufficient water until they become established. Trees can absorb a significant amount of moisture from the soil.
  3. Avoid Disturbing the Tree’s Base: Never bury a tree’s root flare (the area where the trunk meets the ground) with soil or mulch, as this can lead to root rot and other health issues.
  4. Regular Maintenance: Keep an eye on the area around the base of the tree and perform regular maintenance, including weeding, pruning, and refreshing mulch or wood chips.
  5. Consider Local Conditions: Take local climate, soil conditions, and the specific tree species into account when selecting plants for the base of the tree.
  6. Respect the Tree: Be cautious about placing heavy objects or structures near the tree, as they can compact the soil and harm the roots.

What Can You Plant Around the Base of a Tree?

Planting around the base of a tree can enhance the aesthetics of your garden while supporting biodiversity and tree health. Choose plants that are suitable for shade, respect the tree’s root system, and maintain the area with care to create a beautiful and harmonious garden space.

Perennials for the shade

If shrubs and perennials for the shade are planted in the ground at the same time, it is usually not a problem for both to grow in. After all, the soil has not yet taken root, the tree and the herb have the same starting conditions and come to an arrangement with each other.

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The situation is different under old-growth woody plants: While the underplanting of deep-rooted and heart-rooted shrubs such as lime, hornbeam, tree-hazel, amber tree, trumpet tree, pine, yew and most fruit trees is still relatively problem-free, the conditions under shallow-rooted shrubs such as rock pear, magnolia, birch, robinia, spruce and thuja are considerably more difficult. This is because their dense root network brushes just below the surface of the soil, pressuring the perennials for shade and sucking water and nutrients away from them.

A good time to establish perennials for shade in such difficult locations is early autumn. By then, the woody plants have largely stopped growing and draw only a little water from the soil. The perennials can get a foothold.

Exception: Shade grasses and ferns are better planted in spring.

Perennials for shade: plant selection

If you want to grow under trees, you have to cope with a lack of light, dryness and root pressure. But they do exist, these tough survivors. Here is a selection of popular perennials for the shade:

  • Balkan Cranesbill ‘Czakor’, ‘Spessart’, ‘Bevan’ (Geranium macrorrhizum)
  • Elfenblume ‘Frohnleiten’ (Epimedium x perralchicum)
  • White-edged Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum var. pluriflorum ‘Variegatum’)
  • White wood aster (Aster divariatus)
  • Knotted cranesbill (Geranium nodosum)
  • Tellweed (Montia sibirica, syn. Claytonia sibirica)
  • Caucasus comfrey (Symphytum grandiflorum)
  • Rauling (Trachystemon orientalis)
  • Carpet ungarwort (Waldsteinia ternata)

Perennials for the shade: Soil Preparation

Digging with a spade is often hardly possible under woody plants. Besides, many roots would be damaged. It is better to carefully loosen the soil with a digging fork or a hand hoe and carefully read existing root weeds. If you come across larger, root-free gaps, you can create planting niches by replacing the soil with fresh planting soil or a compost-soil mixture. Perennials for the shade can find space in this way.

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If, however, the entire soil is completely rooted, the only solution is to add a layer of humus about 10 cm thick to plant perennials for the shade, e.g. from well-matured compost. Note, however, that not all woody plants tolerate a heavy mounding (e.g. magnolia, beech, spruce). In addition, a 30 cm wide strip should be left around the trunk to prevent rotting at the base of the trunk.
Practical tip: The water supply is decisive!

Do not plant perennials for shade with a dry root ball. They should be allowed to soak in a bucket of water beforehand. It is also important to water the entire planting area thoroughly. Continue to water the shade perennials in the following weeks until they have taken root. It is best to water at longer intervals, but water abundantly and let the soil dry out a little in the meantime. This forces the roots to grow deeper. A mulch layer, e.g. of shrub chaff or leaves, helps to keep the moisture in the soil.


  • James Jones

    Meet James Jones, a passionate gardening writer whose words bloom with the wisdom of an experienced horticulturist. With a deep-rooted love for all things green, James has dedicated his life to sharing the art and science of gardening with the world. James's words have found their way into countless publications, and his gardening insights have inspired a new generation of green thumbs. His commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship shines through in every article he crafts.

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