Container Gardening Under Trees – Growing Potted Plants Under A Tree

By: Mary Ellen Ellis

A tree container garden can be a great way to make use of bare space. Due to shade and competition, it can be hard to grow plants under trees. You end up with patchy grass and a lot of dirt. Containers present a good solution, but don’t go overboard or you could stress the tree.

Container Gardening under Trees

Digging into the soil to put plants under a tree can be problematic. For instance, the roots are difficult or impossible to dig around. Unless you cut the roots in certain places, their locations will dictate your arrangement.

An easier solution, and one that will give you more control, is to use containers. Container flowers under a tree can be arranged however you like. You can even move them out to the sun as needed.

If you really want plants level with the ground, consider digging in a few strategic places and sinking containers. This way you can change plants out easily and the roots from the tree and the plants will not be in competition.

Risks of Putting Planters Under a Tree

While potted plants under a tree may seem like a good solution to bare spots, root competition, and tricky shaded areas, there is also one reason to be cautious – it could be damaging to the tree. The harm this may cause will vary depending on the size and number of planters, but there are a few issues:

Planters add extra soil and weight over the roots of the tree, which restricts water and air. Soil piled up against the trunk of a tree can lead to rot. If it gets bad enough and affects bark all around the tree, it may eventually die. The stress of plantings over the tree’s roots can make it more vulnerable to pests and disease.

A few smaller containers should not stress out your tree, but large planters or too many containers may cause more damage than your tree can handle. Use smaller pots or just a couple of larger pots. To avoid compressing soil around the roots, put containers on top of a couple of sticks or container feet.

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How to Make a Shade Garden Under a Tree

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When you plant under a tree, you are doing something unnatural. Very few small plants other than moss grow around tree trunks in forests most grow in clearings. That is because trees shade the ground near their trunks and take the lion's share of available water, creating difficult conditions for other plants. So you will have more success if you plant a shade garden around a tree rather than directly under the tree.

Choose plants carefully. Shade-loving plants are essential for the project. Also look for plants that share the same soil preferences as the tree, such as acid-loving plants around a tree that grows in acidic soil. Use shrubs and perennial plants to minimize the damage to tree roots near the soil surface that would result from planting annual plants or bulb plants every year. Low-growing, shallow-rooted plants are more likely to survive competition with tree roots. White and light-colored flowers and foliage variegated in white or yellow will show up better that darker flowers and foliage in the low-light conditions under the tree.

Prune some of the tree's lower branches if necessary to allow more sunlight to reach the plants in the shade garden.

Plant your shrub and perennial selections near the edge of the tree canopy, away from the tree trunk. They will receive more sunlight and rainwater there than they would closer to the tree trunk. Mix compost into the soil around herbaceous plants at planting time, but leave the soil around the tree alone because the tree will grow better in its original soil.

Cover non-planted areas under the tree with wood-chip or bark mulch. Spread the mulch among your plants once each year. Mulch helps to prevent weeds, holds moisture in soil and improves soil as it decomposes.

Water the shade-garden plants generously. Trees take most of the water in their vicinity, leaving nearly dry conditions in which few plants can thrive. Additional water will help the plants survive.

How to Grow Hydrangeas in Pots

Potted Hydrangeas

Use hydrangeas in pots to add splashes of color under trees in your landscape. Consider putting them on rolling plant stands if they're heavy.

Photo by: Photo by Lynn Coulter

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If you’ve ever been given a hydrangea in a foil-wrapped pot, you probably enjoyed it or a few weeks, but then watched sadly as it declined. That might make you think hydrangeas aren’t good container plants.

Most potted, gift hydrangeas fail to thrive because they’re kept indoors too long. Others die because they’ve been raised in a greenhouse, and even if planted outdoors, they’re not cold hardy in your part of the country.

But hydrangeas can be great potted plants, if you make good choices. Here’s what you need to know.

Potted Hydrangea

Hydrangeas in containers can be used on decks, patios or on stands in your garden. This plant, held atop an old column, adds an elegant touch.

Photo by: Photo by Lynn Coulter

  1. First, decide where you’ll put the hydrangeas. The beauty of growing them in pots is that you can move them around. Many hydrangeas like morning sun and afternoon shade, so this also makes it easier to give them the growing conditions they prefer. You can also move them around to decorate a patio or other space for a party or special occasion.
  2. When you’re choosing containers, look for pots with wheels on the bottom, or consider sturdy, rolling plant stands, unless your pots will remain in the same place all the time. Don’t forget that containers can get really heavy after you add dirt and plants, and watering will add to their weight.
  3. Choose a large container (at least 18 to 20 inches in diameter) for your hydrangea. Small pots—like the one your gift hydrangea came in—usually dry out too fast, causing the plant to wilt. If your container doesn’t have holes for drainage, drill some into the bottom. Water that stands around the roots can cause rotting.
  4. Next, choose a variety recommended for your region. (This is a rule of thumb for success with any plant.) Read plant tags or research varieties online to find the right ones for your garden. Most hydrangeas are hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8, and some can grow in zones 3 and 9.
  5. While you don’t have to use dwarf hydrangeas in pots, you may want to if your space is limited. Hydrangeas don’t just get tall they also get bushy. Otherwise, plan on doing some pruning as your plants grow. Caution: while you’re doing your research, check to see if your variety flowers on old or new wood. If you prune at the wrong time of year, you’ll loose next year’s flowers.
  6. Use a good quality potting soil with organic matter, not ordinary garden soil. Plant the hydrangea at the same level that it was in its original pot (that is, don’t plant it deeper or higher than it was already growing). Leave some room below the rim of the pot, so you can water.
  7. Gently firm the soil around the roots to eliminate air pockets.
  8. When the top inch or so of the potting mix feels dry, water your hydrangea thoroughly. But it’s better to underwater than overwater. Hydrangeas will signal you by wilting when they need a drink, but that can stress them, so check them every day or so. After a little while, you’ll get a feel for how often to water. You may need to step up your watering in periods of drought or high temperatures.
  9. Hydrangeas don’t need a lot of fertilizer, but you can feed your plants once or twice a year with a slow-release balanced fertilizer, a 10-10-10 granular fertilizer or commercial, composted manure. Don’t fertilize after July or August if you live in a warm climate. Northern gardeners can get away with fertilizing only once, around June or July. Feeding later encourages tender, new growth, just when hydrangeas need to start going dormant for the winter.
  10. Don’t fertilize if your plant already looks sick or diseased you’ll add only to its stress. Try to fix the problem instead.
  11. After the flowers finish, snip them off to encourage new growth.

Looking for compact or dwarf hydrangeas to grow in containers? Try these:

Watch the video: How To Grow Pot Plants in a Container Garden

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