Under-Planting Deciduous Shrubs & Trees

By Andy McIndoe

How To Extend Seasonal Interest With Ground Cover Planting Under Trees & Shrubs

Deciduous trees and shrubs can look bare and forlorn through winter and early spring: a skeleton of twigs and branches against a backdrop of bare earth.

With the right under-planting around them you can add another dimension to the garden through the colder months which can be just as colourful and interesting as the other seasons.

Even trees and shrubs grown for the beauty and colour of their winter stems can be enhanced by underplanting; their assets displayed against a green or colourful background, rather than against brown earth.

2 Hedera under cornus

Red-barked dogwoods are a good example. Their stems have been such a feature through the winter. However if they are underplanted with large or small-leaved ivies a group of them becomes a more exciting planting scheme.

Cornus sanguinea ‘Anny’s Winter Orange’ underplanted with the large gold and green leaved Hedera colchica ‘Sulphur Heart’ is an amazing sight. The hedera gives excellent ground cover, helping to suppress weeds.

It enjoys the shade of the cornus when in leaf in the summer. Its habit is open enough to allow underplanting with these sapphire blue Iris reticulata which add another dimension in early spring.

When the leaves of the cornus fall in autumn all you need to do is lightly rake over with a plastic leaf rake to allow the leaves to fall between those of the hedera.

The cornus leaves break down over winter adding valuable organic matter to the soil

3 Euonymus under cornus

Alternatively you could use a low sprawling shrub such as Euonymus fortune ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’ for underplanting. This is effective where shrubs are planted further apart so that the foliage is also visible in summer.

For example if used for underplanting the olive-gold stemmed Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ the euonymus makes a striking planting partner to the stems in winter.

I summer it adds green and gold variegation between the green leaves of the cornus which can be rather boring on their own.

4 Good underplanting

Good underplanting adds interest at ground level in any planting picture. It is particularly effective where it extends from underneath larger shrubs to its own space at the front of a bed or border. This gives the planting continuity and a cohesive effect.

5 Hellebores under Hydrangea paniculata

Hellebores, particularly varieties of Helleborus x hybridus, the Lenten rose, are excellent perennials to plant under large deciduous shrubs and under trees.

Here again they enjoy the shade in summer and their evergreen foliage adds green interest in autumn and early spring. Planted in drifts their dense, clump-forming habit gives good ground cover.

Cut off the leaves in midwinter to allow the flowers and new leaves to come though and colour the area in early spring. These often give a more spectacular display than the shrubs they are planted around

6 Helleborus argutifolius and Skimmia Kew Green

Where shade isn’t too heavy and the canopy of shrubs or trees is high enough evergreen hellebores such as Helleborus argutifolius and Helleborus x ericsmithii can be effective.

They form architectural mounds of interesting leaves and work well with other low shrubs such as skimmias, Viburnum davidii and sarcococcas.

7  Helleborus under Acer griseum

Some trees such as birches and the paperbark maple Acer griseum have beautiful bark. Use the colour of the bark as part of the planting scheme.

This can change through the year, but is particularly effective in spring because this is the time to get flowers in shade.

Hellebores, pulmonarias, spring flowering bulbs are all adapted to bloom and give their best performance before the shade of overhanging trees and shrubs robs their light.

8   Bergenia under acers (2)

Bergenias, elephant ears, have the benefit of white, pink or purple spring flowers, but their main attraction is their large, shining leaves.

Individually these can be damaged or untidy, but the overall effect under shrubs and trees is excellent.

They are best under deciduous subjects that cast minimal shade. If they get some direct sun many varieties colour richly in winter.

9 Acorus and asarum

Most sedges are shade loving and ideal for underplanting. Low growing acorus and carex are particularly useful. Asarum europaeum is a wonderful ground cover perennial with rounded heart-shaped leaves of shining emerald green.

Once established it forms a low mat that makes a great contrast to the spiky or airy forms of sedges.

10  Narcissus Trena under shrubs

Long lasting flowerbulbs, such as dwarf narcissi are ideal to add early colour. Grown under deciduous shrubs their fading foliage id hidden as the shrubs come into leaf.

Narcissus foliage can take several weeks to die down naturally. It must be left on the bulbs to build up the food supply for the following year. Hidden away by a canopy of foliage it does not detract from the planting.

Other good subjects for underplanting include:

Vinca minor

Pulmonaria saccarata

Symphytum caucasicum

Pachysandra terminalis

Cotoneaster dammeri

Andy McIndoe

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