By Linda Vater
I bought my 1935 home largely because of the magnificent oak tree that reigned in the small front yard. This oak was simultaneously the most impressive tree growing on my street and the only thing growing in front of my house. No grass, no shrubs, no blooms. Nothing wanted to grow under the shady, dry canopy of its branches or compete with its massive root zone.
Over time (and lots of trial and error) I learned some ways to address the problems of creating garden beauty under this much-loved tree.
Forget grass. Problem identification is always the first step to a solution! I finally quit trying to grow grass in the deep shade and competitive environment under the tree.
Make a list. Through experience and keen observation I created a list of shallow-rooted plants that not only grew but thrived in this environment. I selected a combination of tough deciduous and evergreen shrubs, trailing groundcovers and flowers for seasonal color that fit my garden bed’s thin, acidic, compacted soil; varying light exposure; and seasonal temperature range. I looked around to see what grew under similar conditions in my neighborhood and asked my local nurseries for recommendations.
For me this list largely included nana nandina, ajuga, creeping phlox, azaleas, lorapetalum, boxwood and gold moneywort—with added floral touches, depending on the season.
Check it twice. I let the plants battle it out over time to see which were happy and which weren’t. Then I planted more of those that were successful, and removed or allowed the takeover of those that weren’t. A greater number of fewer but healthy and beautiful plants helped make the garden space look full, lush and uncluttered.
Amend and mulch seasonally. All these plants—the tree itself and the extensive underplantings—have demanding fertility and water requirements. I add volumes of compost when planting and top-dressing, apply organic fertilizer when necessary, and make sure to mulch annually to retain moisture.
Problem solved and well worth the effort, I think!