Planting Miniature Gardens Under Existing Trees
There is nothing so charming a place in the garden as under a big tree. It can be your own little world to escape to anytime you like. Hiding in the wall of branches is enchanting in itself, planting a miniature garden in the space only increases the real-life fantasyland – especially for kids.
Here are a few things to consider before you do, and note that not all situations are the same. The tiny plants will compete with the tree for water and nutrients, and the miniature garden plants must like the dry soil and shade.
Watch the Roots of the Tree
As a general rule, don’t cover the roots of the tree. Roots need air – that’s why you see them on top of the ground and busting out of sidewalks. Another popular misconception is that the roots are just as deep as the tree is tall. In recent years, this has been found to be fatally wrong as the roots are spread wide, are close to the surface, and can sometimes reach farther than the tree’s branches. Next time you see a major windstorm that knocks down huge trees, take note of the roots.
When planting a miniature garden underneath the big tree, keep the soil at the same ground level as the roots are. If you need to add compost, you may want to take away some of the existing soil carefully, and add the compost in order to maintain the level of the soil. Keep the roots that you see on the surface exposed as much as you can. Perhaps you can use the roots as logs in your miniature garden, or create a path beside it, leading to a focal point.
What Miniature Plants to Use
Use non-turf plants or plants that are not aggressive and won’t compete with the tree for nutrients. Any overly invasive plant or any grass-type should be avoided for the sake of the tree’s health. Annuals should be avoided as well, to save from disturbing the tree roots each season.
Good “bedding plants” for shade are Dwarf Lily Turf (the clumping one and I know I said non-turf plants, this is not a regular grass,) miniature Hostas, Dwarf Mondo Grass (again not a regular grass,) Baby Tears (invasive but shallow-rooted.) Canada Hemlocks remain our best shade-loving tree. See the different sizes and shapes in our online store here.
Start with Small Plants, Foliage is Your Friend
If you start with small plants, you won’t need to dig too deeply in between the roots and disturb them too much, and the trees and plants can grow in together. Always remember to take into consideration the adult size of the miniature garden plant – you want it to stay small – and leave space for the new plant to grow in. Unlike any other area in your garden, plants grown in and around a bigger tree cannot be removed easily.
Take into consideration that the tree will cast shade on the plants underneath so use plants that love shade for the best results. Choose plants for their leaf texture and color, that’s what you are left with after the flowers fade. Repeat your plantings, or plant in swaths right up to the base of the trunk to make it look natural. Miniature spring bulbs under deciduous trees are perfect – they will bloom and be done before the tree canopy flushes out for summer.
Water Until Established
Your new miniature garden plants will need care, watering and a bit of patience to get growing on their own. Hopefully you have chosen the right plant for the right place and it’s only a matter of time to get them established. Water deeply and infrequently to train the roots to find their own water. Fertilize your perennials gently throughout the growing season, miniature and dwarf conifers will need less fertilizer, if any, when grown in-ground. Mulch carefully each spring, and remember not to smother the above ground roots of the big tree.
What Trees Won’t Work
There are some trees that don’t like to be planted under. Do a little research beforehand to save yourself some grief by Googling “Can I plant under a ____?” and you should be able to get some quick insight. Here are a couple of examples: Black Walnut Trees emit a toxin in the soil that can distort or kill other plants. Oak trees hate having their roots disturbed. Elm and maple trees are very shallow-rooted and you may have difficulty in finding place to dig a planting hole. Other trees, especially full-sized conifers may have such a dense, evergreen canopy that very little light gets through where only full shade plants will work.
Fine Gardening lists what trees are more tolerant than others here: http://www.finegardening.com/how-to/articles/planting-under-a-tree.aspx
So do your research, dig gently, plant small and water it in.
The plants we love to garden in miniature with are here.
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