I recently attended not one but two gardening webinars hoping for native plant ideas for our very shady, tree-filled yard. We have a lot of trees. I haven’t counted them, but I would guess we have more than 100 with no full sun to be found. Our yard is home to some massive Western red cedars and Douglas fir trees. One of my goals is to add some layers to the landscape. That adds interest, creates privacy, provides more animal and bird habitat, and creates the living mulch of additional plant cover, which helps the soil retain moisture and stay cooler in our dry summers. But my challenge is planting among giants.
Unfortunately, the webinars were a bust. I’ve attended many gardening webinars over the past two years (another gift of the pandemic), and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to learn. But some are better than others. The advice from one “to plant ferns” under trees left me shaking my head. I love ferns, and we have several native ferns here that are amazing, but that cannot be the only option.
I’ve been studying the plants on my street for a while to figure out what works and why. We don’t live in a typical suburban neighborhood, and many of the “front yards” are wild areas that have been largely untouched for years, if not decades. We live in the woods. (Think planet Endor from Star Wars.) So yes, there are a lot of ferns. But we also have evergreen huckleberry, ocean spray, Twinberry, Indian Plum, a few types of honeysuckle, red flowering currant, beaked hazelnut, pacific dogwood, and salal. Plus, there are always baby alders, Douglas fir trees and cedars. Those big trees are sheltering the next generation.
Under our cedars in the front yard, we have low Oregon grape, ferns, hellebores, salal and a beaked hazelnut. There’s also some sweet box, Solomon’s spike and barberry in pots and a random sedge. Plus, we will have a thousand western stars in the spring if we are lucky. We also have a quirky rowboat planter. (I’m pretty sure it’s an actual rowboat.) I have had mixed results planting in it, so it likely needs a soil update.
Digging into the ground is next to impossible. I actually bought a Root Slayer shovel, and I have to be careful with it.) You are contending with a giant tree, after all. They like to spread out like Buddy on the couch.
So things have to be small, and you have to have patience. I started some sword ferns from plugs (really tiny plants) in 2018, and it was only this past year that they reached dinner plate size. This is another reason not to hang your hat on ferns alone. (They eventually grow to 3-6 feet across.) You have to celebrate the volunteers even when they jump the edging. (Looking at you, Oregon grape.) Since building raised beds under a mature tree can hurt tree roots, I’ve decided to stick to pots as an option for larger specimens. I learned the hard way that hellebores need a fairly large pot (about 2×2 feet). Luckily, they have put up with me transplanting them.
I loved this article, 16 Beautiful Plants For Landscaping Under Cedar Trees, because it reframed planting under cedars into something fun. Fairy doors! Yes! Now you are talking. This is a good one, too: Landscaping Under Fir Trees: 4 Easy Tips And A Long List Of Plants! with lots of suggestions that align with the local native plant palette.
I am going to add a few containers, rehabilitate the row boat garden, propagate some evergreen huckleberry to plant among trees and divide the sedge that has taken over one of the raised beds in the side yard to spread the bounty throughout the yard.
What’s growing in your yard? I would love to hear about your gardening successes and failures.