Creating a bed under Pine trees

pkthomasAugust 13, 2010

I'm trying to make a hosta bed in a cluster of Pine trees. I cannot get my shovel more than maybe 1/2 inch in to the ground due to roots. I'm not sure if I'm hitting some small tree roots or if they're all from the leafy weeds that were growing under the trees. Don't know what the weeds are, but their roots are about the size of string licorice and they are pretty tough.

I was thinking I'd clear out the weeds the best I can (I did spray some Round-Up on them yesterday), lay down some cardboard, wet it down well, then start building UP with topsoil.

Can I create a decent planting bed this way? Will it harm the trees if I build soil up around the truck? Or will all the roots just work their way up in to my new topsoil and wreak havoc on my hostas?

Any and all suggestions appreciated!


Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
bkay2000(8a TX)

I understand you are not supposed to raise the soil level around a tree or put anything against the trunk.

(I heard that on the Neil Sperry Radio show that comes on Saturday and Sunday mornings. He has a masters in horticulture and is somewhat a local celebrity after 35 years on the radio. You can call in with questions Sunday 9 to noon CDT. You can listen online - WBAP radio. Don't expect hosta expertise, we don't generally grow many here.)

Someone posted on this forum a couple of weeks ago about planting hostas in 5 gallon buckets under trees. That way, the tree doesn't sap all the moisture and nutrients from the hostas. She said she was having great success, but didn't know how to post a photo. You might find it by doing a search and read her story.


    Bookmark   August 13, 2010 at 10:22AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

you have big problems patti ....

the issue is.. every cut root.. will sprout 100 new feeder roots ..... which will enjoy the new soil and water.. that you will want to put on your hosta .... how long do you figure it will take.. for the pines to fill the holes to the detriment of the hosta????

also.. i have found.. they will grow up into new fresh fertile soil applied above .... almost as fast as your hosta can grow.. and no little cardboard is going to stop them ...

never use heavy equipment under trees ... but it has been my experience.. that raising the soil level isnt going to make any difference .... but .. if you were to cover the entire root zone then you might have problems.. but a 20 foot tree is going to have roots out 20 to 40 feet ... and i doubt you will impact the tree unless you cover the whole area .... but i still THINK it might be a fools errand ... as far as long term hosta happiness ....

if i were you.. i would start with a small area..

put the water on until you dampen the soil ... and then start digging a 2 by 2 foot hole.. and see what you actually come across .... and then report back for further ideas ...

we are wasting too much time speculating ..

there is going to be no 'easy' way of doing this.. its going to be a back breaking hard job.. with a 50/50 chance of unbridled success ...

all that said.. if you get to planting.. i would be looking at the driveway hosta... to put there.. no foo foo stuff that will need tlc ... go with the work horses .. like undulatas ...


    Bookmark   August 13, 2010 at 12:40PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Dang... I need to learn to prep a bed THEN get the hostas. I'm doing it bass-ackwards... I've got 25 that need to get in the ground fast!

I've been on my hands and knees getting the weeds out. I don't have the muscle to dig a 2 x 2 hole in this stuff (so dropping in 5 gallon buckets isn't doing to work at this point either - although it sounds like a good suggestion).

So this area is maybe 15-20 feet across with open space in the middle. There is also a natural divot in the middle. What if I build up berms to plant in? I could stay away from the tree trucks. Would the un-disturbed tree roots invade the berm as well?

For some reason I thought that pine trees and hosta had an affinity for one another. Perhaps that was wishful thinking.

Plan B would be to plug them in the pile of top-soil that the dump truck brought. Not so attractive!

    Bookmark   August 13, 2010 at 3:04PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

The trouble with covering up tree roots with soil to a depth over about 3" is that you smother those roots and can cause the decline and death of the tree. Staying away from the trunk will not solve the problem as the feeder roots are out there around the drip line of the tree's branches, which is where you need to keep the ground open so they can breathe. You will still need to dig holes to plant your hostas, but if you put 4-3" of soil down, the holes won't need to be quite as deep! (and you still need to keep the new soil off the trunk of the tree so you don't create a place for insects and diseases to enter the bark)

    Bookmark   August 13, 2010 at 5:04PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
bkay2000(8a TX)

I think that covering part of the root area will be OK for your tree. Not sure, but I would guess the tree roots will fill the berm.


    Bookmark   August 13, 2010 at 5:09PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I just read your question about planting under pine trees and thought I would let you know what I have experienced
I think the answer might be that it depends upon what type of 'pine trees' you are referring to. Years ago I tried for 3-4 years to plant under a clump of large cedars. I tried building up the soil several times, amending the soil, and tried different plants. Hostas did not grow there nor did anything else. It was a futile effort. The fine mass of roots were almost impossible to dig through and the more I watered or fertilized the thicker I encouraged the root mass.
However, I do have a large hosta bed which is under several Norway Pine and they seem to be doing fine. I think there are some of my hostas that probably would do better without the root competition but I accept that.
So, before you torture your new plants, as well as yourself try to find another area to plant especially if it is under Cedars.
Good luck.

    Bookmark   August 13, 2010 at 7:56PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I agree with moss and disagree with bkay.
Anytime you add soil to the area inside the drip line, you're smothering the tree. And it sounds like your pine might be limbed-up. So, you have to think about the drip line as being where the lower most branches would have been. So you actually have a rather large ring around the trunk where you shouldn't add any soil depth.

Another consideration is that since it sounds as if this tree may be 20+ years old, it was probably planted at a time before we know our current way of thinking (to plant a tree's rootball a little above the surface). So, by current standards, your tree is probably already too deep.

You might consider getting some nice pots and create a potting arrangement under the tree.

    Bookmark   August 13, 2010 at 7:56PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Thanks everyone. I'm sure you've saved me a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Two of the three anyway! I'll rip some turf up somewhere to make a new bed and save the pines for when I have a better idea what I'm doing. Too bad, 'cause it would have been pretty!

I'm not sure what type of pines they are. If I had to guess I'd say Norway. Definitely not Cedar.


    Bookmark   August 13, 2010 at 9:02PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo


Norway Spruce and Blue Spruce are notorious for having lots of fine surface roots. Covering those roots with several inches of soil won't hurt them, just encourage them. I agree that your best bet is to find a spot away from those root invading monsters and create a new bed with your soil. In your northern gardens the hostas could probably tolerate a bit of sun if you needed.

Years ago I experimented with spraying roundup on grass and then covering with paper, a thick layer of soil, and then planting after a few days. So long as I didn't dig through the paper the hostas were fine and the grass didn't come back. It was relatively quick and painless. Now at my newer place I have a lot tougher weeds to contend with, so I wait until the vegetation is killed and then work in new soil and plant.

Good luck with your new babies. If you have to pot them up for a while they will still grow some more roots and give you some extra time prepping things.


    Bookmark   August 13, 2010 at 9:16PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

the best thing to do. under those pines.. is to create a new sitting area .... and grow some hosta in pots .... the scent of the pines is very nice.. after a couple adult beverages ....

and then find an area to pop the pots in the ground for winter ...

i see the bulb finally went on .. took me about 5 years to figure it out...

right now.. you should be planning the bed for next year ...

ID an area ... roundup the grass.. add 4 to 6 inches of compost or mulch .... and this falls leaves ... and let it lay until next spring ...

bingo.. bango ... next summer.. you will have a new bed... for new hosta.. soft friable soil ... ready and waiting ...

this nonsense.. and again.. i am mocking myself for your education ... of buying.. or ordering the hosta.. and THEN thinking about bed building.. is insanity ....

unfortunately .. you need two beds.. one.. ipso presto .. and another.. for next year ...

if you have a veggie garden ... just hold this years.. until fall ... rip out the veggies.. and 'hold' this years over .. until final placement next spring ...

no use in hosta hoarding.. if the result is an aneurysm ... trying to build beds in august.. even in the great white north ...

now.. do you have space for two beds????


    Bookmark   August 14, 2010 at 10:19AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Chris - I decided to plant along the west side of the house, so they will end up getting mid-day sun. The Pines should shield them later in the day. I potted them up yesterday and gave them a good drink and they still look fantastic.

Ken - you mean other people PLAN? That's just crazy talk. DH did just expand the veggie garden for next year, so I actually do have a place hold the hosta over if I get desperate.

We have about 3 acres and I eventually want to have hostas EVERYWHERE. I'm trying to pick places closest to the house for planting first because the deer come through regularly.

I've been working on it this morning. I'm lucky in that turf is coming up easily if I cut it with a serrated blade first. NOT so lucky - what do I see under the very first clump I pull out? A baby snake. And I hate snakes. I've lived on this property for about 14 years and have only ever seen a snake twice. I know they have to hole up somewhere, but I would not have thought it would have been right under the turf next to my house. I think one baby = a momma and more babies... it's freaking me out.

    Bookmark   August 14, 2010 at 1:14PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

if dh has a grinder.. ask him to sharpen all the shovels..

you would be amazed how easy it is to dig.. with sharp tools

go figure on that ...


    Bookmark   August 14, 2010 at 1:19PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
bernd ny zone5

I have no problem planting under white pines, do not seem to have surface roots. But under one white pine on one side there is a maple and only Hellebores and Astilbes survive there. That means I have to transplant the declining `Blue Umbrellas' from there.

    Bookmark   August 16, 2010 at 8:35AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
bkay2000(8a TX)

I don't think mama snakes "raise" their babies. I think they are like turtles - on their own from day 1.


    Bookmark   August 16, 2010 at 5:06PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
jel48(Z4 Michigan)

Patti, have you thought about how you're going to keep the deer out? One more thing to be thinking ahead to...

    Bookmark   August 18, 2010 at 8:06AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
idiothe(4 MN)

Hi, Patti
I've been planning to post to you... just wanted to get some photos ready...

I've got probably 200 or 250 mature hostas growing under mature spruce trees. It's what I've got, so its what I do...

To summarize - there are trees that can't have their roots covered... I'm told even a few inches of dirt can smother an oak, for example, as many folks who have built raised beds or changed the grade of their yard have learned the hard way.

Others don't care if the dirt level changes... I was told by a forester that spruce, for example, don't care.

Evergreens, in general, are pretty tolerant of adding soil. And it is essential to do something. The area under an evergreen is pretty much the epitome of rotten growing conditions. It is dark. It is dry. And the soil under an evergreen is as used-up as can be. It is just the nature of those trees to feed heavy, grow fast, an spread the root system out beyond the "dead zone" under the tree.

I'd figure out what kind of trees they are and contact the county extension agent with the root question... I think Minnesota still has county extension agents... also a city or county forester, depending on where you live...

So... to improve that area, there are three things you can do: 1: improve the soil / add soil and compost; 2: provide extra water - those trees are designed to shed water out to their borders where the active roots are; 3: improve the light... usually by limbing the trees up somewhat, which also keeps the swaying everygreen branches from physically damaging the plants underneath.

When I needed to plant under my mature spruce trees, I did all three. I brought in soil - lots of it. Instead of a solid layer, I built unevenly shaped mounds that curve, (I hope) artistically underneath the spruce trees, leaving some of the area at natural level. they probably started out 2 feet deep at the highest, but they've settled down to closer to a foot. (If you have dirt brought in from a topsoil company, you can asky them to mix in a bunch of sand and some compost... saves you a lot of amending.) I think any damage I might have done is probably ameliorated by the additional "food" I gave them with the compost and soil mounds and the heavy watering I do all summer (and most importantly for the trees, in fall until freeze).

The mounds work great. They give the hostas a nice fresh soil to start in, before the tree roots invade. I figure if they are going to grow slow due to low light conditions, the least I can do is give them good soil and good water.

To be honest, in the first photo you'll see a bed with no mounds, no soil enrichment... just the patience to let them grow slowly under the adverse conditions. As long as you water, they will grow - eventually...

Note: the pictures are a little deceptive in how bright they are... I took them later in the afternoon and the sunlight happens to slant in under them from the west at that time. The rest of the day they are dark dark dark...

    Bookmark   August 18, 2010 at 12:17PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tsugajunkie z5 SE WI

Other than some swamp cypress, just about every conifer cares if it's root zone is covered too much. The reason the roots are near the surface is to get the big O (oxygen) and anything that cuts air flow (extra dirt) is going to hurt. To snake the berm as you have, idiothe, would certainly lessen the impact (nice beds, BTW). I do garden under Austrian pines and the beds get amended about every other year with a top dressing of compost but I added no extra soil when I started the beds and there was no web of roots to contend with. Patti, it sounds like your "pines" are Norway Spruce and Ken's advice may be easiest on you and the trees.


    Bookmark   August 18, 2010 at 8:07PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

jel48 -I've thought about the deer issue, but can't say I have good a plan yet. I'd be interested to know what other folks do. It's not feasible financially to fence off our property - plus we do enjoy watching the deer.

idiothe - thanks for posting for the info and the pics. That's the look I was going for : )

We do have a UMN extension office nearby, and I will definitely check with them before proceeding.

Are Spruce and Norway Spruce one and the same? DH thought the trees in question were Spruce, but didn't know if there was a difference.

I also have a few bigger ones that I would have liked to plant under eventually. I've always heard those ones referred to as "Jack Pine" but I'm not sure if that's a real variety or slang for "Really Crappy Pine".

Anyone else have photos they'd like to share?


    Bookmark   August 19, 2010 at 10:41AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
idiothe(4 MN)

The most common spruce trees we see in Minnesota are usually just called spruce (for the green one) and blue spruce. I don't think I've ever seen a Norway spruce - they are native to Europe.

Spruce have shortish needles that go all the way around the stem.

The Norway Pine, on the other hand, is the state tree of Minnesota... aka Red Pine... long needles and if my boy scout training memory is accurate, the needles emerge in twos, giving it a coarser appearance than, say, a white pine that has shorter needles that emerge in 5s and 7s from the little nodes.

Jack Pine is a real name for a common, fast growing pine in Minnesota. In the north, in areas that were cut, the Jack Pine was the one most likely to repopulate - Boundary Waters has immense forests dominated by Jack Pine.

Jack Pine has an interesting reproduction quirk. Its cones are very tight and only open up when heated by fire... thus the periodic fires that swept through the underbrush before man disrupted the ecosystem would clear off the undergrowth and open up the cones for seeding new trees. White pines, on the other hand, are a little more sensitive - and their cones will fall to the ground but won't release their seeds unless there is bare mineral soil for them to germinate on...

if you google any of these names you will get lots of images and identifiers...

    Bookmark   August 19, 2010 at 11:17AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

While the Norway spruce is native to Europe, that is true, it is planted in the US extensively as a landscape tree and sold by nurseries all over the US wherever it will grow. It's a beautiful, green spruce with huge cones.

    Bookmark   August 19, 2010 at 6:14PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

The "smothering" concept beneath Norway spruces is hogwash. The roots get their oxygen underground. I've been planting Norway spruces for the past 25 years, and I've papered and added 4"-6" of peat, and I've yet to have a single issue with any trees I've planted. In fact, some of them are already touching the stars in the sky! Their growth rate has been absolutely unbelievable. Cheers!

    Bookmark   September 19, 2012 at 1:24AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

The most common pine here Ontario's Ottawa Valley is the Pinus Strobus or White Pine which prefers sandy well drained soil. Red Pine is a smaller tree usually furher south and Jack Pine the dominant tree of the boreal forest further north. Eastern White Pines can grow to 200 feet tall and have equally immense root systems. I have not found them to be difficult to work with either in terms of adding a small amount of soil or in terms of root competition. Attached is a pic of a mature hosta planted right at the base of a rather immature (10 inch trunk) white pine that is almost 50 feet tall on its way skyward.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2012 at 9:38AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Doesn't HostaHillbilly plant under pines? How does he deal with the roots?

    Bookmark   September 19, 2012 at 10:43AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Jon 6a SE MA

The White Pines in my and neighboring yards were buried 2-3 feet deep with some only on one side. When the houses were built 40 years ago I thought for sure this would kill most, if not all the pines. None have died, all have survived and thrived.

I have Pariots, Wide Brim, Frances Williams, Francee, Dream Queen, Twilight, Sum and Substance, Abiqua Gourd, Paul's Glory, Mouse Ears, Minuteman, Patriot, Sagae, Victory, Golden Meadows, some NOIDS and the infamously fickle Great Expectations planted under the drip line of White Pines. All seem to be doing very well.

I do have to say that when planted there was not a thick mat of roots as described by Patty in any of the locations were I planted. If I ran into a root I would chop it if it was small, or move over if was of any size. Maybe Pinus Strobus roots are not as bad as others. I just don't know about that.


    Bookmark   September 19, 2012 at 10:58AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Yup, the vast majority of our Hosta garden is under a 1930's CCC Red Pine Plantation, so they (the Pines) are thick.

We'd heard the notoriety of Maple Tree root strangulation issues with Hostas, but not so with Pine Trees.

Alas, at least with Red Pine, there is a problem. Now having helped friends dig out strangled Hostas under Maple trees, we admit the Red Pine problem is certainly not anywhere near as bad, but a factor nonetheless. Many Hosta, over the last 15 some-odd years, have been just fine. I'm sure that the slow growth of many of them is due to this tree root problem, and not merely the heavy shade from the trees.

Some Hosta, though, have regressed, some slowly, some dramatically, from tree roots, some even to death when not rescued in time.

Our solutions: some are re-planted in buried pots and are A-OK, many more are in COMMERCIAL GRADE (the stuff that's like thin fibreglass cloth, not the cheaper plastic stuff) weed barrier cloth lined holes. Both systems are working.

Now, as to deer, you talk fencing as expensive. We also garden about 3 acres, and use a very cheap electric fence. Works. We have about 4 wires. The top wire is not so high as to preclude them jumping it, so here's the real trick. In the spring we place strips of peanut butter coated tin foil strips every so many feet on the hot fence. This 'trains' the deer to the point that the fence can be turned off after a few weeks. Evil but effective ;-) I learned this 'trick' when we kept goats and I saw a young billy-goat lick the electric fence one day. He gave new meaning to 'break-dancing', yhee-haww. Yeah, every year one doe and her fawn figure out that the fence doesn't extend across the driveway, and they wander in, nibble a little here and there, pick their fave and mow it. Knock on wood, they've not mowed the same one two or more years in a row. With 50-60 deer living in our section, we'll put up with one or two bandits.

A parting comment: After years of hearing the 'scrunch' sound when sinking a shovel through the Red Pine surface root mat we started digging up a bed under a Jack Pine tree. Both of us looked at each other with astonishment. No 'scrunch'. We didn't find the feeder root mat, so planted 'bare root'. That bed is one of the healthiest ones here now.

Oh, and NOTHING grows under our lone Blue Spruce, no surprise.

I'm sure you'll work out the details. It's been worth it here! A yard of lush Hosta sure beats a yard of boring brown pine needles.

Best Wishes,


    Bookmark   September 20, 2012 at 12:46AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
bernd ny zone5

As my above comment said 2 years ago, under my Eastern White Pines I still have no problems with pine roots. These White pines also were covered partly with soil when my house was built around 1978 and thrive to towering heights, same as Jon wrote. One Siver Maple is a problem, other maples with red leaves in fall not so much. Bernd

    Bookmark   September 20, 2012 at 7:25AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
irawon(5a Ottawa)

I grow hostas under spruce, pine and one red maple tree. I did not build up the soil. The branches of the spruce and pine were limbed up and thinned out. Some smaller tree roots were removed to create planting holes. My hostas are growing but slowly. The hostas on the outer edges of the beds are growing more quickly because they get more sun. It is my belief that if you plant under these trees, you have to be prepared to water and fertilize regularly not only the hostas but also the trees because they compete for nutrients. We have an irrigation system, so the beds get watered daily.

I also planted some hostas in front of a cedar hedge (didn't know any better at the time). I covered the grass with 4 layers of newspaper. I should have wet the newspaper first but I didn't. I covered the newspaper with 2 inches of soil and punctured the area with a pitch fork, so that water could get through. The hostas are doing better than the ferns I planted in this area. The bed is in its third year now.

I have to admit it's a real pleasure to grow hostas in areas of my gardens that have no competing roots. They grow to their potential so much faster.

Growing hostas under trees is not impossible, it just requires a great deal more effort. One advantage that I see, is that you can grow more of the really larger hosta varieties because they don't get as big under trees. I would also recommend planting the biggest plants you can find if you have root competition, so that the hostas have a fighting chance to survive. If I had to do it over again I would have lined my planting holes with newspaper. ( I haven't been able to get the Texel root barrier fabric at a reasonable price.) I have also lifted some hostas and removed encroaching tree roots from the planting hole. The following year they had a growth spurt.

Here's hosta 'Aristocrat' under a spruce tree after 5 years..

    Bookmark   September 20, 2012 at 9:21AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
irawon(5a Ottawa)

This is h. 'Great Arrival' (second year) in front of the cedar hedge. It was a more mature plant when I bought it.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2012 at 9:37AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
irawon(5a Ottawa)

H. 'On Stage' (third year) under an Austrian pine.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2012 at 9:40AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
irawon(5a Ottawa)

The bench is under a red maple. I created the hosta bed in front of the bench last year and the jury is still out as to how well the hostas will do.

So Patti, good luck with your endeavor, whatever your decision.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2012 at 9:54AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Like the curves, Ira. Your hosta seem to have no problems at all. Plus I like the tufts of 'Elijah Blue' fescue punctuating the space. One of my favorite discoveries while I was on my New England hiatus from southern gardening.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2012 at 11:10AM
Sign Up to comment
More Discussions
First time to be able to grow Hostas, need beginners help
We moved to a new home recently and I have two large...
Beth9116 zone 8a TX
Help for new hostas
Hallo everybody.I 'm from Greece and I would like to...
got pots ...
after a week in the 40s and 50s.. i can finally see...
ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5
Hd are you kidding?
I just got an email from Home Depot pushing hosta plants...
Jon 6a SE MA
Spring Pips Showing-time span from first plant to last?
Especially for those of you with a large amount of...
Sponsored Products
Antique Black Round Juliet Accent Table
Cost Plus World Market
Hinkley Lighting | Stowe Ceiling Light
$169.00 | YLighting
Eagle Tail Rug in Cream
$69.99 | Dot & Bo
Jocelyn Silver Beading Mirror with LED Light Kit
Lamps Plus
Area Rug: Wild Flowers Beige 2' 3" x 3' 9"
Home Depot
Hudson Street Bohemia 7 pc. Comforter Set - Natural - 2002722
$63.64 | Hayneedle
People viewed this after searching for:
© 2015 Houzz Inc. Houzz® The new way to design your home™