What to plant under a pine tree in full sun?

lilybelle3March 11, 2014

I have a flower bed that sits under a pine tree and gets full sun (when it's not raining) most of the day. So far everything I have planted there has died. I would prefer something that looks good year round, even better if it blooms. Also, something low maintenance. I live in Seattle, WA with a zone of 7b. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

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Do you have a preference as to what you'd like to plant? More flowers? An upright shrub? A ground cover? Will you be planting in the ground, or is this a raised bed?

    Bookmark   March 11, 2014 at 11:30PM
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Have you tried rhododendrons? They are acid-loving, which should make them appreciate the acidifying effect of the pine tree on the soil, and they flower in the Spring.

Rhododendron shrubs usually retain their leaves over the winter and come in many sizes and colors.

They like soil that is fairly humusy and will need careful watering until established, as well as an ample hole and rich soil to backfill with.

The pine tree roots may be competing with the other plants you have tried. If you are planting right at the base of the tree, digging a hole of adequate size could actually harm the pine. In that case, you might be more satisfied with a groundcover that gradually will spread on its own toward the tree, such as an ivy.

Rhododendrons do well here in Pennsylvania. With the amount of rain you get they might do well for you. Camellias might be another option.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2014 at 11:49PM
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It is a raised bed. I would prefer flowers but I need something that looks good year round. It's the front part of the bed that faces the street. So it's what everyone sees as they drive by. The pine is actually our neighbors tree. So the bed falls under it but is appox 3-4 feet away from the base. I would prefer to stay away from rhododendrons since they get so big. The camellias are very pretty but I think they might get too big as well. I would like to stay with something that doesn't get taller/wider than about 2 feet. Also, I like the combination of flowering plants, grasses, and ground cover so I'm open to planting a combination of plants.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2014 at 5:54PM
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From what I can tell, your choices are going to be limited. Something that looks good year-round is pretty much going to have to be evergreen. You're not only limited by the number of evergreens that will grow in a microclimate of USDA 7b, but most of those plants are shrubs that are (1) larger than you want and (2) have root systems that are too large for a standard raised bed. (You might be able to get a dwarf boxwood to grow in there, but those are no fun.)

One of my favorite evergreen perennials is Penstemon 'Margarita BOP'. It's one of a relatively few penstemons that will tolerate our winter rain (provided that the drainage is good). I have a couple of these in the ground (in decently-draining clay) and another in a pot (in cactus mix soil). They grow to be about a foot or so tall (2' with spring flower spikes). Some of the more water-tolerant monkey flowers (Diplacus) may also work. Diplacus grandiflorus would probably be your best bet. The trick with penstemons and monkey flowers is that standard fertilizer-laden planting/potting soil will shorten their lives and they need good drainage in the winter. Use a gravelly soil with minimal nutrients (like "cactus mix"). After the first year, give it a little slow-release fertilizer (like 1/4 of the recommended amount). Some of the more cold-hardy lavenders may also work nicely. They will want similarly-dry conditions. Some of the "eyed grasses" (Sisyrinchium) might look nice mixed in. (S. bellum and S. idahoense should both work.)

If you want something a little less finicky towards soil, drainage, and fertilizer, a combination of Scarlet Monkey Flower (Mimulus cardinallis) and Yellow-eyed Grass (Sisrinchium californicum) would look nice. Both of these will look bad in the winter (you'll have to cut down the monkey flower stalks).

My suggestions are slanted towards West Coast-native plants, so perhaps there's somebody with other options for non-natives. Good luck.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2014 at 7:41PM
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mikebotann(8a SE of Seattle)

Do you have any pictures?
Zone 7b in Seattle? Probably should be 8 something.
Some people call a Douglas Fir a pine. Not that it makes much difference.
What direction is the street from the bed?

    Bookmark   March 13, 2014 at 11:31AM
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George Three LLC

i totally get picky about that douglas fir/pine distinction! great way to annoy non plant people.

anyway, i think if you want year round, you should anchor the bed with just a handful of evergreens, and then have some fun with some more dynamic plants. mixed heather/heath and maybe some carex/evergreen grass. throw in some spring bulbs, i would lean species tulips because i love them. a trailing/spilling vine-- say a nasturtium from seed. something tall that shows up late summer might be fun, like a big echinacea.

you could pick all those up anywhere.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2014 at 11:58AM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Seattle is Zone 8. Those with properties right on the water and not directly open to north winds can even grow California plants for many years, when I went to rhododendron society meetings in the 1970s there was an enthusiast that used to bring in trusses of "California Specials" that were in bloom during January. His garden was in the trees right behind the beach, in a neighborhood where there is a point of land sticking out to the north of it.

If the soil is sandy or otherwise not real dense and heavy, the trees not branching right down near or below head level and you are not in a cold neighborhood you can grow drought adapted California and Mediterranean broad-leaved evergreen flowering shrubs such as manzanitas, California lilacs, rock roses, santolina, sage, rosemary, and so on.

Look for plants with the Xera Plants tags at independent garden centers. Sky Nursery at 185th & Aurora tends to group numbers of these all together in plant enthusiast oriented displays - possibly they have the most convenient offering of stock from this source in the area.

Here is a link that might be useful: Xera Plants

This post was edited by bboy on Fri, Mar 14, 14 at 13:13

    Bookmark   March 14, 2014 at 1:10PM
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It's a myth that conifers - pines and firs, etc. - make the soil acidic. They merely grow well here because the soil is already acidic, which they prefer (as do most plants, truth be told). What deters the good growth of other plants in this type of setting is that the tree roots hog any available soil moisture and nutrients. As bboy indicates, drought tolerant plants are going to work best for you but even these will need routine watering for the first growing season at least to get established.

If plenty of sun, euphorbias are a good choice, especially for early season( and very long lasting) color. Try helianthemums or sun roses for a low, spreading ground-hugging cover. Or any kind of sedum or stonecrop.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2014 at 2:51PM
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princessgrace79(8 PNW)

Under our line tree in a sunny spot that is also rock/hill in Portland, or I have had good luck with euphorbia, all succulents (I did a mix if whatever appealed, and some is evergreen such as hen/chick and stonecrop and autumn joy is perennial...and then spring bulbs that pop up for color interest. There isn't much that will grow there honestly especially very close to the base of the tree. These all do well and aren't bare in the winter.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2014 at 2:12AM
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If you like interestingly shaped or colored pots or birdbaths, or perhaps even a small statuette, this might be a spot where you could anchor a group of smaller plants with something like that. A large enough pot could be moved toward the front when the plants aren't in flower, and you could try growing a favorite herb or two in it.

Pots are useful as a last resort in areas where there is strong root competition, etc., and they are also a help when you are waiting for plants to become established or grow largerr, as they can always be moved elsewhere eventually.

Your area is probably warm enough for lantanas or pineapple sage, but I don't know if those would work well or be available in your area.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2014 at 2:50AM
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I would ditch the raised bed. Many of the evergreen shrubs that will look good year-round have extensive root systems that will be limited by a raised bed (unless it's a really large bed). Planting in the ground will give you a lot more flexibility, and you'll still have option of using pots for smaller plants that have high nutrient requirements.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2014 at 11:21AM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Successful planting design involves combining of plant shapes, textures and colors. As far as the latter element is concerned in this instance if it was determined what species of conifer the "pine tree" was it could become possible to suggest what specific kinds of plants would look good with its leaf color. For instance a Douglas fir, Himalayan cedar or western white pine would harmonize with other grayish or silvery leaved plants as well as flower and new growth colors that look well with gray and silvery shades. Whereas a shore or Austrian pine, or Norway spruce with a yellowish green base color would have a different set of visually harmonious associates. Some representative drought-adapted, broad-leaved evergreen shrub types in each group are





In addition to Hebe, Arctostaphylos and Cistus also have species in the yellow-green group as well as the gray-green. But the two leaf color types do not look very good mixed together, I would either do a gray-green planting or a yellow-green one in the one spot - based, again, on what leaf color the tree has.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2014 at 4:52PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

This might be of interest, I bought one locally.

Here is a link that might be useful: Garden Gate Notes - Perfect Plants For Every Garden

    Bookmark   March 16, 2014 at 9:34PM
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Under my ponderosa pines flanking the driveway there are: daphne, hellebores, Oregon Grape, rhododendron,pieris, sword ferns, and evergreen and red huckleberry. All doing well!

    Bookmark   March 17, 2014 at 1:01AM
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mikebotann(8a SE of Seattle)

How do you deal with all the long needles hanging from the plants below your Ponderosa Pines.
I have one large Ponderosa and I have to deal with that problem. Unsightly, to say the least. I'm seriously thinking of cutting it down. Ponderosas don't look as nice here as they do in a dryer, more continental climate.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2014 at 5:00AM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

There used to be plenty of perfectly acceptable ones around - in fact the species is native to western WA - but lately many of the planted examples in the Seattle area have been partly browned by a needle cast fungus or similar agent.

What appears to be the same condition is being shown by some Coulter pines, but so far I have not seen it on local Jeffrey pines.

All of these are tall trees with large parts, not in scale with most modern small lots. And as mentioned liable to generate spent needles that get all over everything beneath - as well as spent cones and exuded resin.

If a Coulter pine cone happened to come off and conk somebody standing or walking beneath, that would definitely get their attention.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2014 at 2:14PM
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George Three LLC

i prefer ponderosa pines to doug firs on urban lots. the shade is not as dense, and the trunk is way more interesting.

as for underplanting a ponderosa, i would consider keeping it decently sparse, with a fair amount of deciduous plants and perennials. for "bones", decorative large boulders seem to work better than an evergreen plant that gets assaulted by tree debris. for ground cover i would stick with "needles" and ephemerals.

however, i would never intentionally plant either of them unless the lot had at least a quarter of an acre. there is no great solution for planting beneath them and the area looking tidy within expectations for an urban garden.

there are so many great conifers that grow more slowly and look way better during the awkward "teen" period.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2014 at 3:00PM
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I know nothing about pine diseases, but I have to wonder if planting on flat ground is a problem. Most of the successful and healthy Ponderosa pines that I see down here are on hillsides. My guess is that the West-of-the-Cascades form of Pinus ponderosa is not as tolerant of soggy roots in the spring as Doug-fir, Western hemlock, etc. Of course, our soil is clay, so the problem may be more pronounced here.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2014 at 8:56PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

I know of a location near Kent, WA where young Ponderosa pines are growing in what appears to be nearly or actually year-round standing water, along a stream. Every time I see them I expect they will be dead, but as of my last visit they remained un-phased - and making pretty good annual progress. I should take a picture, as it is somewhat remarkable seeing this very drought tolerant tree growing in the manner of a bald cypress.

This appears to be a planting, however Kent is also one of the west-side communities that has native Ponderosa pines. Some of the sites I have seen these have common camas growing in the meadows between the trees, indicating seasonal wetness. Western buttercup too, if I remember correctly.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2014 at 10:36PM
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It'd be interesting to see how those waterlogged trees do over the long term, as mycorrhizal association under those conditions would be nearly impossible. Kind of like the native oaks that people plant in their lawns, and then proceed to water five days a week every summer. They look great for the first 15 years and suddenly fall over 10 or 15 years later.

Then again, it's possible that the I-5 corridor form of Ponderosa is much more resistant to root diseases and, thus, less reliant on symbiotic fungi for protection.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2014 at 11:54PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

In the Puget Trough Pinus contorta is basically a wetland indicator. I've stood in a stand east of Everett, WA where the winter high water mark on the trunks was well above my head. Associated species included Sitka spruce and red-twig dogwood.

The same species can have marked differences in functioning within different parts of its range. For instance, Sambucus canadensis in the northern part of its range requires cold exposure for germination and in the southern part does not.

Garry oak has no particular apparent soil or precipitation requirement, one of the largest WA examples I have been on hand to see measured was in one or two feet of mud - in some locations it can be seen mixed with Oregon ash in swamps. Annual rainfall totals throughout its range go from 13 in. to 103 in. What it does need is lack of competition and shading from other trees.

Soil flora and fauna in all these different habitats must vary considerably. And of course ubiquitous local species such as Douglas fir must be growing under a very wide range of combinations, including which mycorrhizal fungi are present. So maybe Ponderosa pine is somehow able to function where the fungi that would be present in dry-lands are not represented.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2014 at 1:59AM
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Garry oak is replaced by Valley oak at the north end of the Sacramento Valley (and then Engelmann oak in SoCal and into Mexico). My guess is that the former can handle low rainfall, but needs at least a little humidity in the summer. Sacramento falls within its rainfall range, but is just way too dry in the summer. Either that, or Q. garryana's tap root isn't as effective as Q. lobata's.

That is a little shocking to hear that Garry oak can grow for that long in standing water, though. I never would've guessed that.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2014 at 11:15AM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

I didn't remember it right: the precipitation range is less than 7 in. to 103 in.

It produces a deep taproot.

Here is a link that might be useful: Oregon White Oak

    Bookmark   March 18, 2014 at 2:19PM
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That's pretty amazing. Despite that, it doesn't appear to tolerate long dry seasons. Note that its range in CA is restricted to the far northern part of the state and the Sierras. Unlike Q. lobata, it will have problems in drought years in places like Bakersfield.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2014 at 2:54PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

When you get down into the western half of northern California it is hotter than Hell in the summer (100's F.) even near the coast, the outermost, hyper-maritime coastal climate being the only one that stays cool. Near Bakersfield is where the folks pulled the Suburban + travel trailer off beside a busy road during one of our family trips when I was a child, and we went into the trailer and took naps until later in the day - it being too hot to drive any farther at that time.

Natural tree distributions reflect conditions over longer periods of time than we think of when planting trees, that is why many of them can be grown to full size outside of their native ranges.

Yet may still be just visiting, until a severe weather episode or pest outbreak/disease epidemic terminates their stay.

During the 1990 winter coast redwoods, Oregon myrtles and tan oaks all scorched in this area, showing a reason why these do not occur north of southern Oregon as wild trees.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2014 at 10:24PM
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