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Perennials for planting in dry soils and beneath tree canopies

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by PerennialPower • Thursday April 13, 2017

Are you faced with having to find the right plants for a location with dry soil? Fortunately, there are many beautiful perennials that will thrive in the most difficult spots – even beneath tree canopies.

Soil near the trunks of trees is often dry and very shady. In these situations, you have a choice of many perennials that will enhance the look of these areas. For a tree surrounded by paving material, for example, reserve space around the trunk and fill it with perennials. You might even want the leaf colour of the perennial to complement that of the tree. What about combining a perennial with yellow-green foliage (Origanum vulgare ‘Thumble’s Variety’) beneath a Cigar tree (Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’) with leaves of the same colour? Good plants for locations beneath a tree canopy include Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla), Crane’s bill (Geranium cantabrigiense ‘Cambridge’) and Comfrey (Symphytum grandiflorum). If the soil is dry but not bone dry, Bistort (Persicaria bistorta‘Superba’) would be a good choice. Evergreen perennials for these conditions include Barrenwort (Epimedium x perralchicum ‘Frohnleiten’), Crane’s bill (Geranium macrorrhizum), Bergenia, Lilyturf (Liriope muscari), Greater periwinkle (Vinca major) and Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis). Flower bulbs also make a beautiful addition.

Did you know that…

  • covering the area beneath the canopy of a street tree with densely planted perennials is safer than using grass or shrubs? After all, mowing the grass can damage the tree’s trunk, and hoeing around shrubs can damage its roots.
  • essentially nothing – including perennials – will grow under some trees like beech and wingnut?



The largest component of soil in a dry garden is sand. Unlike clay, sand is made up of larger particles with gaps between them so water will drain through and the soil will dry out quickly. To create an attractive planting here, choosing the right perennials is essential. Mediterranean plants actually prefer a sunny spot with dry soil over normal garden soil. Good examples are Yellow camomile (Anthemis tinctoria), Red valerian (Centranthus ruber), Catnip (Nepeta), Globe thistle (Echinops), Baby’s breath (Gypsophila) and Yucca. Some plants are even suitable for spots that are both dry and shady. Examples are the wintergreen Turkish wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides ssp. robbiae), Italian arum (Arum italicum), Bergenia, Spotted deadnettle (Lamium maculatum), Crane’s bill (Geranium macrorrhizum) and Barrenwort (Epimedium x perralchicum ‘Frohnleiten’).


Autumn is an excellent time of year to plant perennials in dry soil. September in particular is when perennials exhibit their strongest growth. This time of cool temperatures and usually substantial rainfall will benefit root development for a better chance of survival. For vigorous growth, it is advisable to provide fertiliser every year. Just after planting a young tree is a good time to plant perennials around its trunk. This way, the tree and the perennials can mature together. When planting perennials around an older tree, care must be taken not to damage the tree’s roots. For this reason, carefully loosen the soil around the tree and use vertically vining perennials such as Clematis (Clematis jouiana ‘Praecox’).


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  • Lexi M. Lexi M. Hello, I'm a certified arborist and an employee of Texas A&M Forest Service for over 19 years. The recent article about perennials for dry soils under trees is not in the best interest of trees. Extra soil and /or mulch should never be planted next to tree trunks because it holds moisture next to the bark, leading to rot, decay, disease and insect damage.

    Gardening around the trunks of trees often drastically shortens the lifespan of the trees. Nothing should be planted over the root flare, and any mulch beyond that should never be more than 2-3" deep over the rest of the root system.

    My point is that gardening shouldn't be killing trees. Please provide information that will improve the overall health and beauty of yards and gardens, including the trees in them. Please do not encourage people to use gardening practices that damage, weaken and kill trees.
    Friday April 14, 2017 at 16:53
  • Lis B. Lis B. Thank you for that information. We were considering Hostas around our trees but now we'll just leave the grass there which has been there for years. I do see Hosta plants around trees a lot in other gardens and wonder now about the life of the tree.
    Monday June 19, 2017 at 16:04

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