Landscape Design

Designing Underneath a Shade Tree


The Arbor Day Foundation approached me about designing several plant combinations that their members and fans could use to create plantings of aesthetic interest and which provide function in the landscape.  Over the next few months I will be sharing information behind these plant combinations and how they can be used as “do  it yourself landscape designs”.  Previously I outlined the Hedgerow Bird Shelter, aka the Bird Magnet planting.  Let’s now explore the Shade Tree Planting. 

Shade Tree Planting

While working on the design for the Shade Tree Planting, the primary goal was to produce an attractive planting that could be installed below a mature shade tree.  Often times the area below a mature shade tree becomes problematic for the homeowner due to the canopy of the  mature tree shading out the turf below as well as the trees surface roots sometimes becoming unattractive.  The Shade Tree Planting is designed to be installed below the canopy of a mature shade tree and offer months of flowering interest. 

These shrubs in this plant combination will provide cover where turf will not grow and will aid in discussing unattractive surface root.  Additionally, these shrubs will benefit from the trees leaves in the fall of the year.  It is recommended that the shed leaves be allowed to remain below the tree as the decomposition of these leaves provides nutrients for the shrubs included in the Shade Tree Planting. The plants provided in the Shade Tree Planting thrive in such shady conditions as below mature trees.


Included Species:

3 – Forsythia

3 – Blue Hydrangea

5 – White Mollis Hybrid Azalea

Hardiness Zone: 6-8

Sun Exposure: Shade

Space needed: Area below a mature shade tree



The Shade Tree Planting consists of the 11 shrubs installed around the base of a mature shade tree.  Some adjustments may need to be made to the provided layout plan based on locations of tree roots as damage to the trees roots should be avoided when the planting is installed.  The Forsythia and the Blue Hydrangea are recommended to be installed at 7’ on center.  The White Mollis Hybrid Azalea are recommended to be installed at 4’ on center.  Refer to the layout plan for additional information on the recommended layout pattern for the Shade Tree Planting.

Design Principal:

The Forsythia is a fast growing shrub with early blooming yellow flowers.  Forsythia is one of the first shrubs to bloom and signals springs arrival each year as it comes alive with brilliant yellow flowers.  Forsythia is sure to set the mood for the coming spring and is a great addition to any garden. 

The Blue Hydrangea is a late blooming flowering shrub with giant clusters of blue flowers from 8 to 15 inches across.  The blue bloom is a welcome color in the garden as it is naturally complimentary to the green foliage colors of the summer garden and blue is a fairly rare bloom color so it seems to warrant added attention in the landscape.


White Mollis Hybrid Azalea offers clusters of white spring blossoms and will bloom between the Forsythia and the Blue Hydrangea.  White is an especially great color for shady areas such as below a mature shade tree as white blooms seem to somehow glow in shaded locations.  The White Mollis Hybrid Azalea is sure to become a favorite of any gardner who chooses it.

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  • Reply Robert Smith July 29, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    I’m pleased to see the forsythia shown in the photo has been allowed to grow in a natural shape and form. So often these beautiful shrubs are overpruned and even sheared losing their graceful shape.

    That said, I always like to take a few early forsythia cuttings to force in water indoors to see the yellow flowers. Forsythia blossoms in late winter remind me of the promise that summer is soon coming. However, hot July days like this one make me wish that winter was already here.

    Anyway…thanks for sharing the design.

  • Reply Bruno Chicoine August 3, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    This is awesome!!
    I strongly beleive that shrubs should be planted around every shade to avoid trunk, bark and/or roots injuries from lawn-mowing, that reduce health and growth. I am glad somebody took the time to share this concept is such a comprehensive way, and suggests shrubs species that are shade tolerant and present colourfull blooming.

    Well done Ben, thanks for sharing.

  • Reply John Kutska August 3, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    This looks like an interesting concept but upon further investigation all three shrubs list full sun as one of the requirements. Will they survive in the shade of a shade tree? Also how do you did holes large enough to plant the shrubs with all the root of the tree, without damaging the tree?

  • Reply Becky August 4, 2010 at 8:04 am

    I think it is wonderful that you are suggesting design and the type of bushes to be planted under a shade tree, where the area can be such a problem. Your suggestion of bushes however are for zones 6-8. Do you have any suggestions for zones 3-4? The forsythia grows fine in this area, and we do have Hydrangea but they need to be protected here…not out in the open and Azaleas do not do well.

    Thank you,

  • Reply Janice August 4, 2010 at 8:08 am

    if the Forsythia is a shade lover …why did you put a picture of it right out in the sun ??It is very confusing to a new gardner.
    Thank you

  • Reply Carla August 4, 2010 at 10:59 am


    The forsythia, blue hydrangea, and mollis hybrid azalea are all tolerant of light shade. The density of the tree’s canopy will need to be considered when choosing which shrubs or perennials to plant.

    Planting smaller bareroot or container plants is recommended, even if they will grow to a larger mature size. This way the holes you will need to dig will be much smaller disturbing tree roots as little as possible.

    Remove any turfgrass under the tree by hand or carefully with a garden fork. You can then use a hand trowel to dig the holes for the shrubs. If you encounter a large root, you will want to alter your plan and move the planting hole so as not to disturb the root. Disturbing small, fibrous roots will not be detrimental to the tree. Be sure to water the planting area and any other disturbed soil well so the new shrub and the tree’s roots do not dry out.

  • Reply Ada August 4, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Just wanted to add that some plants listed for full sun can die in Texas hot weather. I have planted some under some shade and they do a lot better.
    Thanks and Regards,

  • Reply Cristy Abbott August 4, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    When designing for mature trees remember to include dynamic accumulators to bring nutrients back up to the surface. Include bulbs at the dripline. Keep the area heavily mulched and rich with composting active life. Live soil is always a plus to a green or colorful canopy.

  • Reply Jim August 4, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    what do you recommend for zone 9 ?

  • Reply Diane August 5, 2010 at 8:14 am

    One important thing left out is that you should leave everything but the planting holes undisturbed and to stay away from the trunk of the tree.

  • Reply E Newkirk August 5, 2010 at 8:33 am

    I appreciate your craft and I am certain I will enjoy this layout.

    If I might suggest adding a method to save this or like articles to my computer.

    Thank you

  • Reply Jim August 5, 2010 at 10:44 am

    Jim where do you live in zone 9? Think of the differences between zone 9 in south Florida versus zone 9 in Arizona. One has to consider rainfall, soil, light exposure, drainage and other siting factors.

  • Reply Jim August 8, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    Zone 9- San antonio,tx

  • Reply Robert Smith August 9, 2010 at 11:42 am

    Jim…Click on this link and you will find a list of South Texas native species including trees, shrubs & perennials.

    This would be a useful tool to help plan a similar design appropriate for your property.

  • Reply Medeana July 30, 2011 at 3:46 am

    Shade trees are good additions to a yard, and can save up to 25% on your energy bill. But, you will end up with heavier moss and debris in the gutters. just something to be aware of. Roof moss is bad for your roof shingles, so you should treat the moss to make sure the accumulation doesn’t shorten your roof life.

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