I love our little patch of North Carolina woods–They give us cooling shade in summer,  lovely colors in fall.  In winter, they cast long,  interesting shadows, and in  spring–there hundreds of blooms  before the trees fully leaf out. 

But planting in the woods can be tricky.  Competition makes it hard.  And not  just  competition for sunlight– In my garden,  tree roots are the bigger problem. 

Mats of tree roots drink up water and soil nutrients--

Here’s how I cope with them and plant shrubs that love living under trees.

1) Dig a 10 dollar hole,  as my daddy used to say.  This is a good rule for any planting–sun or shade.  Make the hole bigger than you think it should be.  And don’t tunnel to China.  Plant roots grow out so wider is more important than deep when you’re digging a hole.  

My assistant, Tralee Ramsey, jumps in to enlarge the planting hole--

She loves to dig as much as I do--

2)A good shovel should hack through roots. If they’re too big for that, you  better find another spot.  Also, avoid planting under mature maples, river birch, beech and hickory trees.  They literally choke out the competition with their thirsty surface roots. 

A good shovel hacks through these roots--If they were much bigger, I'd find a new spot

3) Keep hungry tree roots at bay for a few months by lining the hole with newspaper.  I learned this trick from my favorite shade gardening book, Making the Most of Shade (Hodgson)   By the time the newspaper breaks down, the plant is over transplant shock–the roots are growing  again.

I'm always recycling my N&O in the garden. I also use layers of it under mulch.

4) Set the plant a little  higher than the sides of the hole.  Few plants like wet feet–for many it’s a death sentence– and  your plants will settle a little after planting. 

4) Backfill with good soil.  I often amend the planting soil with  compost or pine bark soil conditioner but all the experts DON’T agree with this step since it discourages roots from breaking out of the hole.   If the native soil looks good enough (not clay) I put it back in. 

5) Tamp the plant down with your  foot to settle it, then water slowly and deeply.  My father used to “mud” his plants in, refilling the hole half way, then filling it water.  Once the water drained, the rest of the soil went in and he watered again. 

Don't skimp on the water--now or later

6)  Don’t forget your plant.  It takes two summers for a shrub to settle in so plan for extra watering.  Funny, how it never rains enough.

A final tip:  If you can’t dig down, go up.  I planted these shrubs under a thirsty willow oak by building a bed out of recycled cardboard, rocks and soil.  The plants have thrived for three years and by the time the cardboard “floor” of the bed decomposes, they should be established enough to make it on their own. 

Planted on cardboard, surrounded by top soil and stones--these shrubs have grown under a big oak for three years

Here are some shrubs and trees I’m planting in the woods this week.

Pink Dogwood “Satomi”, Carolina Siverbell Tree, Burkwood Virburnum, Sparkleberry Holly, and Camellias.   I do love woodland shrubs.