Ground cover for under maples, sheared conifers

By Scott Aker
Thursday, November 19, 2009

Q: I have three maples -- two silver, one red -- and want to find a perennial ground cover for their beds. I would like to use epimediums. Are there any varieties that would thrive under the trees?

A: Although all epimedium species are adapted to some shade, some are better than others at putting up with drought and competition from tree roots. Epimedium alpinum and E. pinnatum subspecies colchicum (and the variety Thunderbolt, selected from this species) are good choices for the dry shade and intense root competition found under maples. The species have been hybridized to produce cultivars such as Frohnleiten and Orangekoenigen (often sold as Orange Queen) that are adaptable to dry shade. You should be able to grow these under either species of maple.

Work some organic matter into the soil before planting, maintain a mulch of fallen leaves and water the plants periodically, at least in their first two years as they become established.

I hired some workers to weed and mulch my garden. They sheared the bottom halves off my blue spruce and my arborvitae. I am devastated. I am almost certain the bottoms will never grow back. The trees are about 17 years old. What can I plant beneath them to cover up the emptiness? The site is partly sunny. New plantings would have to be somewhat low-maintenance.

As you suspected, there is nothing you can do to grow back the missing branches. You can reduce the visual impact by bending existing branches downward to fill the void. Tie a brick or other weight to the middle of each branch that you select for this. After a year or two, the branches will have developed a new ring of wood that will keep them in their new position, and the weights can be removed.

You could also plant dwarf counterparts of the damaged conifers to fill the space. Montgomery blue spruce and Hetz Midget arborvitae come to mind.

Another option would be to remove more of the trees' branches or lower foliage to give them a picturesque form reminiscent of the style of pruning found in Japanese gardens, and you could incorporate ornamental grasses and flowering shrubs around these plants to create a lovely informal composition.

Scott Aker is a horticulturist at the U.S. National Arboretum.

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