My house faces west and I have a huge maple (I think it’s a Norway maple) in my front yard that shades out what would be the front lawn. The tree roots are very dense and I am having a hard time gardening under it. I would like to replace the lawn with some type of groundcover (low maintenance) and add ornamental and evergreen shrubs as well. Any plant suggestions for this situation?
I appreciate your frustration with the Norway maple (Acer platanoides). A popular neighborhood tree for their dense shade, they also consume great quantities of soil nutrients and water with their heavy-duty surface roots.
You can’t change the nature of the tree, so call a truce on trying to garden directly under it. Make sure any soil buildup or mulch is removed from the tree base and the “knee” where the trunk curves to meet the soil. This smothers the tree’s ability to absorb water and nutrients and fosters trunk and root decay. It also provides a hiding place for detrimental pests and fungal spores.
Rethink your gardening to begin at least 8 to 10 feet out from the trunk of the tree. Since surface roots gradually spread apart as they radiate from the trunk, you can amend the soil in the “pockets” between the roots to accommodate low maintenance plants. By moving substantially away from the trunk, you can also create areas of low berms to give some interest and elevation to your plantings. Remember once the canopy is leafed out, you have predominantly dry shade. This is important when selecting plant material.
Consider variegated and silver leaves when picking evergreen groundcovers and perennials as they brighten up heavy shade. Look for plants that bloom at different seasons. Planting several groups of early-blooming crocus bulbs will give spring interest before the canopy has filled in. However, you can intersperse other shade-tolerant groundcovers such as winter creeper (Euonymus fortunei ‘Silver Queen’), wintergreen (Gaultheria) with its red berries, and lilyturf (Liriope). There are short ornamental grasses, like hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra), blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) and blue fescue (Festuca amethystina) with desirable colors and textures. There are a few spreading and low-mounding yews and junipers that a reputable nursery can point out to you. Also consider a hardscape element such as a bench or birdbath to give focus and interest to the heavy shade. There are also a number of shade-loving perennials that will have room to grow if you bring your bed out to the maple’s drip line. By doing so, you will open up your gardening options and plant selection.