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growing under Thuja

I have a large Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata, I think!) under which grow a few weeds but not much else. I would like to find a low maintenance solution for the ground that won’t do any harm to it. Ground cover? Pea gravel? I worry that the shallow root system can be easily smothered so that adding soil and plants is not a good idea, plus the roots are a dense mat and difficult to dig through. Do you have any ideas or suggestions? What native plants might grow under the tree and how can I get them established?


As you’ve realized, Western red cedars have a dense mat of roots close to the surface. It’s not a good idea to add soil on top of the roots of trees because their root flare should remain above the soil — and even if you did, the roots of cedars would spread into that soil in a short period of time. It’s also important to keep in mind that under natural conditions the ground beneath Thuja plicata is usually bare of other plants.

If the area beneath your tree isn’t in deep shade and has at least some sun, you could plant spring ephemerals, including bulbs. They emerge in spring when the soil has plenty of moisture, then most die back before our summer droughts. They’re not difficult to plant under large trees because you don’t need to dig a large hole for seeds, bulbs, or small bare-root perennials. Good choices are Anemone blanda, Aquilegia (Columbine), Corydalis lutea, Crocus, Galanthus (snowdrops), Iris reticulata, and various kinds of Narcissus, including daffodils. Most tulips are not long-lived in our area. Hardy Cyclamen emerge and flower at other times of the year, but they’re also an excellent choice. Unfortunately, most of these plants are summer-dormant, when you’ll probably be out in your garden, and some self-seed prolifically under ideal conditions. A valuable resource, available for checkout at the Miller Library, is Planting the Dry Shade Garden, by Graham Rice (2011). Some of the plants he recommends will require regular watering under cedars.

Another option, also feasible if your area has some sun, is to plant our native Western sword fern (Polystichum munitum). It’s evergreen, so has a presence all year, and is the most sun and drought tolerant of our native ferns. I have a 60 foot red cedar in my garden, and have successfully maintained sword ferns beneath it in partly sunny areas, but not in deep shade, where they’ve died out. However, because they won’t survive our summer droughts in nature under these conditions, I’ve needed to water them about every 3 weeks in order to keep them alive. I’ve planted fairly small plants and watered them more often than that during their first year. If your soil is very sandy, sword ferns might not do well.

If you require a reliably showy solution, staging large planters planted with annuals or perennials, shrubs and/or trees might be best. The plants you choose will depend upon how much sun the area receives. Of course, they’ll need to be watered regularly, but large planters don’t need watering as often as small ones. If your hose-bib is not too far away, installing drip irrigation on a timer will ensure that your plants survive when you’re away from home.