What Plants Will Grow Under Evergreen Trees?

Ideas for Planting Under Those Problematic Pine Trees

Ophiopogon plants growing under evergreens.
Species of Ophiopogon grow well under evergreens. Topic Images Inc./Getty Images

Many people new to gardening wonder, "What plants will grow under evergreen trees?" Perhaps they have tried grass there and had the grass die on them. Perhaps they have replaced the grass with various kinds of flowers, only to be similarly disappointed.

One reader wrote in to report just such a problem. "I have a 50 to 60 foot tall evergreen tree in my yard and all my grass is dead because of it," she wrote. "I thought about reseeding my yard this spring, but I don't want to lose it every year." While you are limited in your planting choices in such an area, there are some plants that will get the job done.

Why Most Plants Perform Poorly Under Big Evergreen Trees

Planting under evergreen trees such as eastern white pines is challenging, in part, due to soil acidity. But it is not enough to find plants that grow in acidic soils. That is because big evergreen trees also out-compete what is growing under them for water and cast a lot of shade. So your plant selections must also be shade-tolerant and capable of withstanding dry conditions. If you have your heart set on grass, try tall fescue grass (Festuca arundinacea). But many people find this type of grass to be weedy-looking. More attractive alternatives can be found among the flowering ground covers.

Ground Covers That Come to the Rescue

Another reader had some great solutions to the problem of planting in such an area, which were presented roughly as follows (while Hosta is better-known as a foliage plant, some types, such as H. Plantaginea, do bear nice flowers):

"I have found that hostas grow well under evergreen trees. I have two evergreen trees in my front yard, side by side. When I moved in, there was mostly a thick pile of needles. Now I have a lovely display of many varieties of hostas covering the whole area, complemented by wild violets. The violets are very prolific, so they need to be thinned out regularly, or else they will swallow up the smaller types of hosta plants. Plant the taller hostas in the back and the shorter varieties in front. Or, if the planting area can be seen from more than one side, put the taller hostas in the center, and plant the shorter ones around the outside."
"I also have some Liriope spicata planted next to the taller hostas on one end, to add variety, under my evergreens. I have the yellow-edge-with-green-center variety, with purple, poker-like flowers. I grow the variety with a white edge and green center, too.
"Some varieties of hosta love shade and some are hybrids, developed for sunny locations. So I was careful to look for the shade-loving kinds when buying. Liriope does well in both sun and shade and is almost as prolific as the wild violets (Viola sororia)."

Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), which has white flowers and fragrant foliage, ​also grows well under a large evergreen tree, as do species of OphiopogonVinca vine (Vinca minor) is valued for its glossy leaves and blue flowers. Vinca, however, can be invasive, so weigh this factor into your decision to grow it. Another plant so tough that it can survive these conditions (at the cost of being potentially invasive) is lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis). It offers white, bell-shaped flowers that are very fragrant.