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  1. could you recommend plants for under limbed up conifers? we get early and late sun. we have cedar and fir. I would like color from leaf or bloom in addition to green. I would like to have magical woodland effect

    1. Hi Kay, Thanks for asking this question. I think your situation is a common one especially here in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, this will be a topic on my radio show fairly soon. Dry soil under Douglas Firs is a common enough problem, but compounded with Cedar (I am assuming here that you are talking about Western Red Cedar) it becomes a real challenge. In its native habitat Western Red Cedar grows in a wide range of conditions, but it grows to its best, most glorious proportions in boggy soils (riparian habitats), so in a garden situation you can imagine that they will suck up every bit of moisture that they can reach.

      You may have to adjust your expectations a bit. You may not be able to exactly recreate that magical woodland effect you are looking for, but there are things you can do.

      Imagine the forest. Most of the understory wildflowers bloom in spring, when moisture levels are high and there is more available light. So you will have the best success with spring bloomers. Plants that grow from bulbs or tubers, like Trilliums or Fawn Lilies (Erythronium), even Narcissus,should do especially well, going dormant when the seasons change and the soil is dry. Plant them in groups or drifts for best effect.

      If you can dig out pockets of soil and amend that soil deeply with compost you can plant right into those holes. The down side is that it also an invitation for the tree roots to aim right for the newly prepared soil and quickly fill it with roots. So you will have to keep at it. Our NW native Sword Fern is one of the hardiest, foolproof, lush plants for this situation. Hostas, some ferns, some Epimediums, Hellebores, Solomon Seal (Polygonatum), Fairy Bells (Disporum), Liriope, Cyclamen, Gladwin Iris ( Iris foetidissima), and Fringecup (Tellima grandiflora) are some that have done well for me under these conditions. Just remember not to plant too close to the base of the trees, and keep the plants watered to give them a fighting chance to get established before the tree roots rush in. Know that this is also somewhat experimental to see what will do well under your particular conditions. You may be surprised.

      Some good groundcovers to try are our native Bleeding Heart (Dicentra Formosa), Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum), or Oxalis oregano. Geranium macrorrhizum (Bigroot Geranium) is drought tolerant and evergreen, and the leaves are wonderfully fragrant. Omphalodes verna, (Blue-eyed Mary, Navelwort) in the Borage family, has charming bright blue flowers and is a great low growing cover for spring bulbs. If you just want to cover space, trailing groundcovers like Vinca minor or Lamium should work well.

      Just remember not to plant too close to the base of the trees, plant as close to the drip line as you can, and mulch, mulch, mulch. Use compost, leaves, and the needles that fall from the conifers. As it breaks down, it will continue to make the soil healthier and eventually give you the soil that will support the plants you want to grow, and provide a nice loose root run for the shallower rooted groundcovers. You are aiming to emulate the loose forest duff, and remember, nobody ever rakes up the forest floor !

      Or you could just place some big rocks and/or downed branches from the forest, covered with moss and lichen, under the conifers. Plant some Sword Ferns, and Trilliums or Fawn Lilies around them, and use a natural mulch. It is simple solution, but lovely and picturesque, especially in the winter, when the moss turns bright luscious green in the moisture laden air, and it doesn’t need any watering!

      If you want continuous reliable summer color, try planting up some containers of partial shade loving flowers, place them among the plantings, and don’t forget to water them.

      I hope this give you some ideas!