Planting under a magnolia tree

(Question)

We live in Toronto and recently moved into a new home with a gorgeous magnolia tree. The only thing currently growing under it are grape hyacinths – the previous owners had covered the whole area under the tree with small pebbles. We would like to plant something low growing and not necessarily flowering – just green is ok. Can you suggest anything that would be suitable and would not interfere with this gorgeous tree. Many thanks!

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(Answer)

How fortunate you are to have such a lovely Magnolia specimen.  Some trees are less amenable than others to having their network of close-to-the-surface roots disturbed, and Magnolias don’t particularly appreciate such disturbance, so you will need to take care when you are under-planting your tree. Experts recommend that you use small plants in small holes, which will reduce soil disturbance, and begin your planting several inches away from the trunk of the tree, which will avoid damage to the trunk.  When you are digging, you may well encounter roots, and if you do, try another spot rather than severing tree roots.   The preservation of your tree’s health should be one of your first considerations.  In your case, you will need to remove the pebbles and likely amend the soil before beginning to plant.  Here is a very good article that discusses the importance of soil preparation under trees and ongoing maintenance practices.

What to plant? Perennials are preferred since once they are established their roots and the tree’s roots should happily coexist – annuals would of course need to be replanted every year.  The Toronto Master Gardeners’ Gardening Guide to perennials for shade, here,  may give you some ideas.  This may be a process of trial and error as you find plants that thrive.   Your existing grape hyacinths will be lovely in the spring, and could be joined by low spreaders such as bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) or the shade-loving Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis) and/or taller ferns or hostas – all of these options have lovely foliage.