Gardening Under Redwoods: Dealing With Dry Shade, Acidic Soil, and Root Competition

Humboldt County’s known for its majestic redwoods, and many of the gardens that I design and care for have a few towering specimens setting the scene. But lovely though they are, gardening under redwoods presents some serious challenges.

Shade

For one, redwood trees cast some fairly dense shade. This isn’t such an issue if you only have one or two, but if you’ve got a bank of redwoods, it can be hard to grow your usual landscaping plants in that area. The solution to this is to STOP PLANTING ROSES under your redwoods. Seriously, incongruity anyone? Do some meditations about your attachment to certain types of plant, and go plant those things someplace else if you have to have them. Don’t hack at your redwoods in the vain hope that if you “let in enough light”, your roses will thrive there. I am very sorry, but they won’t. Embrace what you’ve got (the rest of the world envies you!) and move forward.

Leaf litter and acid soil

The next issue with planting under redwoods is that their leaves (I call them redwood feathers) fall thick and fast, and acidify the soil as they break down. This presents two challenges, the obvious acidic soil (which some plants actually love), and then the issue of raking all that stuff out of your plants so they aren’t weighted down and overwhelmed by all that leafy business falling on their heads. The best way to handle the leaf litter issue is to avoid plants with delicate foliage. Plants with leathery leaves or some sturdy structure to them handle this type of situation best. You can also go for shade-loving ornamental grasses, which are easily raked, or ferns, which seem to gather leaf litter in the center of their foliage, so it’s easy to clean them out once a year. You can make the acidic soil a non-issue as well, by planting things that love it. Most ornamental grasses, ferns, and redwood forest natives love acidic soil and are used to it, so you won’t have to continually fight nature to have a lush, happy garden.

Root competition

Redwoods have a lot of roots. So when you go to plant something new, your baby little plants have trouble competing against a great big happy tree, exuberantly sucking up all the moisture. The best ways to handle this are by topdressing with a good quantity of compost when you plant, then adding wood chip mulch to further help keep moisture in. This gives your new plants some easy areas to put down roots so they can get established. Drip irrigation is a really great idea to help your plants get going, too, because it applies water exactly where your new plants need it, and you can put it on a timer so even if you’re busy, your baby plants won’t be forgotten.

So, what to plant under redwoods?

I’ve gardened under the redwoods for many years now, and have taken lots of photos documenting how a wide variety of plants have done under a number of circumstances. The good news is, there are a number of truly gorgeous plants that will thrive and be thrilled to grow in these settings. The bad news is, most of what you get in a garden center simply won’t live in this setting. I definitely encourage you to try new things (and tell me what works!), but don’t be discouraged or think you’re a bad gardener if a lot of it doesn’t work. Redwoods are gorgeous, but acidic soil, shade, and dryness is a tough trio of things to grow in, so I’d advise putting in a foundation of plants sure to do well, then experimenting with new things here and there around the edges. Here are the plants I’ve found most likely to succeed under redwoods:
native iris Dryopteris erythrosora (3) Polystichum polyblepharum leaf
IMG_8753 Anah Kruschke from STG IMG_0157
RhododendronBlackSport IMG_2784 IMG_4554
IMG_4230 native Douglas iris Acorus gramineus 'Ogon' - Golden Variegated Sweet Flag Grass
Top row: Douglas iris hybrid (Iris douglasiana), autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora), tassel fern (Polystichum polyblepharum) Second row: redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana), Anah Kruschke rhododendron (RhododendronAnah Kruschke‘), Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’). Third row: Black Sport rhododendron (RhododendronBlack Sport‘), black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’), Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) Bottom row: redwood violet (Viola sempervirens), Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana), golden sweet flag (Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’) Pacific bleeding hearts

The toughest plants, for closer to the redwood’s base:

Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) Deer fern (Blechnum spicant) Salal (Gaultheria shallon) Redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana) Redwood violet (Viola sempervirens)

Plants that will enjoy life 10 feet from a redwood’s base:

California wax myrtle (Myrica californica) Rhododendrons for tough conditions Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) Flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) Five finger fern (Adiantum aleuticum) Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) Golden sweet flag (Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’) Pacific bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) (they have a delicate appearance, but thrive among redwood feathers just fine) Wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) Douglas iris (Iris douglasii) Black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) The redwoods give Humboldt County and areas of the Pacific Northwest their regional character, so if you have redwoods in your garden, revel in their beauty, and aim for plants that you know will thrive. What do you think? Have you had luck with any other plants under the redwoods, or do you garden in similarly challenging conditions? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

  1. jody doss says

    Great article, thanks! I live in an old house in the North Bay Area with three groups of redwoods that are about 90 years of age. When I lived in Humboldt County for many years, one of my favorite sites in late spring was a Climbing Mlle. Cecile Brunner rose growing forty feet or so up the south side of an old redwood, in Arcata Community Forest, right in the heart of the park. I loved it so much, I repeated the performance here in my garden. I think it’s the only way to grow Mlle. Cecile Brunner! I hardly water it now that it is ten years in the ground, planted about twelve feet from the tree’s base. Right now it is in full bloom and the scent makes me feel like I’m in Eden.

    I also have a few other, older types of roses on the south edge of redwoods, specifically Bourbons and Hybrid Perpetuals. I haven’t had luck with Rhododendrons, but I see I’ve been choosing the wrong kinds. Now I know what to look for! There is a native Hawthorn tree well under the shade of some of our redwoods that volunteered there. I never water it, so I’m sure anyone could grow Hawthorn under a sequoia.

    • says

      Oh, awesome! Yeah, gotta love those giant Cecile Brunners. Almost as epic as the redwoods, in their way.

      Thanks for the tip on which roses seem most able to handle the acidic soil near redwoods. Older roses are lovely. I see so many straggly, horrible ones around here that it does color my judgment of what they can take, but the old varieties are so much tougher, and in my opinion, more beautiful than the newer, more disease-prone hybrids.

  2. says

    Yeah, redwoods are very tough, especially if, like me, you live in an area where they don’t naturally grow. My neighbor and I have water all through the dry season to prevent the tree from getting sick. I agree with your plant choices. I’m also doing OK with hellebores, ginger lily, clivia, and climbing hydrangia (not in deep shade, but under the redwoods. At the edge, I’m trying to grow blueberries, it’s sort of working out. And I have Salvia cacaliifolia at the edge as well.

    BTW, my soil is naturally alkaline and even after 30 years of “leaf” litter from the redwoods it’s barely over to neutral. Maybe in another 30 it will start getting acidic. So, as always, you mileage will vary. Great post!

    • says

      Rockin! I just started a few climbing hydrangeas under some redwoods (not too-too close, but close enough), so I’m glad to hear you’re having some success. I think for them, success will be all about the water and mulch.
      I’ve had mixed luck with Hellebores. Great success with H. argutifolius, somewhat less with orientalis, though I think the distance from the trunk and amount of compost added is key.
      Why haven’t I thought of Clivia? That seems to thematically “go” with redwoods. Sort of a jungly woodland tropical thing.

  3. says

    How about a list of veggies that can handle the acid soil a all those leaves. I don’t have redwoods, but I do have Oaks. They are also a big problem.

    • says

      Oh dear. Blueberries like acid soil, but not shade or root competition. Huckleberries and Ribes both produce fruit. But honestly, I’d do your veggie gardening someplace besides under redwoods or an oak. Even if that means containers in another part of your property. I’m no expert on veggies though, so maybe your local agricultural extension will have some better ideas? You could also try Ask Garden Girl:
      https://www.facebook.com/AskGardenGirl?sk=wall
      Good luck!

  4. gina says

    I only have one Redwood (that I planted), but I do have several large Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedars that are also very thirsty trees. Most of the trees are on the North side of my lot, so some places I have bright sun, and other places are shady under the trees. : ) So far, my favorite shrub to fit the bill is Symphoricarpos albus, Common Snowberry. For shade, I’m also loving Oxalis, Cyclamen hederifolium, Oregon Grape, Evergreen Huckleberry, and Salal. In the sunny dry areas I use Nodding Onion and Cascade Penstemon. It is so nice to not need excessive water for these plants! I only water a few times in August when there is zero rain and 90+ temps.

  5. says

    Awww… if this was only out when I was a student up there at Humboldt State! Lived under the Redwoods many a time! My time seemed a bit away from landscape gardening in those days! Loved the Rhododendrons of Eureka and Ferndale…not quite under the Redwoods…but thriving like none I’ve ever seen!

  6. says

    Great post! Good information for those who live under our native Douglas Firs. I especially like the Pacific Bleeding Hearts. They make great companions for shade loving dwarf conifers also planted under the giants.

  7. be root says

    hi
    iam glad to see this article, though way later than it was posted-
    i can say i have been working on this for 7 years now, what to, and what not to grow under and around redwoods,
    i have a row of redwoods which blocks us from the freeway and the eastern side of the row i have planted a tapestry hedge,
    all definitely within ten feet from the trunks of the redwoods.
    i will list the plants that seem to be doing well under there, though they do get a couple of hours of morning sun, though being in arcata, there may not be sun sometimes:
    some native/ some not native
    crinodendron
    black lace elderberry
    black elderberry
    azara ( andean golden saw toothed)
    a friendly pittosporum
    prolific and not trimmed camelia( like them more wild looking)
    purple hop bush
    wax myrtle
    port orford cedar
    oregon grape
    pieris
    rhodies ( though have other things around it and keeping it all dense due to their sometimes stragliness)
    azaleas
    elkhorn cedar
    flowering currant( pink i think)
    hydrangeas
    big leaf maple

    other things behind it tend to do fine with very little light, calal lily,
    acanthus,
    hmm
    im sure a few more-
    anyway, growing directly under has been quite the experience and frustrating most of the time.
    just give em love and let em grow.
    move things around if need be, experiment.
    peace

    • says

      Be Root, thank you so much for your contribution. I will definitely find it useful myself, and I know that other readers will as well. I would never have thought to plant an Azara, so that is a very neat tip. Same with Crinodendron and black elderberries. Thank you so very much for taking the time to post this very helpful comment. -Gen

  8. Heather says

    Glad to see your article, it’s got a lot of great information! I moved into my home located east of San Francisco less than a year ago which came with two large redwood trees that were poorly placed in the middle of the front yard. I’ve been struggling to know what to plant under them. Is there any type of grass that can survive under redwood trees? Would you recommend that? We had a gardner tell us that there are grasses that are shade loving and drought resistant that could work. We’d also toyed with the idea of doing a drip system, forgoing the grass and doing mulch and putting plants that would thrive under redwoods. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

  9. Jim says

    Thanks so very much for the original article and for the ongoing discussion. I’ve read it and re-read it over the past couple of years as I planted small areas under redwoods. We bought a tiny cottage, very much in need of TLC, in Sonoma about 2 years ago. The yard included 2 remaining plantings of redwoods probably about 60 years old. Because each of the areas consists of only 1 or 2 trees, the areas underneath are actually fairly open, moving in and out of bright sun throughout the day. The new plantings rely substantially on Salal and Huckleberry; because they receive considerable sun, I’m expecting them to stay relatively low. Their companions include oxalis oregona (white flowered form), sword fern, rhododendrons yakushimanum and pachysanthum, inside-out flower (vancouveria hexandra—love the foliage on this), white flowered hybrids of western bleeding heart, salal relatives gaultherias hookerii, miqueliana, and numlaroides minuta. The edges of the “redwood zones” are defined by hakonechloas. It’s still a very young planting, of course, but, so far, everyone is growing well together. Again, thanks so much for the article.

  10. Patrick O'Connor says

    Love your article and especially the gritty part about admonishing people to “…do a meditation about…” LOL!! LUV!! I am a landscape designer in Southern California and I will simply have to borrow this expression for when I really need to get through to clients about what can and cannot be done (or what I simply refuse to do).
    Plant spec is exactly what I had in mind. Another GREAT GREAT GREAT Iris for California and more readily available than Douglasiana, is Iris ‘Nada’, lilting leaves and white flowers great for shade and acid.
    Best,
    Patrick

  11. eventually says

    So happy to find this article. I live in portland Or, with a 100+ yr old giant sequoia in the rear corner of the yard (straddling 3 properties). This week, a trim/lift pruner went a little crazy, and suddenly our privacy screen to the adjacent house is gone, and I have a newly visible barren corner of nothing but fence and trunk! I need to get some plantings in there stat! I need some height to obscure, and hopefully grow taller than, the fence- planning on at least one of your recommended tough rhodies- (probably van nes sensation because I am crazy for anything fragrant). Will also try some of the suggested iris, and encourage the sorrel already growing nearby to spread into the newly exposed area. Autumn and ostrich fern spontaneously show up all over the rest of the garden.. now I will move them back here.

    Question- since this area has been nothing but sequoia duff (and occasional raccoon poop) for the last 40 years or more, will I need to amend the “soil”, or is it already wild acidic heaven for these plants?

    Thank you for any insight you might have!

    • says

      I might add a layer of compost if the soil doesn’t seem hospitable. You could do a small 3″ layer of compost, or even up to 10″ of compost/ topsoil mix if you don’t cover the trunk of the tree. You don’t necessarily need to work it in, either – maybe scuff up the soil surface just a bit to break up any potential surface tension barrier, but digging too much might just damage roots. Good luck!

  12. Gilbert says

    Great article and site, overall, thanks Genevieve. I have viewed several list identifying what will grow under redwoods and as a landscape architect and hiker that has been on most areas of the north coast states thinks this list is of what would be best to grow under them, without stretching the envelope. I have/had a ribes speciosum about 8′ from the base of a redwood in my front yard that recently died from what I thought was excessive water from a broken sprinkler (initially broke what I was away for an extended time) in the lawn (sorry). Initially portions of the plant that were directly sprayed started to die, and then the whole plant. This just happened over the last couple weeks so I’m going to try and cut it back and see what happens….ANY THOGHTS???

  13. Christine says

    Thank you for your article. In my past, I have not had time to enjoy gardening. But I now do. So, with 21 redwood trees on my property, I am excited to learn of the many beautiful plants that enjoy growing under or near redwoods. Thanks to all for sharing your knowledge.

  14. Lisa says

    Anyone have any luck with Kiwi vines? Ours are going crazy in the back garden and growing up into the scraggly 65 foot redwood behind the house in Marin. They are about 12 feet from the redwood and seem to be thriving in the filtered shade/sun of its branches.

  15. Lanethea says

    I have a beautiful redwood tree growing on my front lawn in Allentown, PA. It’s about 1 to 20 years old I think (but I don’t have complete information). I’m looking for something to grow here in PA in the shade under my Redwood and most of the ground coverings discussed here are native to the West coast; I could use some advice about planting something here in PA that would work well. Any suggestions?

  16. says

    Thanks so much for this informative article. I have redwood trees on both sides of my home in the Oakland Hills. I have lost so many plants due to the droppings, acidic soil and shade. Now I have a list of plants I will take with me to the nursery.

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