14 Best Plants To Plant Under Your Pine Tree

Pine tree forest with lush understory

It can be difficult to downright impossible to grow certain plants under the canopy of pine trees. Grasses struggle and end up wilting away, plants look sickly and fade to dried-up husks of regret, so is there anything you can plant under pine trees? 

Pine trees have many roots that compete fiercely for water and nutrients, making it difficult to plant under them. The best plants that can thrive under a pine tree include bleeding hearts, astilbe, hostas, creeping phlox, daylilies, ferns, wild ginger, daffodils, gardenia, azaleas, and hydrangeas.

You won’t have to amend the soil or fight the acidity that is caused by pine needles (that’s actually a myth by the way, and we will discuss that soon) to get plants to grow under pine trees. Keep reading and we will offer the best plants you can plant under your pine tree!

Just to add – when you shop using links from Tree Journey, we may earn affiliate commissions if you make a purchase. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.

Let’s Dispel The Myth Of Acidic Pine Needles

We’ve all been told that pine needles are the bane of a gardener’s existence because of the extreme acid they contain and how they contaminate the soil. I believed it for most of my gardening life as well, but it has recently been revealed that it’s actually a myth. 

Yes, pine needles are acidic…while they are attached to the tree, and that may be where this misinformation started. According to the Oregon State University, fresh, attached pine needles contain a pH between 3.2-3.8, which is pretty acidic. Neutral pH on the scale is 7.0. When the pine needles break down, the acid is broken down as well and will not alter soil pH.

But once pine needles drop, the acidity in them begins to decrease as well. By the time the needles are brown and dried out the acidity is nearly gone, and while they are being broken down into organic matter, microbes further reduce the acidity in them.

So go ahead and mulch with pine needles. They are a great, renewable resource that helps to hold in moisture and reduce weeds and they add nourishment to the soil as they break down.

Needles Don’t Cause Acidic Soil Under Pine Trees

You did a soil test under your pine tree and it was proven to be acidic, so it must be true that the needles altered the pH of the soil. Pine trees do better in acidic soil so they will seek out what they need.

If pine seeds drop into an area of basic soil, chances are they won’t germinate, or if they do, the tree won’t grow well and may eventually pass.

Pine trees will start in an area of already acidic soil, so they don’t have to change the pH level themselves. Besides, as the needles fall and break down, the acidity inside them gets altered, so it would really be difficult to lower the pH with the needles.

Trying to change the acidity in the soil with pine needles would be like trying to change the color of the Amazon river by dropping in a few bottles of food coloring. In theory, it could happen, but it would take a ton of coloring and many years.

In essence, the soil around pine trees is acidic because that’s the way it was when the tree started. Why then, is it so hard to plant anything underneath pine trees?

Pine Trees Are Greedy For Nutrients

Pine tree growing small male cones

The reason most plants won’t grow underneath pine trees is because the area is low in nutrients, stays very shady, and is typically very dry. Not to mention, if you don’t regularly rake the needles out, they form a natural barrier to keep weeds and other plants from establishing themselves.

The roots of pine trees are quite greedy and will quickly soak up any water and nutrients that actually makes it through the thick canopy. This brings us to another reason nothing will grow under pine trees.

The needles are perfect for diverting rainwater out to the drip edge of the tree. In a thick canopy, very little water will actually make it down to the ground. Many plants can’t survive in such a dry environment.

When searching for plants that can grow under pine trees you need to look for plants that are shade loving, and drought tolerant. They also need to have shallow roots that won’t compete with pine tree roots. That’s a tall order, but there are a lot of plants that actually fit the bill.

You may notice that your pine will stop growing at some time in it’s life. In many cases, the main reason for your pine to stop growing is because it is competing with other plants.

Best Plants To Grow Under Your Pine Tree

Turf grasses have a hard time underneath most trees because of the shade, and they typically require a lot of water to keep them healthy. While it can be possible to grow certain types under pines, constant watering can have adverse effects on the pine tree.

Pine trees, once they have established themselves, are drought tolerant and typically don’t need extra water. In fact, too much watering can lead to root fungus and root rot which can be fatal to them.

Bleeding Hearts

Hardiness Zones2 – 8
Bloom TimeEarly spring
Average Size3’ by 4’
Water NeedsKeep moist by adding mulch

Bleeding hearts are shade loving herbaceous plants that put on a pink or red show of heart-shaped flowers with white drops at the bottom. Making them look like their namesake. They bloom in early spring and start dying back in summer.

When all color has been drained out of them, you can cut back the dried, woody stems. Bleeding hearts are perennials so they will return year after year. You can add other plants that will start to bloom after bleeding hearts start to wilt such as astilbe and hostas.

If you’re looking for Pink Bleeding Hearts, you can get them here!

Astilbe

Bright pink flowers of astilbe among green leaves. Selective focus
Hardiness Zones3 – 9
Bloom TimeSpring to summer
Average Size3’ by 3’
Water NeedsRegular watering, but some varieties are more drought tolerant

These perennials are favorites for shade gardens. With their clusters of tiny flowers rising up to look like fuzzy peaks, and the contrasting dark green foliage, what’s not to love about astilbe?

These flowers eventually clump together and will need to be separated every three to four years. They like acidic soil but will need some extra watering to keep them healthy. Pine needle mulch will help keep the soil moist and add extra nutrients for happy astilbe.

These flowers show up in late spring and tend to stick around until mid to late summer and attract butterflies. Deadheading does not encourage new flowers, so it’s best to leave them until the entire plant has died back.

Though they prefer shady areas, for the best flower blooms they do need some early sunlight, approximately two hours worth. Flowers show up better after the second year’s growth, so don’t get discouraged if the first year of astilbe growth looks a little lacking.

For an assortment of this shade-loving plant, check out this Mixed Astilbe Value Bag!

Hostas

Hardiness Zones3 – 9
Bloom TimeSummer
Average SizeVaries
Water NeedsMinimal once established

Hostas are rock stars of the plant world once they are established and as long as they don’t get a lot of direct sunlight. They mound up with attractive foliage ranging from colors of white, yellow, bright green, blue, or variegated.

In the summer they send up stalks of bell-shaped flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. They will die back in late fall or early winter when the temperatures drop. Then they come back bigger and better next year.

You’ll eventually need to thin hostas out because they will constantly spread out and crowd themselves out, but this is easily done.

Hostas need damp soil until they are established, then they become drought resistant and nearly carefree. You’ll only need to cut them back when the foliage all turns brown to prevent fungal infections.

If you’d like to get started growing, check out these Mixed Hosta Perennials (6 Pack of Bare Roots)!

Creeping Phlox

Hardiness Zones3 -9
Bloom TimeMid to late spring
Average Size5” by 2’
Water NeedsMinimal

Creeping phlox is a ground cover that explodes with a profusion of small flowers in spring. These fragrant flowers attract a plethora of butterflies and honeybees that will be happy you planted them.

Phlox is native to the eastern United States and is especially prolific in the Appalachian mountains. It is a spreading plant that stays low to the ground and requires very little maintenance and little water to stay happy.

Depending on how severe your winters are, phlox can often keep some of the green colors all year long, making it an appealing choice for ground cover.

For live phlox plants check out, Purple Beauty Creeping Phlox. Though this one has purple flowers, there are several different varieties available here!

Daylilies

A couple of bright vibrant yellow in full bloom daylilies growing in a cluster alongside the road on a sunny day in summer
Hardiness Zones4 – 9
Bloom TimeSummer to fall
Average Size2’ by 3’
Water NeedsMinimal once established

Daylilies are another extremely hardy plant that can withstand most soil types and can grow well in full sun to mostly shade. They are drought tolerant and they come in nearly every color and combination you can think of except blue—insert sad, frowny face here.

Daylilies start sending out spikes of green foliage in early spring, and start to bloom in summer. After the flowers have come and gone, the mounding long, green leaves continue until winter.

They prefer rich soil and average humidity, but they are amazingly adaptive and will grow almost anywhere. They will multiply rapidly and will need to be separated every few years or so, but with just a few starter plants you can soon have daylilies all over your yard.

They attract butterflies, and rabbits don’t seem to care for them. There aren’t many pests that bother them, and the amazing array of colors available will really accent the previously barren area underneath your pine trees.

You can get started with mounds of low-maintenance daylilies here with this Yellow Daylily Stella De Oro!

Ferns

Hardiness Zones2 – 8
Bloom TimeNo flowers
Average Size4” to 3’ by 1’ to 4’
Water NeedsMoist soil

There are many different types of ferns that are hardy for outdoor applications. Some are even evergreen, but some of the best that will grow under the dry canopies of pine trees include the common oak fern, and Lady fern.

They both are drought tolerant, and will grow well in acidic soils. The lady fern will grow up to three feet tall in most shade gardens. It is a slow-growing deciduous fern that drops its leaves after the first frost.

The lady fern will grow and spread, though it will take some time for it to really branch out. It’s an attractive ground cover that will grow well underneath pine trees, especially with a rich, loamy soil.

The oak fern is smaller than the lady fern but accentuates other plants underneath your pine tree. Ferns tend to need more moisture than most other plants that we have on this list, but with a good mulch and organic soil mixed in, they should grow well and offer a beautiful, feathery foliage show.

Wild Ginger

Hardiness Zones3 – 7
Bloom TimeSpring to summer
Average Size6” tall, spreads
Water NeedsDrought tolerant

Wild ginger works great in slightly acidic soil under plenty of shade. It’s a spreading ground cover that produces thick heart, or kidney shaped leaves. They don’t grow well from seed, but the rhizomes can be split and easily propagated.

Wild ginger does produce small, hard to see flowers that attract butterflies. While you won’t plant it for showy flowers, it is a great, low-growing ground cover that will work well underneath the thick canopy of pine trees.

Daffodils/Jonquils

Hardiness Zones4 – 8
Bloom TimeSpring
Average Size6” to 12” by 6” to 30”
Water NeedsDrought tolerant

Daffodils work the best along the edge of the dripline because they do better with more sun. If you are planting a multi-season garden underneath your pine tree, these early bloomers will be a great, vibrant start.

Daffodils, or jonquils as they are sometimes called, are easy to grow flowers that return year after year. About all you need to do with them is plant them and let them do their thing. There are not many animals that will eat them because they are mildly poisonous if consumed.

During the growing season, they may need a little bit of water, but after they are established, there is little care that daffodils require. After a few years you’ll need to separate some of the clumps to keep them healthy and spreading, but about all you’ll need to do to keep them happy.

Get an early start to spring color with this bunch of Daffodil Bulbs for Spring Planting – 25 Bulbs.

Dwarf Crested Irises

Hardiness Zones4 – 10
Bloom TimeMid spring
Average Size6” by 12”
Water NeedsDrought resistant

These irises can create a great spring and summer ground cover. They produce thin, long leaves and rounded stalks with bright blue flowers in spring. They spread easily via rhizomes, but are not invasive.

They can grow in almost any soil pH as long as it’s not extremely basic or acidic. They prefer sun but will still acclimate and do well in shady areas. They don’t produce deep roots so there won’t be much competition between them and pine trees for water and nutrition.

Dwarf crested irises don’t need much water after they are established, but they do well with a layer of mulch after they are placed. Separate them to keep them healthy, and to spread these irises to other areas.

If irises sound like the flowers you’d like to plant under your pine trees check out this 5 Dwarf Crested Iris.

White Trillium 

White trillium growing under a tree
Hardiness Zones4 – 8
Bloom TimeMid spring to summer
Average Size1’ by 2’
Water NeedsHumid soil

Trilliums grow upright and will eventually spread slowly if left on their own. They produce showy, white, three-petaled leaves amid bold green foliage. The trillium will produce one flower per stalk and then it produces a seed capsule.

They don’t have many pests that bother them. They are not needy flowers and will grow well in shade, light drought, and go dormant in mid to late summer.

Ground covers like creeping phlox and wild ginger are great companion plants because the ground covers will fill in around trilliums while they grow taller and produce bigger blooms. 

Trilliums can withstand the acidic soil that pine trees seem to cherish, and they look great. If you’d like, you can get started with these 5 White Trillium Bulbs!

Gardenia

Hardiness Zones7 – 11
Bloom TimeSpring to summer
Average Size3’ by 4’ (dwarf gardenia)
Water NeedsHumid

If you’re looking for an evergreen shrub to accent your evergreen pine tree, then gardenias might be what you’re looking for. They can be small shrubs, or some can be large trees, so before you purchase them to plant underneath your pine trees, make sure you have the dwarf variety.

In spring through summer gardenias produce very fragrant, brilliantly white flowers. They love acidic soils just like pine trees, so these two plants should get along pretty well.

Gardenias don’t do well in colder climates as they are a tropical plant, and they have higher water needs. In the dry summer months to keep them healthy, gardenias do well with a light misting.

They can handle shade well, especially in very hot climates. To keep your gardenia blooming for as long as possible, remove brown, dried up flowers. Get Southern Living ScentAmazing, Gardenia shrubs here to get started growing under your pine trees.

Azaleas

Hardiness Zones3 – 9
Bloom TimeSpring to summer
Average Size3’ by 3’ to 6’
Water NeedsDrought tolerant

Azalea bushes are acid loving little shrubs that produce bright, showy flowers in mid spring, and sometimes in autumn depending on the variety. They don’t do well in full so planting them underneath pine trees is a great way to keep them healthy.

They prefer a soil that is at least 6.0 on the pH scale and need a moist bed. Mulching them with the accumulated pine needles that drop is a great way to keep the soil moist for azaleas.

The roots on azaleas are shallow so they won’t compete too much with pine trees for moisture and nutrients. As long as they are not left in full sun, and have plenty of acidic soil, azaleas will be great companion plants for your pine trees.

When pruning azaleas it’s recommended to keep the pruning light. Heavy pruning of azaleas can affect flower production for a few years. Since they are slow-growing bushes, and pruning can mess up flower production, most people just let azaleas grow how they wish.

Add some Encore Azalea Autumn Royalty with low growing bulbs for a beautiful landscape under your pine tree.

Hydrangeas

Hardiness Zones3 – 9
Bloom TimeSummer to fall
Average Size3’ by 3’
Water NeedsMoist soil

Hydrangeas are easy to grow, full, lush shrubs with mounds of flowers and bright, big leaves. They can grow in nearly any soil type and the flowers come in colors such as blue, pink, green, white, red, or purple.

In the summer hydrangeas produce big, puffy balls of papery-looking flowers that attract butterflies. They can make great show pieces or be grouped together to make mounding borders.

To keep them blooming through the fall, cut off the flower clusters. You don’t have to wait until they are drying up either. You can cut off vibrant stalks of flowers to keep inside as a centerpiece until it dries up.

The hydrangea will continue to pump out more flowers. Just be mindful of cutting them into the fall as you don’t want new growth getting hit with a frost.

The only trimming needed for these shrubs is to cut back dead wood. When stalks are dried out, hollow shafts cut them back to keep the bush healthy.

With a few early spring blooming flowers, hydrangeas, and ground cover plants, your pine trees will be a gorgeous showpiece all season long.

Lily Of The Valley

Beautiful muguet on the spring sun, macro view
Hardiness Zones3 – 8
Bloom TimeSpring
Average Size12” by 12”
Water NeedsMoist

Lily of the valley is nearly a perfect plant to situate under your pine trees. It loves full shade, especially in hotter climates, grows well with acidic soil, and will spread readily when these conditions are met.

Many gardeners will plant these lilies under trees and areas where it’s difficult to grow other plants. They only need to be planted about six inches in the ground so they won’t disturb your pine tree’s roots.

Once this plant is established it needs little care. Just make sure it doesn’t dry out and you won’t have to do much else except spread out heavy clumps of them for better health.

Lily of the valley grows so well in some places that it is considered invasive. The European version is considered an invasive species in the midwest U.S. so keep this in mind when planting them. They will do great underneath your pine trees, but they might also do too well in the rest of your landscape.

If you want to plant some bulbs and forget about them, try out these 4 Sweet Dutch Lily of The Valley Perennial Flower Bulbs. They will spread out and cover that barren shady patch in no time.

What About Raised Beds Under Pine Trees?

Some homeowners have taken to building raised beds around the bottom of their trees with reasonable success. While these look great and seem to offer a perfect solution, raised beds are likely shortening the life of the tree. 

Adding in raised beds or even covering the ground with several inches of soil can smother the tree’s roots. A tree sets out their roots at a certain depth for a reason; it’s best for the tree for ultimate survival. When you alter that environment, it can be detrimental to the tree.

A tree has shallow or deep roots because that’s where it grows the best. When you add raised beds, heavy rocks or pavers, or add more soil to cover the exposed roots, you could be limiting airflow to the roots.

Sometimes when you are growing a pine in a container or bed, it will have special soil requirements. Learn more in our article on the 5 best soils for pine trees in containers!

The tree can grow new roots farther out to make up for that, because Mother Nature has a way of surviving, but these new roots could actually weaken the tree. Weak trees are vectors for insect invasions and illnesses, thus shortening the lives of the trees in the long run.

Don’t Plant Too Close To The Pine Tree’s Trunk

You want to disturb the tree’s roots as little as possible, and the area directly at the base of the tree is considered a “no plant zone.” It’s best not to plant anything until you are three to four feet away from the trunk of the tree.

Planting too close under the trunk of your tree can cause root issues, and can even lead to your tree rotting. In these cases, you may have to cut down your pine.

It’s best to just mulch out from the base of the trunk, but don’t let soil additions or mulch actually touch the bark at the base of the tree. Leave a good six inches at least from the base of the tree open, then mulch three to four feet out.

The reason being is the tree’s bark isn’t equipped to handle the extra moisture or able to fight off fungus like the roots are.

The pine needles that fall every year are a great way to mulch your pine trees. It’s natural, looks good, and you don’t have to go out and buy anything extra. You can also use these needles to mulch around your new plants as well to help keep the soil moist for those plants that need extra water, without making the soil too wet for the pine tree.

The University of New Hampshire offers a list of benefits to pine needle mulch including, its breathability, it doesn’t compact like wood mulch, the pine needles don’t wash out from heavy rain, they’re free, and help keep soil temperatures cool. 

If you are more interested in what type of plants don’t go well with pine trees. You should check out our article about 23 plants not to grow under a pine tree!

That’s All For Now!

If you have pine trees in your yard, don’t despair because it seems nothing will grow underneath them. You just need to find plants that prefer shade over bright sun, can handle some acidity, and don’t have to compete with the pine tree for water and nutrients.

You can use ground covers like creeping phlox, flower bulbs like daffodils, or lily of the valley, or small acidic loving shady plants like hydrangeas or azaleas. With a little bit of work, the barren soil under your pine trees will be lush, colorful, and vibrant.

References

Coutts, M. P., and J. J. Philipson. “TOLERANCE OF TREE ROOTS TO WATERLOGGING: I. SURVIVAL OF SITKA SPRUCE AND LODGEPOLE PINE.” New Phytologist 80.1 (1978): 63-69.

Abdul Halim, Nur Sa’adah, et al. “Influence of soil amendments on the growth and yield of rice in acidic soil.” Agronomy 8.9 (2018): 165.

Cochran, Diana R., and Amy Fulcher. “Type and rate of plant growth regulator influence vegetative, floral growth, and quality of Little Lime™ hydrangea.” HortTechnology 23.3 (2013): 306-311.

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