Spruce trees are stately evergreen trees that can be a cornerstone of your yard. However, it can be difficult to landscape beneath these towering giants. But not impossible! There are plenty of shrubs and flowers that can thrive in the dappled shade of your spruce tree.
The best plants to plant under your spruce tree should be non-invasive and tolerate both shade and acidic soils. These plants include hostas, Christmas ferns, rhododendrons, hydrangea, Virginia bluebell, bergenia, periwinkle, and Lily of the valley.
Below, we’ll go over the BEST plants to plant under your spruce tree. We’ll also go over some of the challenges you might face while landscaping beneath your spruce.
Can You Grow Plants Under Your Spruce Tree?
Depending on the species of your spruce tree, you may have a 30-foot evergreen in your yard or a 100-foot evergreen. Some are pyramidal while others are cone-shaped.
No matter what spruce tree species you have in your yard, you can count on a few challenges to face when planting below them:
- Shade: Unless you have a dwarf variety such as the Dwarf Alberta spruce, your spruce tree is going to cast a lot of shade beneath it. This can be challenging for plants that need full sun. Instead, you’ll want to look for plants that can tolerate shade.
- Nitrogen deficiency: Spruce trees require a lot of nitrogen to thrive. It’s the most important mineral for spruce trees. Look for a flowering plant that has minimal nutrient requirements, or at the very least fewer nitrogen requirements.
- Acidic soil: According to a study in the Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research found that when compared to ash, beech, elm, hornbeam, and oak trees, spruce trees generate the most acidic soil. So, not only do you need a plant that tolerates shade, but you also need one that tolerates acidic soil!
- Water availability: Spruce trees may be big, but they do not have deep roots. Instead, most spruce tree roots are just below the surface, sucking up all the water that your little landscape plant needs. Try looking for a drought-tolerant plant, or be ready to water your plants often.
Putting it all together, you need a plant that can tolerate shade, acidic soils, dry conditions, and requires minimal nutrients.
Do these plants exist?
Absolutely! There are tons of available plants that fit this bill. You won’t have as much of a variety to choose from as you would for a sunny site with good soil conditions, but you have choices.
How To Grow Plants Under Your Spruce Tree
We discussed some of the challenges you’ll face when choosing a plant for the space beneath your spruce tree. As we said, it’s not impossible! But it can be challenging.
One of the ways to make sure your plants thrive beneath your spruce tree is to give them extra care and to choose the right location.
Choose The Right Location For Your Plants
Spruce trees do not have a deep root system. Before you plant your beautiful hydrangeas or hostas, scope out where the surface roots of your spruce tree are.
When you dig a hole to place your plants, you don’t want to dig into your spruce tree’s roots. This is especially true if the spruce tree is on the younger side and still establishing itself.
Pick a space that is free of roots and can be easily dug into. If possible, remove any rocks from the soil as these can block your plant from establishing its roots.
It doesn’t hurt to dig deeper than your plant requires and loosen the soil up a bit. This will help your new plant’s roots grow into the soil more easily.
Another way to make sure you’re choosing the correct site is to scope out the areas under your spruce tree that receives light. There are bound to be a few specks where sunlight seeps through the branches at certain times of the day.
Plant your landscape plants in these locations so that they can receive sunlight and can implement photosynthesis, which is what feeds a plant.
Give Your Plants Enough Nutrients
When you plant something next to or beneath another plant, those two plants are going to compete for water and nutrients.
A little fern plant doesn’t stand a chance against a full-grown spruce tree. Because of this, you’ll want to make sure your plants are getting enough nutrients.
Nitrogen is likely to be the most displaced nutrient under a spruce tree. You can solve this problem by using a complete fertilizer like Miracle-Gro Water Soluble All Purpose Plant Food.
This product has an NPK ratio of 24-8-16 meaning 24% nitrogen, 8% phosphorous, and 16% potassium. These are the three nutrients that plants need the most. And with higher nitrogen content, your plants are sure to get what they need despite your spruce being a nitrogen hog.
Of course, this is a general fertilizer that isn’t specific to any one type of deficiency. If you want to narrow it down, get a soil test done to tell you exactly what nutrients your soil is missing, including both macro and micro-nutrients. This will also establish the PH of your soil.
Give Your Plants Enough Water
Once a spruce tree is established, it rarely needs water or fertilizer. You can pretty much just let your spruce do its spruce thing and it will thrive.
But if you decide to plant something beneath your spruce tree, the plant may need a little extra help since it is competing against your spruce tree for resources.
You’ll want to water your plants according to their specific watering needs. Remember, spruce trees have somewhat shallow roots and will suck all the water up before your plant does.
9 Best Plants To Plant Under Your Spruce Tree
Now that you know the best location, the best nutrients, and the best watering schedule your plant needs, let’s check out the actual plants that can live in this semi-challenging environment.
The plants on our list will have a few attributes that will make them thrive beneath your spruce tree:
We’ll go over each plant and some of the care requirements so you can be sure they will be happy growing in the shade of your spruce tree.
We put hostas first on our list because these perennial plants can survive pretty much anything. They thrive in shade but can tolerate the sun, there are plenty of varieties, and they’re not picky about soil type.
You can buy hostas as potted plants from a garden center or purchase bare-root plants online. The leaves range in color from yellow and gold to green and bluish. They sprout pretty flowers in the summer that unfortunately do not last long.
According to the University of Minnesota, hostas will benefit from deep but infrequent watering. They need about 1 inch of water per week but should be left alone if heavy rains come through.
The biggest problem associated with hostas is deer browsing. Those cute white-tailed critters will chow down on hostas. Luckily, you can learn about how to use cayenne pepper to repel deer here.
Hostas thrive well in hardiness zones 3 through 9, allowing many homeowners the opportunity to grow these beautiful plants.
Water: Equivalent to 1 inch of rainwater per week. Hostas do not appreciate soggy soil (and neither will your spruce tree).
Sun: dappled shade
Flowering: Flowers in summer or early fall. Flowers last about three weeks.
If you have a larger spruce tree with hostas, you can take a look at our recommended best spruce tree fertilizers here!
Rhododendrons are another perennial plant that will thrive beneath your spruce tree. They come in many varieties, some of which grow quite large, so make sure to get a variety that will fit beneath your spruce.
According to Clemson University, rhododendrons thrive beneath pines. The dropped needles provide rhododendrons with plenty of nutrients to keep them happy and healthy.
Rhododendrons grow best in slightly acidic soil that has good drainage. They’ll thrive in hardiness zones 4 through 8 and can be purchased in pots from a local garden center.
Because there are so many varieties of rhododendrons, it’s best to pick a variety that is somewhat native to your region. The plant will already be accustomed to the soil, weather, and temperature fluctuations.
Water: Rhododendrons should be watered so that the top 8 inches are moist. Allow the soil to dry before watering again.
Sun: Dappled shade
Flowering: Depending on the species and the environment, rhododendrons will bloom brilliantly colored flowers in spring or summer.
Periwinkles are an excellent choice to plant beneath your spruce tree. They are considered a ground cover plant, meaning they will spread to cover the ground around them.
These evergreen plants can sprout colorful flowers of white, purple, or blue. The small periwinkle plants will reach a height of around 6 inches while larger varieties can reach up to 2 feet high.
Periwinkles prefer acidic soil and partial shade, but the more sun they get, the more flowers they produce. They’ll thrive in hardiness zones 4 through 8.
When these plants are first being established, you’ll need to weed the area around them. Once they are established, they’ll throw too much shade for weeds to grow. Bonus!
One thing you’ll want to watch out for with periwinkles is their ability to grow FAST. A single plant can cover an 8-foot area. They are not considered invasive, but they will certainly spread fast beneath your spruce tree.
Water: Once periwinkles are established, they are quite drought-tolerant and should do just fine with natural rainwater, even when it’s sparse. Water during droughts and when the plant is first getting established.
Sun: Periwinkles prefer partial shade, so they will do great beneath your spruce tree.
Flowering: You can expect periwinkle-colored flowers to bloom in April or May. Depending on the weather, they may bloom again in fall.
Lily Of The Valley
Lily of the Valley is a perennial plant that is, weirdly enough, related to asparagus. Its native origin isn’t certain, with some listing North America and others listing Europe and Asia.
Either way, it’s a great choice for a shade plant to place beneath your spruce tree. Lily of the Valley produces dainty white flowers and is considered a ground cover plant just like periwinkle.
Lily of the Valley thrives in hardiness zones 3 through 9. According to North Carolina State University, Lily of the Valley has few pests and is deer and rabbit resistant.
These pretty plants are also drought-tolerant and require little maintenance, making them perfect to place under your spruce tree.
Water: Water Lily of the Valley only when the soil is dry to the touch. Once established, they should not need additional watering unless there is a drought.
Sun: Dappled shade
Flowering: Lily of the Valley will bloom in late spring through summer.
Christmas ferns are evergreen plants that love the shade. They may not bloom pretty flowers like periwinkle or Lily of the Valley, but these little plants stay green all year, just like your spruce!
You can plant Christmas ferns with other flowers that are more colorful to give the landscape beneath your spruce some color in the spring and summer.
If not, you can enjoy the dark green and shiny foliage of your Christmas fern all year long on its own.
Christmas ferns thrive down to hardiness zone 3 and will remain green through winter, although the snow can weigh down the fronds, giving your fern a sad appearance until the snow melts and the leaves bounce back up.
Highly adaptive, Christmas ferns can thrive in wet or dry soil, neutral or acidic PH, and require no pruning.
Water: Christmas ferns prefer the soil to be moist but not soggy. The fallen needles of your spruce tree will help retain moisture, keeping your fern happy.
Sun: Partial shade to full shade.
Flowering: According to the University of Maryland, Christmas ferns will bloom in late spring, but the flowers are inconspicuous and located at the tips of the leaves.
Similar to rhododendrons, hydrangeas come in a variety of different cultivars to fit specific landscape needs. For example, mountain hydrangeas do great in shady conditions, but panicle hydrangeas thrive in full sun.
Make sure to get the correct variety to plant beneath your spruce tree. You’ll want one that does good in dappled shade, but you also need a hydrangea plant that won’t grow too tall.
You can expect hydrangeas to bloom beautiful big flowers in spring or summer, depending on the variety. Hydrangeas vary in their hardiness. Mountain hydrangeas thrive in hardiness zones 6 through 9.
One downside to hydrangeas is that they require pruning each year. The University of Illinois has a good explanation about telling the difference between hydrangeas that bloom on new wood versus old wood, and how/when to prune them.
Water: Hydrangeas require plenty of moisture. Be sure to water them once a week unless heavy rains occur.
Sun: Mountain hydrangeas do well in partial shade such as beneath your spruce tree.
Flowering: Mountain hydrangeas will bloom from June through the first frost. Other hydrangea varieties may bloom in early spring.
Virginia bluebells are perennial flowers that bloom bright and fast in mid-spring. They will go dormant in the summer, but make a great companion plant to hostas and ferns that can take over in the summer and fall.
Virginia Bluebells may be difficult to find at garden centers, but if you can grab one it’s worth it! These pretty flowers are tolerant of shade and do well with organically-rich soil, which is what you’ll find beneath your spruce tree.
These delicate plants thrive in hardiness zones 3 through 9. It is native to North America and produces trumpet-like flowers that are, as the name suggests, blue.
Water: Virginia bluebells prefer moist soil, so keep the soil wet in the spring. Once summer rolls around and the plant goes dormant, you can stop watering.
Sun: Partial to full shade.
Flowering: You can expect Virginia Bluebells to bloom in mid-spring.
Bergenia is a perennial, evergreen ground cover plant. Like many of the plants on our list, it will tolerate shade and does just fine in acidic soil.
These evergreen plants grow to about a foot in height and are considered slow-growing so you don’t have to worry about them taking over the space beneath your spruce tree.
Bergenia are drought-tolerant and require minimal nutrients and care. They are also resistant to disease and pests and thrive in hardiness zones 3 through 8.
According to Cornell University, the leaves of Bergenia will turn red and bronze in the fall, so even after the flowers have stopped blooming, you can still get some color out of this plant!
Water: Bergenias prefer moist soil. Similar to Virginia Bluebells, it’s best to keep the soil moist but not soggy.
Sun: Deep shade to full sun.
Flowering: Bergenias will bloom in the spring, typically from March through May.
Alternatives To Acid-Loving Shade Plants
If none of the plants on our list are particularly alluring, you have other options to plant beneath your spruce tree.
Instead of planting an acid-loving shade plant, consider planting ANY shade plant in a pot and burying it in the soil beneath your spruce tree.
Some of the easiest shade plants you can grow in a pot include:
- Sweet Alyssum
- Fuchsia (consider hanging this one beneath your spruce tree!)
Simply plant your shade-loving flowers in a pot with soil that is more to their liking. In most cases, a typical potting soil like Wonder Soil Organic Potting Soil will do just fine and will provide a more neutral PH as opposed to the acidic soil likely to be beneath your spruce tree.
Next, create a hole beneath your spruce tree and place the entire pot into the hole. Bury any evidence of the pot and suddenly you have shade plants that can’t tolerate acid growing beneath your spruce tree!
If any of your neighbors have a green thumb, don’t be surprised when they stop over to ask how you managed it!
Now, after all this you have a small blue spruce tree (or another smaller spruce) – you can take a look at our guide on how to keep a spruce tree small. However, I’m assuming you’ve got a decent sized tree if you want to put plants underneath!
Having a spruce tree in your yard can add some color during the drab winter season. Its evergreen needles are sure to breathe life back into your yard after everything else has gone dormant.
So, while your spruce tree is doing its thing in the wintertime, what about the spring and summer? You’re sure to add some color and style to your spruce tree by planting something beneath it that will bloom in beautiful colors.
The plants below your spruce tree must be tolerant of both shade and acidic soil.
Now for a quick recap –
The 9 best plants to plant under your spruce tree include:
- Lily of the Valley
- Christmas Fern
- Virginia Bluebell
All of these plants thrive in shaded conditions and don’t mind acidic soil. Additionally, these plants require little care and won’t steal all your spruce tree’s nutrients and water.
Another option is to plant shade-tolerant plants in pots and bury the pots in the soil beneath your spruce tree. This way, you can have your favorite shade plants even if they can’t tolerate acidic soil.
If you have other questions about landscape trees, shrubs, and flowers, you can find the answer here at Tree Journey!
If you have a blue spruce tree, check out our simple tips and tricks getting it more blue!
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Oostra, S., Majdi, H., & Olsson, M. (2007, February 18). Impact of tree species on soil carbon stocks and soil acidity in southern Sweden. Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research, 21(5), 364-371. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02827580600950172
Puhe, J. (2003, March 03). Growth and development of the root system of Norway spruce (Picea abies) in forest stand – a review. Forest Ecology and Management, 175(1-3), 253-273. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0378112702001342
Zhang, J. Z., Shi, L., Shi, A. P., & Zhang, Q. X. (2004). Photosynthetic Responses of Four Hosta Cultivars to Shade Treatments. Photosynthetica, 42, 213-218. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/B:PHOT.0000040592.10133.ee