Spruce trees are attractive ornamental trees that provide color year-round in our parks and yards. While they look just fine on their own, you may be considering planting under your spruce to make it pop with color in the spring and summer. Unfortunately, this is more difficult than it sounds!
Plants that require high nutrients, lots of sun and water, and neutral to alkaline soil PH will not do well under a spruce tree. Plants that should not be grown under a spruce tree include Black-eyed Susans, peonies, iris, sedum, daylilies, larkspur, lavender, hibiscus, mums, daisies, blanket flower, clematis, and lupines.
Whether you have a spruce tree already or are thinking of planting one in your landscape, we’ll go over all the plants you can and can’t grow under them.
Why Does Nothing Grow Under A Spruce Tree?
Spruce trees are typically pyramidal with branches containing needles instead of leaves and cones instead of fruit and flowers.
According to Oregon State University, there are around 40 species of spruce out there. With such variety comes different shapes, preferences, and tolerances.
One thing that all spruce trees seem to have in common is the fact that hardly anything grows beneath them! What gives?
There are a few reasons why many plants cannot grow under a spruce tree.
Spruces Cast Lots Of Shade
The space under a spruce tree is going to be shady due to the branches above blocking the sunlight.
Any plant that requires full sun or even partial sun will struggle under a spruce tree or simply not grow at all.
Some of the dwarf varieties of spruce such as Dwarf Alberta Spruce have a small drip line (width). With these, it may be possible to plant full-sun plants around the tree rather than underneath it.
On the other hand, some spruce tree species have large branches that reach the ground. Blue spruce, for example, has lower branches that touch the ground. This eliminates any landscape opportunities under the tree.
Lack Of Water
We all know that trees require a lot of water. The problem with spruce trees is that their roots do not go very deep into the soil.
The majority of a spruce tree’s roots are located within the top 12 inches of soil. And they reach FAR! An article in the International Journal of Forest Research found that after just 8 years, the roots of the Sitka spruce reached over 14 feet away from the tree.
As they soak up the shallow water in the soil, the roots leave practically nothing for smaller landscape plants.
Any plant that requires plenty of water will not do well under a spruce tree. Plants must be drought-tolerant to have a chance of surviving.
Spruces Can Create Acidic Soil
Spruce trees aren’t too picky when it comes to the soil PH where they are planted. Most can thrive in both acidic and alkaline (basic) soil.
Over time, the soil under a spruce tree will turn slightly acidic due to the dropped needles. Even if the spruce tree is planted in neutral or alkaline soils, the soil will slowly turn acidic.
This is due to the decomposing needles under the spruce tree. A study reported in the Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research found that, when compared to 67-year-old ash, beech, elm, hornbeam, and oak trees, spruce trees had the lowest soil PH (most acidic).
Landscape perennials and annuals aren’t as adaptive as spruce trees to soil PH. Any plant that cannot tolerate low soil PH will not do well under a spruce tree.
If you want to plant something that cannot tolerate acid, you can always use lime to raise the soil PH. Remember, spruce trees aren’t picky about the soil’s PH so you won’t harm your spruce tree.
Jobe’s Additive De-Acidifier Lime Soil can be added to the soil and watered in to help raise the PH of the soil. It comes with a chart on the back to help guide you on how much to apply.
Lack of Nutrients
Spruce tree needles not only affect the soil’s PH, but they also contain tannins. Tannins are a compound that is used in several different ways such as tanning leather, and astringents.
Tannins can wreak havoc on the natural carbon and nitrogen cycle of the soil. Tannins slow down the decomposition process which slows down the nutrient cycling process. According to Purdue University, tannins can also interfere with soil enzymes necessary for cycling.
Plants that have a high nutrient requirement will not do well under a spruce tree. Even with added fertilizers, it will be difficult to keep these high-maintenance plants alive.
If you are confused on how you should be caring for your spruce in terms of nutrition, check out our article on the 5 best spruce tree fertilizers!
Plants You Shouldn’t Grow Beneath A Spruce Tree [Full List]
Let’s get down to it and go over all the plants not to grow under a spruce tree. These plants will either be heavy feeders, require full sun, require lots of water, or grow in alkaline soils.
You won’t find any of those growing conditions under a spruce tree! Make sure to avoid these 13 plants when choosing what to grow under your spruce tree.
Also known as Rudbeckia, Gloriosa Daisy, and Yellow Ox Eye, black-eyed Susans are familiar landscape plants that typically grow as perennials.
Black-eyed Susans will not tolerate being planted under a spruce tree for two reasons: they require full sun, and they are moderate feeders.
These perennial flowers can survive in partial shade, but will not flower as well. They also require a somewhat high amount of nutrients to thrive, making them a poor choice for under a spruce tree.
Black-eyed Susans have one thing going for them, they are drought-tolerant. If you plant them far enough away from your spruce tree, they can withstand the water hogs that spruce trees are.
Peonies have large, strikingly colorful flowers that come in pinks, purples, yellows, whites, and many more colors.
They are perennials that grow in similar hardiness zones to most spruce trees. Peonies are tolerant of slightly acidic soils, but even so, they will not do well under spruce trees.
According to North Carolina State University, peonies require full sun but can tolerate partial shade. They do not respond well to root competition and will struggle when competing against a spruce tree.
Additionally, peonies are heavy feeders that require a high nutrient content that just won’t be found under a spruce tree.
With hundreds of varieties of iris plants, there are bound to be some that can thrive under a spruce tree, right?
Not really. Irises require full sunlight to bloom properly, which is the main reason why they won’t do well under a spruce tree.
In addition to the lack of sunshine, Irises are heavy feeders that require fertilizer and organic material to thrive. Some species like the Japanese and Louisiana iris require wet soil, but most prefer dry, well-drained soil.
According to Clemson University, an iris’s preference for soil PH will depend on if it is ‘bearded’ or ‘beardless.’ Beardless varieties prefer acidic soil while bearded ones prefer alkaline soils.
Sedum is an evergreen groundcover succulent that can tolerate almost any condition. Except growing under a spruce tree.
This drought-tolerant plant is low-maintenance, has shallow roots, and barely needs any soil. But it cannot grow under a spruce tree because it requires at least 6 hours of full sun each day.
Additionally, sedum prefers rocky, gritty soil whereas spruce trees need rich, organic soils to thrive.
While this pretty groundcover succulent is an excellent choice for most places in the landscape, under a spruce tree is not one of them.
Daylilies provide the landscape with beautiful flowers that range in a variety of colors. They are highly adaptable but unfortunately will not survive under a spruce tree.
The main reason why daylilies will not do well under a spruce tree is that they will compete for both water and nutrients. This can cause trouble for both your spruce tree and the daylily, both of which may not get the necessary water and nutrients they need to thrive.
Otherwise, daylilies can be grown in slightly acidic soil and according to the University of Minnesota, they can even survive partial shade.
With their abundance of flowers and long bloom time, daylilies make an excellent addition to any landscape, just be sure to plant them far away from your spruce tree.
Also known as Larkspur, delphinium plants are prized among homeowners for their true blue color. They also come in pink, white, and yellow.
Delphinium can be picked up at your local garden center or grown from seed. They will bloom bright and fast in the spring and fade away as temperatures warm up.
Delphinium will not do well under a spruce tree due to its need for full sun. Additionally, this striking plant can grow up to 6 feet tall, making it difficult to plant beneath the low branches of a spruce tree.
Lavender can be a little tricky to grow as they need constant attention, pruning, re-potting, and space.
Besides this, lavender can be quite drought-tolerant if you are willing to sacrifice flower production. They also have low nutritional needs.
Unfortunately, lavender requires full sun and also prefers sandy soils due to their sensitivity to being water-logged. These characteristics make them a poor choice to plant under a spruce tree.
Certain plants catch your attention because of their striking shape or color. Lupines catch the eye for both, having an interesting cone shape and strikingly colorful flowers.
According to the University of Wisconsin, lupines do not do well when crowded by other plants, trees, or shrubs. They are heavy feeders that prefer sandy or gravelly soil which is better for their taproot to move through.
These characteristics make them a poor companion plant to a spruce tree. Despite this, lupines do well in acidic soil and can thrive in partial shade.
Hibiscus covers a ton of different plants including perennials, annuals, shrubs, and flowers. Most have large, colorful flowers that bring life to the yard in the summertime after many spring bloomers have faded.
Hibiscus is not a good choice to plant under a spruce tree for a few reasons. According to Clemson University, most species require a LOT of water to bloom properly, and when competing with a spruce tree, they will not bloom properly and/or will have stunted growth.
Additionally, hibiscus does best in full sun conditions, which can be difficult to find under a spruce tree.
Hibiscus can also grow quite large, up to eight feet tall for some varieties. A better choice for under a spruce tree would be a smaller, shade-tolerant flower or groundcover. But we’ll cover more on that later!
There’s nothing quite like seeing a colorful flowering mum in the fall when all other flowers and plants seem to be shutting down for the winter. It’s like a last little hope of life before the dreary cold season sets in.
While mums are pretty tough and can withstand many different soil conditions, they will not thrive under a spruce tree.
Mums require full sun and tend to be heavy feeders of nutrients. While they don’t require fertilizer, you will see much better color and vibrancy in the flowers if they are fertilized.
Mildew is a potential problem with mums that is more likely to occur if they are placed in shady locations such as under a spruce tree. They also need good air circulation and will be too crowded being planted under a tree.
Blanket flowers, or Gaillardia if you want to be all scientific about it, are short-lived perennials that give your landscape a burst of color in the summer.
These plants will blanket the ground if allowed to spread, though they are not considered invasive and will not take over an area very quickly.
Although bright and brilliant, blanket flowers will not do well under a spruce tree as they require full sun and poor, sandy soils.
If you’re looking to cheer up your yard, daisies are the way to go. With stunning colors that will last all summer, daisies are sure to make you and your neighbors smile as you pass them by.
Daisies are considered low-maintenance, which makes them a candidate for planting under trees, even a spruce tree.
However, daisies require full sun and ample water to bloom those beautiful flowers in the summer. This requirement strikes them off the list of easy plants to plant under a spruce tree. They are also somewhat heavy feeders who perform best with a light fertilizer.
Clematis plants bloom with amazing purples, pinks, and whites in big, star-shaped flowers. These vining plants come in many different sizes and varieties, making them an attractive candidate for the landscape.
Depending on the variety, clematis may bloom in the spring or summer. Some even bloom in the fall, giving landscapes a burst of color when everything else is fading away.
While clematis may be an attractive plant for your landscape, it will not do well under a spruce tree. Clematis requires a trellis for growing and can grow quite large, typically 6 to 8 feet but up to 30 feet.
According to the University of Massachusetts, Clematis also requires full sun for proper blooming and does best with ample water and fertilizer.
So, What Plants Can Live Under A Spruce Tree?
The environment under a spruce tree is too harsh for most plants. It’s shady, a little acidic, and the water and nutrient availability is limited.
What exactly can you plant under a spruce tree? Do these plants even exist?
YES! Believe it or not, shade-loving, acid-tolerant, low-maintenance plants do exist. Your options may be limited, but there are plants available.
Here are some flowers to consider for under your spruce tree:
- Hostas: A pretty everything-tolerant plant that does well in the shade and can withstand drought and a variety of soil conditions.
- Sweet woodruff: An herb that enjoys being planted in shady areas. They produce cute, dainty white flowers that give off a pleasant smell.
- Lily of the Valley: Another sweet-smelling flowering plant, Lily of the valley does well in shaded conditions and requires just 1” of water per week.
- Ferns: Ferns are pretty shade tolerant and will also provide green color all year round just like your spruce tree.
- Primrose: Primrose does well in partial shade such as that found under a spruce tree. They grow quite well under trees and bloom in colorful pinks, whites, yellows, oranges, and purples.
- Periwinkle: This evergreen groundcover does well in shade but can adapt to the sun. They require little nutrients and watering, making them a great companion to your spruce tree.
You can read more about the best plants to plant under your spruce tree here for some more in-depth info!
How To Improve Conditions Under Your Spruce Tree
If you’re set on planting daylilies or peonies under your spruce tree, there are a few things you can do to make the growing conditions more suitable.
Fertilizers help to add nutrients to the soil so that the roots of plants can absorb them and use them during normal metabolic processes that keep the plants growing.
Plant growth, bud formation, and flowering all benefit from fertilizer. Miracle-Gro’s Water Soluble All Purpose Plant Food is a great general-purpose fertilizer for plants.
Fertilizers like this will help replace some of the nutrients that are sucked up and used by the spruce tree, giving your landscape plants a chance to grow.
You can read more about our recommendations for the best spruce tree fertilizers here if you’d like!
Trim Your Spruce Tree
Spruce trees do not normally need to be pruned once they are established unless you are looking for a very specific shape.
However, if you trim the bottom few branches of your spruce tree, you will allow a little more light into the space beneath it. This will help broaden your options from shade-only plants to a few partial-shade plants.
Prepare To Water
If you have the time and patience to care for high-maintenance plants under your spruce tree, be prepared to do some watering.
As we mentioned before, spruce trees suck up a lot of the water that is absorbed naturally by the soil. Planting anything additionally under your spruce tree means you will probably have to supplement the plant with water.
Some plants require less water than others, so just be sure to check your plant’s requirements and be prepared to make a few trips out with the watering pale.
That’s A Wrap!
Spruce trees can be an oasis in the middle of winter, providing lush green foliage when everything else around has gone dormant for winter.
The only problem with spruce trees is that it can be difficult to find a plant that will survive underneath it.
Now, for a quick recap –
The 13 plants that you should not plant under a spruce tree include:
- Black-Eyed Susan
- Blanket flower
All of these plants are either high-maintenance, heavy feeders, prefer full sun, or require lots of water. These plants should be avoided under a spruce tree – instead, plant the OPPOSITE type of these plants – happy gardening!
Augusto, L., Dupouey, J.-L., & Ranger, J. (2003). Effects of tree species on understory vegetation and environmental conditions in temperate forests. Ann. For. Sci., 60, 823-831.
Coutts, M. P. (1983, April 01). Development of the Structural Root System of Sitka Spruce. International Journal of Forest Research, 56(1), 1-16.
Kanerva, S., Kitunen, V., Kiikkila, O., Loponen, J., & Smolander, A. (2006, June). Response of soil C and N transformations to tannin fractions originating from Scots pine and Norway spruce needles. Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 38(6), 1364-1374.
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.