Growing gardens under oak trees?
Dear David, I have 10 very mature oaks in my front yard. At the base of one of the oaks I have started my food forest experiment. I dumped a layer of compost a variety of seeds (squash, beans, herbs, morning glories, echinechia, passionflower and i forgot what else lol!) and light mulch because of the oak roots, it is growing good so far. So we talked about before i would begin to stop raking leaves and let the leaf litter collect. I would then have a self mulching landscape. From my understanding not much will be able to grow as ground cover since the leaves will ultimately smother them out. I know i can grow vines that travel up though. Also any fruit trees or bushes will be of low yield since they would only receive dappled light. Is the solution to just plant more?? Please tell me if what all I am saying is true? Also i am thinking this is a mesic oak hammock since we are on a lake but our house is not in a flood zone because we sit up in the hammock zone. Hope that helps. Thanks Jennifer
I like her approach. Compost and a big mix of seeds. My kind of growing.
There are two issues here that I can see. Let’s tackle them both
1: Too Much Shade
Oaks are hard to garden under, but I hate to remove them. I explore this conundrum and my thoughts on it in my book Compost Everything in the chapter on “Stupid Worthless Trees.”
I was joking when I called them stupid worthless trees, but that’s the way many people view big, “non-productive” trees. An oak or a maple or a sweetgum is viewed as worthless by many food growers because they aren’t good sources of food. Sure, you can eat acorns or tap maples, but the work involved with processing makes them a less-than-desirable source of food.
Jennifer has a different approach. She’s letting them drop leaves and feed the soil, which large trees are great at doing. They also support other species such as birds and mushrooms – sometimes even edible mushrooms – so they’re vital parts of the ecosystem.
The problem is the shade they create. Gardening under oaks isn’t easy unless you’re growing shade-tolerant plants. I grew grape mahonias, pineapples and gingers under mine back in North Florida. Around the edges of oaks you can also grow citrus and other fruit trees provided they get enough light. It takes a lot of solar energy to get fruit-producing vegetables like squash, tomatoes, peppers, beans, etc., to make much worth eating.
Throwing down a lot of seeds is a good idea, though – Jennifer may discover some species which are more tolerant than others of the shade.
Sometimes you can strategically remove limbs and open up the canopy to keep things growing underneath.
Planting a big variety is a good idea. The area may not be as productive as it would be without the canopy, but the oaks will buffer the overnight lows during the winter and can help you push the zone, so there are benefits.
Research shade plants for your area, test lots of species, then see what flies.
2: Leaves Covering Everything
If you are starting plants from seeds, having a lot of leaves drop can crush out young seedlings and make it hard to get things started; however, if you plant seeds when leaf drop is minimal, the plants should get established before the leaves get too thick. Older plants will be fine and the leaves will feed their roots as they grow.
One of the things I love about mature trees is how many leaves they drop. Leaves are great food for the soil and your compost pile. Perennial vegetables are easier underneath oaks, which is one reason I loved ginger. It likes the shade and will grow through leaves without trouble.
Something worth doing: travel to local parks with natural woodlands and observe what is growing beneath the oaks in wild areas. See if you can mimic what is happening in your own yard. Look for species that are edible. Smilax? Try growing its cousin asparagus. Beautyberries? Sure, plant some of those! Violets? They’re a good edible. Wild blackberries? Plant some cultivated types. See if you can find patterns in nature and then put those patterns to work in your oak gardens.
It’s not easy to grow a garden under oak trees, but it’s not impossible. Keep planting and follow your intuition and your observations.
And have fun.
*Photo credit Robert Couse-Baker. CC license.
Thank you so much! Yes I am going to try and push this zone as much as possible lol and pineapples are next on my list!!! i will keep you posted:)
You bet, Jennifer. Plant tops all over – I’ll bet some will produce.
I think Malanga would grow well in the shade and damp soil, and the leaves count as decorative landscaping while it grows.
Also, although caladiums aren’t edible, they are beautiful, and they like the shade.
Malanga can take a good bit of shade. Great suggestion.
This post is very timely as I’ve recently finished reading Push The Zone and am looking to plant in the canopy of my backyard oaks! Good stuff!
Lots of tropicals thrive in light shade- Ginger, cardamom, galangal, malanga (Xanthosoma sagittifolium), taro/tannia/callaloo (Colocasia esculenta), bananas with enough fertilizer, tender lettuces and salad greens will grow quite happily in light shade, too.
I knew you’d have good ideas! May apple is another possibility.
We have several large oaks in the front too. You have inspired me to try some edibles underneath them.
I planted malangas (taro) in my front yard under a black olive tree growing on the swale. I wanted to grow food yet have beautiful ornamentals to keep neighbors’ complaints down. The plants looked lush in the beginning and even the mail man commented on how nice they looked. After a while they started looking more pathetic each day, and even plenty of watering didn’t change that. When I tried to harvest the malanga roots I was totally unable to cut through the newly established, incredibly thick root web that the black olive tree has quickly regrown. I gave up on eating malangas and am in the process of converting the patch back to native ground cover but now the taro leaves are coming back from the rhizomes left in the ground. I decided to let them do what they want to do and see what happens.
Ah, the tree discovered the good stuff. You can take a spade and chop a line into the ground between plants and the tree to cut off those feeder roots but the roots will keep growing back. Great story… trees are amazing.
For shaded areas: under the dappled shade area or if the canopy is high enough azaleas and camelias can’t be beat. Also, the old-fashioned periwinkle ground cover. Not the regular vincas but the one with the blue-violet flowers. Crinum augustum (not the white flowered) also under a lot of shade. It’s a beautiful lily family plant with dark green and burgundy leaves that are 5′ to 6′ long and dark red stems with umbels of white flowers with a burgundy stripe down the middle of each petal. Grows up to 8′ tall.
I have a vegetable garden area and shrub area that does great away from the oak, but as you approach our oak tree, no vegetables grow at all and the shrubs get smaller and smaller. They get enough sun and I water extra in that area…could the growth inhibiting gas from the leaves of the oak actually do harm to things growing near them??? Every plant, even those that can grow in partial shade, are stunted in that area…the closer to the tree, the smaller the plant.
It might be the roots sucking up all the moisture and nutrition from the area.
I am surrounded by the most beautiful majestic red and white and black oak trees here in Pennsylvania, United States…. The acid from the trees well….. the trees dominate my yard…..But come Spring with all of her glory I am going to start a garden…. The ground is so damn fertile and lush…. Although I completely enjoy the pure white peace of winter…. come Spring and I am going to be throwing those seeds down!!!! ♥️
I love the oak trees in and around my yard, but the problem is that the ground is hard and full of tree roots, making it very challenging to grow anything in-ground. When I tried to start a vegetable garden many years ago, the trees sent roots upward into my little patch and made it unusable within a year. 🙁
I’m getting ready to try again, but this time I’ll put down a barrier layer of corrugated plastic (reusing old event signs) so the trees can’t eat my soil. Sorry, trees!