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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Thursday - May 01, 2014

From: Amarillo, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Non-Natives, Compost and Mulch, Shade Tolerant, Trees
Title: Plants to grow under elm tree in Amarillo TX
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

I have a large elm tree and I can't get seem to get anything to grow under it. I was wondering if there are any shade-loving groundcovers that you would recommend (have tried English Ivy, hostas, and a few other plants to no avail). We would like to have something that would make this area nice to enjoy instead of a large, barren area. Is it a good idea to add new soil or mulch and how much? The elm tree gets quite a few suckers from the ground; how should these be managed/prevented?

ANSWER:

You should know that the American elm is somewhat allelopathic, which means it is capable of emitting chemicals that will damage or kill plants competing with the elm for water or nutrients. It isn't the worst tree at that, the walnut is, but it still can be a factor.

From a previous Mr. Smarty Plants answer:

"Please note that it is difficult to impossible to grow much of anything under any tree, including grass, because of the needs of the tree roots for moisture and nutrients from the soil and because of the shade from the tree. Here in Texas, we would vote for the trees and spread mulch under the shade of the tree. See our How-To Article Under Cover with Mulch."

To address the sucker question: From eHow, here is an article on How to Remove Elm Tree Suckers. We urge you not to apply any chemicals to the tree as mentioned in this article; our observation is that those chemicals can adversely affect the whole tree. We do urge you to pay attention to this remark:

"Inspect the tree every few weeks and cut off new suckers you find. Be aware that this will be an ongoing part of the routine for caring for the tree."

By the way, the two plants you mentioned trying as shade tolerant, English Ivy and hostas, are neither of them native to North America and English Ivy is capable of being very invasive.

 

 

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