I’m planting an area beneath 30- to 40-foot pine trees. Is there a groundcover for shade that can live in pine needles?—D.T., Tenn.
Answer: In your area, the pines are most likely to be loblolly (Pinus taeda). Loblollies are columnar and have an airy branching habit, so the shade they cast isn’t particularly dark. Your real problem isn’t shade, but the pine roots that gobble up moisture and nutrients and the annual needle fall that might smother small plants.
If you’ve ever walked in an old growth pine forest, you noticed there was little on the forest floor except for the carpet of needles. As the needles fall, you will need to uncover desirable plants. The good news is that these pine needles make excellent mulch; they are often sold in bales in southern garden centers for just that purpose. Do not fear that the needles will acidify the soil. This is one of those persistent myths that never seems to go away.
As for the problem of moisture, watering will be necessary during establishment of the new plantings, and it would be wise to improve the soil’s water retention with compost and mulch.
What to plant:
irregular drifts of mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus)
hellebores (Helleborus xhybridus)
autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora)
coral bells (Heuchera)
goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis)
For more about the different kinds of pine trees, check out this Pocket Guide to Conifers