Shade trees are one of the best investments you can make in your landscape. Enhance their beauty and help them stay healthy with these simple tips for making the most of the space around them.

By Jenny Krane
Updated July 25, 2019
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Maybe you're lucky enough to have mature shade trees in your yard already, or maybe you've just planted one. Either way, they add so much beauty, valuable shade, and other benefits all by themselves, but there are a few easy ways to make them shine even more in your landscape. While the limbs and leaves fill overhead space, there's often an empty area around their trunks that shouldn't be neglected. Instead, you can use these spaces to create a finished overall look to the yard, while also protecting the tree's trunk and roots to keep it healthy. The best part? These landscaping hacks are inexpensive, easy to do, and will look great year after year.

1. Add the Right Plants

Shade trees often block out enough sunlight under their canopies that it can seem like a challenge to get much to grow under them. However, there are plenty of hardy, shade-loving plants that will appreciate a sheltered spot under a tree, whether in a a small flower bed that encircles the trunk or a more elaborate shade garden. Good choices include colorful annuals like impatiens and coleus or flowering perennials like astilbe or coralbells. Select plants in smaller-sized nursery containers rather than bigger ones—not only will you save a little money, they also will be easier to plant without damaging the tree's roots too much.  Spring bulbs are also a great way to add a pop of color around deciduous trees because by the time the trees leaf out and block the light in spring, the bulbs will be going dormant and disappearing anyway.

2. Layer on the Mulch

Mulching around a tree is a must. Mulch can mean more than just wood chips—shredded bark, pine straw, and even gravel also work well. Use the same type and color of mulch throughout your landscape to create a unified aesthetic. The repetition of mulch in flower beds and around trees gives the landscape a cohesive and clean look.

Other than giving everything a tidy appearance, why is mulch so important? First and foremost, it protects the tree trunk from damage from lawn equipment. The circle around the tree trunk reminds you how far to stay away from the trunk when mowing and trimming so you don't accidentally hit the trunk.

Mulch also helps to insulate soil from temperature extremes. A 2- to 4-inch layer can help keep soil warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. It helps keep delicate roots from being stressed by heat, which is especially important with young trees. And it slows the evaporation of water in sunny spots so plants stay hydrated longer. Mulch can also help reduce soil erosion on slopes and naturally prevent weeds from sprouting.

When applying mulch around the base of a tree, do not pile it against the trunk like a volcano—this can encourage pests and diseases that harm trees. Instead, create a ring of mulch, so it looks more like a donut around the trunk. Make sure your mulch layer reaches at least to the drip line of the tree (the area outside the canopy). Landscape edging can be added around the border of the mulch for a more defined outline.

3. Use Garden Accents

In addition to mulch and shade-loving plants, try placing a few garden accents around the tree to fill empty spaces. Large, smooth rocks add a natural element to the space and will help to keep weeds from growing. You can also use landscape lights below trees for a dramatic nighttime accent that will create silhouettes and shadows. Place small container gardens in open spaces to add height and contrast. Under a tree is also a great location for a fairy garden or toad house.

Giving the space around tree trunks a little bit of attention goes a long way. These tips will quickly and easily turn the area around a tree into a visual focal point in the landscape. Not only does it accentuate the beauty of the tree, but it also helps keep the tree healthy so it will remain a part of your yard for decades to come.

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