Ground Cover to Plant Under Pine Trees

Q: I recently bought a house in Atwater Village (Silver Lake/Los Feliz area). There is a huge pine tree in my parkway strip and the ground below is covered with dead needles. The tree keeps it shady. What flowering plants can I put there? They’d need to be easy to shake clean, since the tree will continually drop needles. I’d prefer plants that would need little water once they were established. I’m afraid succulents and cactuses would soon become choked with needles. Also, may I have a list of annual or perennial flowers that don’t mind getting wet from a lawn sprinkler?
– Margie
A: The best ground cover to plant under pine trees is Vinca major, also known as periwinkle, because pine needles disappear between its well-spaced shoots when they fall. Vinca major is a perennial ground cover that is virtually indestructible on account of its indefatigable stolons, those ground-hugging shoots that root as they grow out horizontally along the soil surface. Vinca major is probably the only water-loving ground cover found on lists of drought-tolerant plants. Vinca major will indeed survive on being watered as little as once a week or less during summer, even if it wilts in the process, but benefits from ample water. In the Valley, it needs water at least every other day in hot weather to look its best. In Atwater, where the climate is more mild than in the Valley, twice-weekly watering should be sufficient.
In any case, when cool weather returns, Vinca major will reliably bounce back and, with average winter rain, bloom in late winter to early spring with scads of highly appealing pinwheel, lavender-blue flowers. There is also variegated Vinca major with green-and-cream-colored leaves that is a matching companion to shrubs such as Pittosporum Tobira “Variegata” and trees such as Ficus benjamina “Variegata.”
Vinca major is considered to be a wild mutation of Vinca minor. Vinca major is a larger version of its parent; the leaves and flowers of V. major are three times the size of the leaves and flowers of V. minor. V. minor is probably the more elegant of the two, although its growth rate is slower. The matlike stature of V. minor would also make it a bad choice under pine trees, whose needles would have to be continually raked off its flat foliage.
Another candidate for growing under pines is columbine, a drought-tolerant biennial with exotic flowers and elegant blue-green leaves. It will even reseed itself when the soil is to its liking. The name columbine is derived from the Latin word “columbo,” meaning dove. Its multicolored pastel flowers have long spurs that do bear a striking resemblance to the wings of perched birds.
Of course, you could also try traditional perennials such as azalea and hydrangea – if the area is shady – or, if you have good sun, rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus). Although these may not qualify as drought tolerant plants, they appreciate the acid soil found under a pine tree and would also benefit from the pine needle mulch that would be readily available. Such a mulch would increase the interval between waterings as well. Your query about “annual and perennial plants that don’t mind getting wet from a lawn sprinkler” sounds naive. After all, don’t all of our plants get wet from lawn sprinklers?
Yet many of the plants in our gardens would, in fact, be better off if they were watered by soaking the soil with a hose or drip irrigation from below, and not from overhead sprinklers, which would eliminate the possibility of their leaves and stems getting wet, which leads to canker diseases and a decrease in flowering. Clearly, plants from Mediterranean climates such as our own are accustomed to long, dry summers and benefit from dry leaves and stems, at this time of year, and a minimum of irrigation.
This list of plants includes many of those native to Australia and South Africa, including fortnight lilies, Kangaroo paws, gazanias, most succulents and geraniums.
The best example of Mediterranean plants benefiting from dry leaves and stems can be seen when observing “Balcon” ivy geraniums, which are native to South Africa. When growing out of balcony pots, where only the soil in the pots gets wet from hose or drip irrigation, these geraniums spill over the side in sheets of solid flowers; in flower beds adjacent to heavily watered lawns, these geraniums flower well, but, owing to wet stems and leaves, not nearly as profusely as in containers. “Balcon” ivy geraniums obviously got their name from the fact that they grow best on balconies.
TIP OF THE WEEK: An anonymous reader from Valley Glen grows tomatoes in large containers and uses the best potting soil available. Economy is achieved using foam peanuts, which fill the bottom third of the containers. This gardener claims that perfect drainage through the peanuts already has led to a bumper crop of tomatoes this summer.

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