Can I plant shrubs in my New York City building's tree pit?

Answer

There is a lot to think about when planting tree pits. Most important is the health of the tree already in the pit.

Additional plants in your tree pit will compete with your tree for essential resources. When you consider the very small amount of open space a street tree has from which to take its rainwater, oxygen and nutrition, reducing the available resources can create a lot of stress on it. Naturally, the tree would send roots out about 2x the tree canopy with the fine roots that take up water largely in the top two feet below the surface, but the root zones for your trees are quite limited by hardscaping (sidewalk and pavement).  Avoid planting the tree pit densely or with greedy neighbors for the good health and longevity of your tree and to minimize the support the tree will need from you during the growing season. If it is a small tree pit relative to the size of the tree, it is better for the tree to leave it with just some mulch around its roots.

While you do see sizable shrubs planted in tree pits, that it is not what we recommend for the best health of the tree. (NYC Parks Department also asks you not to plant woody shrubs in a tree pit.) There is a further reason to avoid taller, dense, shrubby tree pit planting as well if you are in NYC - rats! Dense planting near an urban building will be a safe harbor to them. To deter rats, it is useful to cut back any tall, dense, or climbing plants around the trees and building, remove fallen fruits and nuts from a tree pit and remove fecal matter (dogs, rodents) and dropped food waste daily. (Sadly, if the population is high, even a patch of weeds will attract rats.)

Most perennial and annual plants that are adaptable to the conditions of the location are better tree pit companions. Plants that naturally grow under trees are the best choice if you have the space for companion planting. Densely growing plants with thick root systems (like grass or ivy) should be avoided as should any plants that need a lot of sun to flourish. You also need tougher plants that can withstand exhaust, a little road salt and wind. When you plant, disturb that area as little as possible. Space plants so they don't provide dense cover for rodents and so the tree gets the benefit of more water and soil nutrients.

There are some good suggestions for Planting in Tree Pits and Care of Tree Pits available from the NYC Parks Department. If you have an idea for something more specialized, feel free to get in touch with us at plantinfo@NYBG.org for planting recommendations. Let us know what your planting objectives are, the size and type of tree (if you know) and the amount of sun available in the setting. If you are not in New York City, please share your location.

Courtesy of NYBG Plant Information Service

  • Last Updated Jan 20, 2023
  • Views 8
  • Answered By Leslie Coleman

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