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Portland Parks & Recreation

Healthy Parks, Healthy Portland

Phone: 503-823-7529

1120 SW Fifth Avenue, Portland, OR 97204

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How to Create a Shady Haven Under Mature Trees

Plants under the shade of mature trees.

Laura Heldreth explains her seven steps to creating a shady haven in the dry shade of mature trees. Laura is a Master Gardener in Vancouver, Washington, and this article is shared with her permission.


My oasis garden is located under a grove of mature Douglas fir trees. Whenever friends and students tease me about my ‘jungle’, I grin, because my ‘jungle’ is growing in dry shade and competing with thirsty tree roots. Let me take you through my steps on how to create a shady haven in dry shade.

Step 1

Map out the light conditions in your garden because certain plants prefer different light conditions. Go outside on a clear day and observe how the light moves through your garden, each season of the year. You can sketch out a shade map or take pictures of your garden throughout the day to note how much direct sunlight your garden receives.  

Light Conditions

Shade: Full shade is less than two hours of sunlight a day.

Dappled Shade: Dappled shade is a garden site under a canopy of trees and this area receives about two to three hours of sunlight filtered through the branches above.

Open Shade: shade provided by a building, not a tree canopy.

Partial Shade: 2 to 4 hours of sun per day.

Partial Sun: 4 to 6 hours of sun per day.

Full Sun: Six or more hours of direct sunlight per day.

Your light map will change over time, so make sure to note changes when a neighbor removes a tree, there’s windstorm damage, or an arborist prunes your trees.

Step 2

Make it a priority to protect your large trees’ roots. Large trees like the Douglas fir have most of their root systems in the top 12 to 24 inches of soil and spread out past the canopy’s edges or drip lines. So, plant small plants to prevent digging damage to your tree roots and maintain the current soil level.

Step 3

Create an irrigation plan that will water the garden at least once a week during the summer drought. Large tree roots are competitive for moisture, especially during heat waves. Install a watering system using drip irrigation, soaker hoses, or sprinklers. Make sure to water deeply and check to make sure that the water is soaking in, not just running off the surface of the soil.

Step 4

Add a two to three-inch layer of wood-based mulch to prevent weeds, hold in moisture, regulate soil temperature, and prevent soil run off. Leave a ring of bare soil that is 2 to 6 inches wide around the base of your trees and shrubs to keep them healthy.   

Step 5

Fertilize your shade garden plants with organic nitrogen meal fertilizers like alfalfa meal, feather meal and blood meal. Clark county soils are high in phosphate and potassium, but nitrogen is water-soluble and rinses out of the soil each season. Scratch in your organic nitrogen meal in early spring and water them in.

Step 6

Research your plant choices before you head to the nursery. Great Plant Picks (www.greatplantpicks.org) has a comprehensive plant list that is compiled by horticultural experts in the Pacific Northwest. Their dry shade plant recommendations are fantastic. Plant Lust (www.plantlust.com) helps gardeners locate the plants they want through local growers in the Pacific Northwest.

If you’re looking for design inspiration, visit Darcy Daniel’s website eGardenGo (www.egardengo.com). Look through her suggested plant combinations and find helpful garden design tips and advice in her blog.

Step 7

Take time to enjoy your garden. Whether you like to barbecue or meditate in your space, make time to do it. Your garden is for your use and pleasure.

Backyard plants under mature trees.Gardening with big trees takes extra planning and care, but is worth the effort. Your new shady haven can become an extension of your home, an entertaining space, and your private oasis.

2018 Golden DBH Award Winner

Urban Forestry recognizes Denise Magnus for her dedication to the Park Tree Inventory.

The 2018 winner of Urban Forestry’s Golden DBH Award is Denise Magnus, Tree Inventory Team Leader extraordinaire. Denise is a longtime resident of Westmoreland and a new volunteer with the Tree Inventory Project. She signed up for Team Leader Training as a way to connect to her city parks and neighbors while gaining a new set of skills.

At the first workday of the summer, Denise worked in a challenging section of Gabriel Park. Navigating the learning curve of the inventory tools and teaching volunteers simultaneously, Denise led 2 new inventory data collectors through the scientific process at Gabriel Park. When the workday ended, Denise told staff that she wanted to come back to finish her section because she doesn’t like leaving a job unfinished. When staff returned to Gabriel Park the next week, Denise joined them for 2 afternoons, finishing her original section and helping to complete the inventory of over 600 trees in Gabriel Park. She not only completed the goal she set for herself, she gained confidence with the clinometer and iPad, and that confidence grew over the course of the summer.

Denise, right, helps a young inventory volunteer collect tree data in Lair Hill Park.

Instead of signing up for workdays at the beginning of the summer, Denise asked staff to let her know which workdays needed more support so that she could attend events where team leaders were needed most. She attended workdays at 8 different parks during the summer, teaching tree inventory protocol to data collectors from all walks of life. At Fernhill Park, Denise shared her experience and expertise with 6 high school students from Madison High School’s Eco Club as they all worked together to inventory a section of the park. Thank you, Denise, for helping to empower Portland’s next generation of urban foresters!

Madison High School Eco Club members work with Denise at Fernhill Park to inventory trees.

Interested in learning more about the volunteering for the urban forest? Check out our volunteer opportunities and workshop calendar to learn more about events happening near you. Want to hold an inventory of your neighborhood park? We are accepting applications for the 2019 Inventory now

Tree Team Spotlight: Concordia Tree Team Adopts Trees at Meek School

Concordia Tree Team plants trees in 2010.A class at Meek School helps to plant trees.

Eight years ago, a Learning Landscape arboretum was created at Alliance High School at Meek in the Concordia neighborhood of NE Portland. The Concordia Arboretum came about when a small group of Neighborhood Tree Stewards, known as the Concordia Tree Team, partnered with several groups. These groups included: Portland Parks and Recreation (PP&R) Urban Forestry, Friends of Trees and Meek School. The partnership aimed to turn a treeless, empty field into a place where trees from around the world could help students learn about botany. PP&R Urban Forestry played an important role in agreeing to establish the new trees by watering them for two summers after planting.

As important as those first two years of summer watering were, experience has shown that three-year-old trees in the open, sunny, wind-exposed field were subject to drying out and dying in Oregon's dry summers. Past planting attempts in the area had left only two struggling survivors-a ginkgo and an oak. Determined that this planting would survive to provide the long-term benefits of mature trees, the Concordia Tree Team made summer watering of the trees at Meek its top priority.

Initially members carried containers of water to the trees from their cars, but soon got agreement from the school to use the school’s water taps and store hoses in a locked area. Weekly from June on, a core group of tree stewards faithfully dragged out the hoses and watered all the trees three years and older. This task takes about 1.5-2 hours.

An oak tree on the Meek campus.Bald cypress at Meek School.

The result has been that of over two dozen trees planted in stages at the school, none that were watered by the tree stewards has died of drought! Beyond merely surviving, the ample weekly watering has allowed the trees to grow during dry months when lack of water typically shuts down or slows most Oregon tree growth. Many trees have put on a foot or more of growth each summer, especially those from summer-rainfall climates. Even normally slow growers, such as umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata), have shown healthy growth for their species. Some of the trees planted as one or two-gallon sizes have reached six feet or taller in just a few summers. The photo below shows a Google street view of the campus in 2015, five years after many of the trees were planted.

2015 Google street view of Meek.Once a blistering hot space in full sun, now the Meek campus has enough tree cover that small pools of shade provide a place for the many visitors to the area to cool off. Pet owners and parents stand in the shade of these young trees on hot days watching their dogs or children playing.

The tree stewards credit the success of an eight-year watering commitment to holding monthly face-to-face meetings, and continual group emails where people commit to different weeks. People often water together, helping to make it a social occasion rather than a chore. The donation of more hoses by individual tree stewards has also meant that most trees can now be reached by hose. This eliminated the time-consuming need to fill and transport heavy water containers. Only about six trees on the perimeter of the school still need water carried to them. The 2018 Google aerial view below shows the location of the trees.

2018 Google aerial view of the Meek campus.With much of Oregon again officially in drought this summer, the lesson from Concordia is that for the initial investment in planting trees to pay off, most newly planted trees should be watered their first several summers. The results are lush, healthy, faster-growing trees. In turn, these trees will help keep people cool as summers grow hotter. 

Californians in Oregon: How do sequoias and redwoods do in Portland?

Spoiler alert: These forest giants adapt well to the city

Native to California, giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are both large-form conifers also easily found in Portland’s urban forest. With common names that can be used interchangeably, the two are often confused or thought to be the same tree and they share many similarities. Both are notorious for their longevity, have thick, reddish bark that serves as a natural defense against wildfires, and are iconic symbols of the western U.S.

Along with the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), giant sequoias and coast redwoods make up the Sequoioideae family. All three trees are known for their longevity, impressive size, egg-shaped cones, and reddish bark.

Giant sequoias have blue-green, awl-shaped needles arranged spirally along the shoot. Cones are 1.5-2.5 inches long, with dense woody scales. The bark of sequoias is light reddish-brown, with a soft, spongy texture. The trunk of the giant sequoia is massive and can reach upwards of 30 ft in diameter. By volume, giant sequoias are the largest trees on the planet.


The blue-green foliage of the giant sequoia is distinctive, as are the awl-shaped needles

Coast redwoods also have cones that are made of woody seed scales and are egg-shaped; however, their cones are only half an inch to an inch long. The needles of the coast redwood are two-ranked, meaning they are arranged horizontally in pairs along a central shoot, similar to firs, and are a dark, glossy green. The bark of the redwood is much darker in color than that of the giant sequoia. Coast redwoods are the tallest trees on the planet, reaching over 300 ft tall along the northern California coastline. Although they are massive trees, redwoods don’t grow to the same diameters as sequoias in habitat. Both species can live to be over 2,000 years old.


Redwoods have alternately-arranged needles that lay flat. Cones are small.

Giant sequoias have a very small natural range, limited to the western flanks of the Sierra Nevada. Growing in Kings Canyon, Yosemite, and Sequoia National Parks, these giants are accustomed to hot, dry summers and are shrouded in heavy snow pack during the winters.

Coast redwoods also have a limited natural range and are found alongside the Pacific Coast in northern California and southern Oregon. Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world and grow cloaked in fog that rolls through their canopies as warm air masses are cooled by the Pacific Ocean. With rainy winters and warm summers tempered by constant moisture from marine fog, redwoods have an incredibly long growing season, aided by their ability to pull moisture from the air.

With native ranges that encompass habitats totally different from the Mediterranean-climate of the Willamette Valley, how do sequoias and coast redwoods fare in Portland? Portland does not have the elevation or snowpack that the Sierra do, or coastal fog to the extent that is seen along the northern California coast, where champion redwoods thrive. Despite this, we’re finding that redwoods and sequoias do well in the city. Almost 500 sequoias and redwoods have been inventoried by the tree inventory project and 93% were rated as being in good or fair condition. These trees thrive in our urban forest, and as large-form evergreens, they provide us with enormous public health and environmental benefits. A mature giant sequoia in Portland can store over 6 tons of carbon and scrub pounds of pollutants from the air annually.

As our average summer temperatures continue to rise and summer drought conditions stretch longer each year, we need to plant trees that are resilient to these conditions. Sequoias and redwoods are well-adapted to survive our dry summers as long as they can reap the benefits of the rains in the winter. Their longevity gives them a permanent place in our urban landscape; Portland’s established sequoias and redwoods have the potential to outlive every human resident in the city.

Want to check out some of Portland’s sequoias and redwoods? Check out the Tree Inventory map. Want to see the biggest and best? Seven sequoias and four coast redwoods are recognized as Heritage Trees. In Laurelhurst Park, the walking path along SE Oak St features all three members of the Sequoioideae family – dawn redwood, giant sequoia, and coast redwood.

The Tree Inventory Project is a partnership with volunteers to map, measure, and identify Portland’s trees. Join us in a park near you!

Park Profile: Columbia Park

North Portland's historic oasis

Columbia Park stands in the heart of North Portland at the intersection of the Portsmouth, University Park, Kenton, and Arbor Lodge neighborhoods. At just over 35 acres, Columbia Park houses mature Douglas-firs and lindens, sports fields, and a historic cottage, serving as an important shared community space for North Portlanders.

Initially a woodlot owned by the City of Albina, Columbia Park was intended to be developed as Albina’s first park. However, it wasn’t until 1891 when Albina, East Portland, and Portland consolidated into one city that Portland’s novel park system began developing Columbia Park into the park we know today. Over the next century, this woodlot would transform into a city park which reflected the needs and desires of the local community.

As Portland’s park department developed in the early 1900s, so did Columbia Park. In 1908, Emanuel Tillman Mische, a landscape architect at the famed Olmstead Bros. firm, was appointed Park superintendent and oversaw the construction of Columbia Park. He intended for the park to remain rural and informal and trimmed interior Douglas-firs for views while letting others grow low branches, a practice that is often avoided by park planners. In 1909, the head gardener for Washington Park, G.H. Hoch, oversaw design plans for Columbia Park inspired by a famous park in Berlin, Germany.


The 1910 plan for Columbia Park included many elements seen today

This initial park design included a large central lawn for sports, a separate lawn for children, sandboxes, wading pools, and a music court where the swimming pool is now located. Under Mische’s direction these plans were realized on the ground and additional fountains, comfort stations, a playground, and fences were all built and new trees were planted.


Young lindens in 1920, many of which can still be found in the park nearly 100 years later

As the local rivers became too polluted to swim in safely, Portland Parks and Recreation began building pools in parks. Columbia Park pool was originally built as an outdoor pool in 1927 and was converted to indoor use in 1975.  In addition to providing a safer place to swim, the pool played a role in the desegregation of Portland’s public spaces. North Portland has historically been home to many of Portland’s communities of color and beginning in the 1960s the Columbia Pool served as a primary public space where all of Portland’s residents could recreate together.


Columbia Park pool, 1935

Built in 1940, the Columbia Cottage has been used as a field house for the Columbia Park caretaker, dance hall, community policing headquarters and even a National Guard command center. In 1989, when the city planned to build a parking lot for the pool, members of the neighborhood came together to save the cottage. The community succeeded in conserving the cottage and formed the Friends of Columbia Park, which now operates and cares for the Columbia Cottage.

This summer, Urban Forestry is partnering with Friends of Columbia Park to conduct a Park Tree Inventory at the park. Over the course of two inventory workdays, volunteers and tree enthusiasts will come together to map, measure, and identify every tree in Columbia Park. In addition to providing necessary data to continue maintaining the park’s trees, the inventory will add a snapshot to Columbia Park's already rich history.

What: Columbia Park Tree Inventories
Where: Columbia Park, N Lombard Street and Woolsey Avenue
When: Saturday, August 11, and August 25, 8:30am - noon

Register Here

Learn more about the Tree Inventory Project at our website  and register to inventory trees in parks across the city.