Gardening in the Shade

Dry Shade? Don’t Despair – Plants that thrive under shade trees

By Debra Knapke

Dry Shade – words that strike fear in amateur as well as seasoned gardeners. Some gardeners camouflage these areas with nicely fluffed, dark-colored mulch. Others opt for the dry stream bed “look” which is achieved by spreading river stone of various sizes in an artful, river-like pattern.

Even though dry shade is a challenging site, it can be enhanced by using good garden practices that work in any garden situation. It all comes down to amending the soil, choosing your plants wisely and watering them to get them established in their first year.

A dry streambed in Debra’s garden with Allegheny spurge on the right.  Notice the large silver maple trunk in the upper right.  Tree roots are much more efficient at taking up water and nutrients than shrubs and perennials.

A dry streambed in Debra’s garden with Allegheny spurge on the right. Notice the large silver maple trunk in the upper right. Tree roots are much more efficient at taking up water and nutrients than shrubs and perennials.

You’ve heard it before: amend the soil. This means incorporating organic matter in the form of leaf, mushroom or homemade compost into the existing soil. In open garden areas, you can till in organic matter without a thought to damaging existing roots. Under trees, a different technique is needed. As you plant, amend the pockets of soil that are between the roots and then cover the whole area with two to three inches of compost or hardwood mulch.

Many of the plants recommended for dry shade plants are tolerant of a wide range of garden situations. In loamy, evenly moist soils, many of these same plants can become aggressive; so, consider yourself forewarned. The below list is a sampling of plants. Don’t hesitate to ask for suggestions from personnel at your favorite garden

centers.

Shrubs

  • Spicebush (Lindera) – native; edible berries
  • Chokeberries (Aronia) – native; edible berries
  • Oregon grapeholly (Berberis) – semi-evergreen

Herbaceous plants (perennials)

  • Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra) – groundcover; initially a slow-grower, then takes off in third to fourth year
  • Barrenworts (Epimedium) – flowers early in spring; beautiful leaves the rest of the season
  • Bugleweed (Ajuga) – groundcover; look for the larger bronzy cultivar ‘Catlin’s Giant’ and the diminutive, maroon-leaved ‘Chocolate Chip’
  • Hardy cyclamen (Cyclamen) – a tuber; slow to establish, but worth the wait; beautiful leaves in the winter; dormant in the summer
  • Wood Ferns (Dryopteris) – once established are relatively drought tolerant
  • Hellebores (Helleborus) – great winter effect; long bloom time; hardy self-seeder
  • Crested iris (Iris) – native plant; slow spreader, but very cute!
  • Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema) – native plant; a conversation starter in the spring garden
  • Lilyturf (Liriope) – a vigorous and tenacious grass-look-alike groundcover
  • Lily-of- the-Valley (Convallaria) – groundcover, fragrant flowers
  • Robb’s euphorbia (Euphorbia) – another assertive and tenacious groundcover

A note on “establishing” your plants in their first year in your garden: A garden rule is that newly planted gardens should receive about one inch of water per week. A rain gauge can help keep track of the rain amounts in your yard. If Mother Nature sends less rain, get out your garden hose. Water your garden in the early morning as you drink your coffee or tea. And, it is better to water two to three times a week, deeply, rather than every day with a light sprinkle.

 

2 responses to “Gardening in the Shade

  1. BARB HOUSE

    Isn’t Oregon grape holly mahonia?

    • Debra Knapke

      Well, yes and no. It appears the taxonomists have been at it again and have changed the genus from Mahonia to Berberis. But, stay tuned as we all know that these changes are sometimes reversed. I could turn this into a rant, but I’ll just leave it at: it is often frustrating that the system that is supposed to offer a consistent way of naming plants is more confusing than using the common names.

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