April 14th, 2012
As a garden coach, one of the most frequent questions I receive is, “What perennials will grow in dry shade”?
A worthy query and one especially pertinent this dry year, for after a barren winter, there’s not an extra smidgen of moisture in the soil. So be prepared….install those rain barrels, haul out the soaker tubing, crank up the garden hose; it’s going to be a wild ride.
In addition to readying the watering arsenal, one of the best things a gardener can do to prepare for drought is install non-thirsty material. Which brings us back to what will grow in dry shade.
First ascertain how much shade you really have. Deep shade is very different from filtered light. Take notes for an entire sunny day on how much shade an area actually has. Is the garden in shadow all day, or just in the afternoon? Does it receive dappled coverage during the heat of the day or does the house block all sunlight?
Next determine the source of the dryness. If your garden is surrounded by trees such as maples or conifers, they’re most likely gobbling up all available moisture, and you really have a challenge. If, on the other hand, the soil simply needs amending with compost so that it holds water more efficiently, that’s a different kettle of fish.
If the former, make liberal use of foliar fertilizer so those darn trees can’t grab the goodies from the soil, and be sure to top dress the area each year with compost. Don’t cover the tree roots however, and don’t plant too close to the trunks.
If the latter, apply black gold to the area annually.
Here, as promised, is my list of favored plants for dry shade:
Epimedium. These pretty little 12-inch high perennials come in sulfur yellow, pink or white and are easy as pie. Also called barrenwort or Bishop’s Hat, they will slowly spread. Deer and disease resistant, they want to be divided in late August.
Ferns are the backbone of the shade garden and many tolerate dry shade well. The honking big Ostrich fern, for example. Also consider Hay-Scented, Marginal Shield and Christmas ferns.
Nothing much bothers liriope, but the variegated cultivar is prettier than the plain-Jane green. It spreads by runners, so be on the lookout for offspring. Use it a ground cover or specimen clump.
Lamium is another ground cover which does well in dry shade. Get the variegated form; it flowers in pink, white, and lavender.
European ginger is a show-stopper. It attains only 5 inches in height, with glossy, rounded green leaves that stay fresh all season. Its flowers are nondescript, but it slowly seeds to make a lovely ground cover.
Phlox divericata enjoys dappled shade, and will burst into fragrant bloom in late April. Beware of slugs.
My last, but surely not least recommendations are tiarella and heucherella. These are kissing cousins and both are grown for their foliage as much as their flowers. Try tiarella ‘Spring Symphony’ for masses of pink flowers on deeply-cut foliage, and heucherella ‘Sweet Tea’ for vibrant cinnamon-centered leaves with orange tea-colored borders.
Some no-no’s. Astilbe won’t be happy in dry shade. Goutweed will eventually swallow the garden. Hydrangea often need more water and less shade than we think.
As a lazy gardener, I’m not about to water my plot of Mother Earth unnecessarily. Therefore in the dry shady areas of my yard I think carefully before I stick a plant in the ground.
You should too.