It can be difficult to get plants to grow around deciduous or evergreen trees. The trees throw much shade and prevent rainfall from soaking the ground beneath them. Their roots quickly absorb whatever moisture manages to make it to the soil, outcompeting whatever you’ve planted there. Luckily there are some tough perennials, shrubs, vines and bulbs that will grow and even bloom in dry shade.
The finest plant I know for dry shade is big-root geranium (Geranium macrorhizzum). If this plant had a mailbox, I would write thank-you notes. Even under a low-limbed spruce, this trooper spreads out quickly, graciously, with fragrant rounded deeply lobed leaves and small white or pink flowers protruding above the foliage in April and May. If you want to do just one big planting, this is the choice.
Making plantings in dry shade look voluminous is accomplished as much through variation of textures as through plant vigor. One of my favorite plants for improving the range of textures is Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum hybridum), with triangular leaves lining up along its arching three-foot stems and small white tubular flowers peeking out of the axils from May to July. Come October, Solomon’s seal becomes a buttery yellow, a lovely largesse as it turns cold.
Hellebores look amazingly fresh in dry shade, curvaceous clumps at the front of the border. Lenten hellebore (Helleborus x hybridus) with its dark, leathery, serrated leaves and drooping waxy two-inch bells creates a carpet of white or pink freshness from February to April, heralding the end of winter with elan. To keep them looking fresh, I cut the tatty leaves to the ground as early in winter as I have access. New leaves will come in spring.
In our local botanical garden, the plantings at the feet of large deciduous and evergreen trees provide a feast of ideas for those in dry-shade-despair. Several years ago I noticed an evergreen 15-inch-tall bishop’s hat (Epimedium colchicum ssp. pinnatum) with triangular waxy green leaves and bright yellow mini-columbine flowers in April. Come late summer the leaves go a burnished tint, returning to lustrous green as winter sets in.
While many are annoyed by wild foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), the four-foot spires and open trumpets of the white form (D. purpurea f. albiflora) enhance any garden, and a planting of six or seven of these spires illuminates a grim area like elegant candles on a dark night.
Shrubs that are naturally happy in dry shade constitute a shorter list because this woodier group wants more moisture, more of a meal, than perennials. But quite a number are still cheerful soldiers. My favorite is heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica), an upright broadleaf evergreen. While it comes in lots of options – tall, short, purple-leaved, yellow leaved – I find the standard species (four-to-six feet) the toughest. With its divided leaves, red new shoots, white berries and autumn color, nandina provides a stately presence and backdrop. (Nandina domestica is considered invasive in some states, particularly in the Southeast. Consult your local extension agency.)
Red-twigged dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’) is always appealing, but here in the dark spots, the green and white variegation lifts the dry shade gravitas. It’s deciduous, with five-to-eight foot bright red stems that glow through the cold of winter. Christopher Lloyd taught me (okay, his books taught me) to thread Clematis ‘Jackmanii’ up through this shrub, and while in dry shade I do have to make sure it gets occasional extra water, the combo is a summer highlight.
Some of the Oregon grapes (Mahonia aquilegifolium) are considered rangy, but some fabulous ones thrive in dry shade. My favorite is M. aguilegifolium ‘Apollo’, a two-to-four foot shrub with scented yellow flowers in early spring and sharp architectural foliage. Combine this with big root geranium for an appealing contrast.
I love the elusive fragrance of dwarf sweet box, (Sarcococca hookeriana humilis), wafting its way across my front door steps from white tassel flowers so tiny it’s almost impossible to find them under small dark evergreen leaves. Often, equally inconspicuous black berries follow. While it needs water to get established, it spreads quite easily once it gets going.
A few climbers do heroic deeds in dry shade, shimmying up a tree or clambering over shrubs. My favorite is climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala var. petiolaris). With a few years of no special treatment but an occasional trickling hose, this has ventured more than twenty feet up those cedars, looking elegant with ruddy stems in winter and white lacy blooms in June.
A surprise to me was that golden hops (Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’) does just fine in dry shade. With its lobed yellow leaves and prickly stems, it starts out a bit timid but when it hits its stride, watch it go. Vigorous, yes, and in the right spot, a showstopper.
Bullock’s heart ivy (Hedera colchica ‘Dentata Variegata’), with its large cream and green leaves, can be stunning on dark fences. There is so much warmth in the leaves, it lightens the mood and provides a welcome framework for plants in the foreground. Ivies can be overeager, but this is much less of a problem in dry shade – they just don’t get enough nourishment to be rambunctious.
Quite a few bulbs fare well under most deciduous trees, and some even tolerate the roots of conifers. The most fruitful for me has been the Spanish bluebell (Hycinthoides hispanica), rapidly forming large colonies under our deodar cedar. The most common one is blue, but I especially like the white form in dark areas. Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are welcome anywhere, arriving in barren January; they are quite at ease in dry shade, easily ignoring the lack of ideal conditions. Ivy-leaved cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) with its winter leaves and fall flowers, goes completely dormant by late spring, a progression that suits dry shade.
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