Plants - Perennials

Find the perfect perennials for dry shade with help from senior horticulture editor, Stephen Westcott-Gratton.

Most gardeners would agree that gardening in full shade presents certain difficulties, and I daresay that all would agree that gardening in dry soil is an even greater hardship: Combine the two, and you have a serious gardening challenge.

Dry shade is almost always the result of mature trees with roots that run close to the soil surface, and while non-native maples (especially Norway maples [Acer platanoides cvs.]) tend to lead the pack in this respect, dry shade is a fact of life at the base of most large trees. Worse still, your natural inclination to add more soil (to raise the grade) won’t work because vigorous, feeder roots quickly invade and out-compete new understory transplants.

In my own garden, I have to contend with several areas of hardcore dry shade. To deal with this conundrum, every autumn I loosen the existing topsoil with a garden fork, and add a 15-centimetre-deep layer of shredded leaves (and/or leaf mould) to improve the soil’s tilth, texture and drainage. I top it off by mixing in a two-centimetre-deep layer of compost or composted manure for additional nutrients.

Some shade lovers, like brunnera and bigroot hardy geranium are naturally hardwired to cope with dry conditions, while others (‘Ice Dance’ sedge for instance) would, given their druthers, prefer much more moisture—thereby enabling them to launch a full-scale botanical incursion; but under the strictures that “dry shade” imposes, they behave like perfect gents.

When planting in dry shade, mix plenty of compost or well-rotted manure into the planting holes and water about once a week for the first year while your perennials establish a sturdy root system suitable for these demanding conditions. During periods of prolonged drought, even mature clumps may need supplementary irrigation.

Many perennials that are able to tolerate dry shade flower from spring to midsummer, so mixing and mingling foliage types will ensure that visual interest is sustained even when plants aren’t in bloom.

Lead image: Red epimedium (Epimedium ×rubrum), iStockphoto®

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