Most of us probably imagine shady spots in the garden as cool, moist places that we don’t have to worry about watering, but more often than not that isn’t the case. In my back yard, which is bordered by forest on 3 sides, I’ve planted shrubs and perennials between the lawn and forest on each side. Though it’s shady there, the shade isn’t dense because the slanting rays of the rising and setting sun are enough to keep most plants happy. The real challenge in these areas is the overhanging trees.
Some trees have such dense crowns that they can keep a light rainfall from reaching the ground. I have mostly hemlocks bordering my yard and these trees are so dense that it isn’t unusual for the soil under them to be perfectly dry after a drizzle. In fact, I have stood under them when it was raining quite hard in the past and didn’t feel a drop. This can be a problem, but there are solutions.
To start with I chose plants that could stand both shade and dry soil. Fortunately there are many shrubs and perennials from which to choose; Hosta, foxglove, native coral bells (Heuchera Americana), Astilbe, daylilies, wild ginger, and many other perennials will do quite well in dry shade. For shrub choices, Kerria Japonica, hydrangea, many viburnums, rhododendrons, and azaleas will do well. Many spring bulbs do well in dry, shady places, and many wildflowers, grasses, and ferns often prefer them. Many groundcovers like pachysandra, sedums and vinca will also thrive in dry shade.
I also thinned out some of the tree branches with a pole pruner. I didn’t want to cut the trees down or completely scalp them up one side, so I took my time and selected those branches which, if removed, would let a little more rain reach the ground. The result is that you would hardly know any branches had been removed and most of my plants now get watered even in a light rain.
Still, there is a lot of competition from tree roots so I water any dry shade areas deeply at least once each week, depending on rainfall. This is important; watering the entire area helps ensure that the tree roots aren’t soaking up every drop of moisture from the soil that your plants are in. Trees also soak up nutrients, so I make sure any plants under them are well fed, giving them a good side dressing of compost in addition to their regular fertilizing.
The secret (if there is one) to growing plants in dry shade is to first read about the plants you’d like to grow there. Obviously, if the plant you have chosen prefers soil that is constantly moist you wouldn’t plant it in dry shade unless you didn’t mind watering every other day. Knowing what conditions plants require and giving them just a little extra attention means you can grow quite a large selection in dry shade.