As a horticulturist, one of the concerns I hear most often is “But my yard is so (fill in the blank here: shady, or damp, or dry, or hot, or whatever) that nothing will grow.” Well, there is no spot on this planet where nothing will grow, and very few where green plants won’t grow. Whatever the constraints of your site, many, many beautiful native plants are adapted to grow and thrive there. This post is about dry shade. Check back for other posts about other types of “difficult” sites.
Let’s start by thinking about our native habitat here in northern New Jersey. What kind of ecosystem is shady in nature? The forest floor. So it follows that most, if not all shade plants evolved in nature as understory plants.
This is a picture of the shadiest part of my garden. It’s planted on the north side of a group of trees, so it gets only occasional dappled sunlight. And it’s a very, very dry site, with sandy soil (I don’t have a sprinkler system, and I water only in extreme drought). But notice how lush and cool it looks. It’s thickly planted with coralberry (a small shrub), ferns, and a number of flowering perennials: Canada anemone, wild ginger, tiarella, white snakeroot, and asters. The tiarella and ginger bloom in spring, the anemone in early summer, and the asters and snakeroot in fall. All these plants are readily available and foolproof to grow. Some of them are “volunteers”: I didn’t even plant them. They are simply natives that arrived on their own.
Each of my shrub islands includes shade-loving perennials. (These “islands” stretch across the front of my property and are planted in the only parts of the front lawn that aren’t completely shaded by two large Norway maples.) The perennials grow at the front of the islands, along the sidewalk, and they get a few hours of direct sunlight in the early morning or late afternoon. So they get more sun than the shade garden pictured above, and they support a greater variety of flowering plants.
Columbines dominate here–so many I have been begging gardening friends to take them off my hands. There are also native geraniums (the pink flowers), asters, wild ginger, corydalis, tiarella, and heuchera. Again, there will be flowers for most of the growing season–the columbines will be in bloom through much of the summer, and the asters will take over in late summer and fall.
I grow some plants that normally grow in wetter sites–all plants thrive in a range of conditions. An example is false Solomon’s seal, which is in bloom right now in two of my shade gardens but generally grows in wet sites.
Lovely, isn’t it? If the rabbits don’t eat all the flowers, the plant will produce a cluster of bright red berries in early fall. Notice the variety of foliage around it–wild ginger on the lower left, asters, heuchera and tiarella at top and center.
For more detail about some of these plants, see my earlier posts about tiarella and columbine. And do consider seeking out some of these lovely natives for your own backyard habitat.