You can successfully garden in dry and shady locations!

Many gardeners already know that most shade loving plants prefer moist soils, so when a gardener encounters an area that has dry and shady conditions, it can provide a special challenge for gardeners.

You may have an area in your yard that is quite dry and shady because it’s under a grove of trees or the eaves of the house or other outbuilding. Or maybe it is just a part of your yard that is shady, possibly sheltered by a fence or wall, and has a well-drained soil, like sand. Many gardeners are reluctant to produce a perennial bed in moist shade never mind in a shady location with dry soils. With a few hints and tips, you will soon be enjoying perennials and/or annuals in one of these challenging areas in your yard.

When preparing the dry area for planting, I recommend adding about 25 centimetres of good quality top soil if you are starting with virtually no soil and if you have some soil in place already, add a very generous layer of organic compost (25 centimetres) to the top of the soil and work it in. Once you have the plants planted and established, I recommend adding a layer of organic mulch (bark, woodchips or straw) to the surface of the soil to help retain the moisture. Even after all of this soil amendment you will still have to water the garden artificially and frequently even if you have an above average rainfall during the growing season because the tree branches prevent the rain from reaching the soil.

Another way to enhance your success at shade gardening, in dry conditions, is to adapt the species of plant that you are using to those that thrive in these conditions. The following perennial plants will perk up any dry, shady spot in your garden: barren strawberry, perennial geranium, barrenwort, Lamium, heart-leaved Bergenia, sweet woodruff, bearberry, lamb’s ear, European bistort (bottle brush), lungwort, Hosta, and silver mound. I have also found that columbine, Siberian iris, daylilies and astilbe have been successful in, my extremely dry conditions. And to further add interest and colour there are also some great annuals to consider such as begonias, impatients, monkey flower, dusty miller, alyssum and portulaca are good choices that can tolerate drier shady conditions. Annuals can be added right in the ground or try planting in coloured containers, placed strategically in the desired area for and extra pop of colour and dimension, in the depths of the shade. 

But in summary, my number one tip is to water frequently and do not assume that rainfall alone is enough moisture from this location. You have to remember that the barriers that create the shady conditions, most likely also prevent full penetration of precipitation especially when it was a light rain. So, plan accordingly that you will have to establish a supplemental watering schedule throughout the growing season and right up until the ground freezes. I assure you with my sandy soils and the last two very dry summers and falls I was watering my gardens regularly until the end of October. Extra work yes but it pays off by reducing winter mortality and in normal moisture years, such as this one, it is a jungle out there and the plants are thriving. And always, no matter where you plant any new shrubs or perennials always be sure to water well, in the first couple of months, while they’re getting established.

I have to admit, I planted a shady woodland garden on my very dry shady property over 10 years ago, thinking it was going to be low maintenance and easy to maintain. Well it wasn’t, and in the first few years as it was trial and error to establish with the right plants and successfully maintain the moisture levels but I have persevered and now I have a very well established woodland garden that will a supplemental watering schedule is thriving. So by following my tips in this column, which come from the trials and tribulations of establishing my own garden in a challenging growing condition, you too can have great success.