Perhaps the most challenging environment in which to garden successfully is dry shade. Beneath the canopy of mature trees, dense tangled surface roots and exceedingly dry soil make it a difficult to maintain adequate soil moisture and nutrients. Though its easy to give up and simply edge out an area to mulch, there are techniques which can help create flourishing dry shade gardens.
In dry shade environments, soil is often lacking (in addition to moisture and light) nutrients, so amending the soil is essential. The addition of compost, manure or other organic material helps create conditions which mimic the forest floor. A yearly application of bark mulch helps as well. Bark mulch slowly decomposes and, as it does, increases the amount of organic matter in the soil. Another solution would be to simply create a natural garden by allowing the falling pine needle or leaves to remain in the garden.
Before you begin planting, look up to see if there are any branches which could be removed which will allow more light into the space. Selectively pruning or “limbing up” the trees will increase the selection of plants which can be used in the garden.
If your dry shade garden is beneath a dense stand of deciduous trees (trees which lose their leaves each winter), the garden will be most colorful in spring before the tree develops its new leaves. Deciduous trees allow the sun filter into the garden during early spring. It is at this time that spring flowering bulbs are in full bloom and early blooming perennials take advantage of the additional light. As the season progresses plants with interesting foliage become the focal point of the garden.
Beneath evergreens, the soil is usually poor due to the lack of an annual leaf fall which, in deciduous forests, provides layers of organic mulch. Compost and other organic matter add nutrients and increase the soil‘s ability hold moisture. Gardens beneath evergreens are generally in deeper shade and require plants which are shade demanding not simply shade tolerant. There’s a big difference between plants which can survive in the shade and ones which thrive in it!
Hosta, a perennial with a wide range of varieties, is a great plant for dry shade as it can tolerate even the most difficult garden conditions. Solid and variegated varieties light up the garden with splashes of color. Also, incorporate different shades of green throughout the garden. Bright yellow greens light up a shady space while blue greens create a feeling of depth, making a space feel larger than it is. Many plants which thrive in the shade have developed large leaves and interesting foliage as a way for the plant to capture as much sunlight as possible.
The addition of shade tolerant annuals, such as impatiens, require pocket of deeper soil and frequent watering.
With some soil preparation, selective pruning and proper plant selection, dry shade environment can be transformed into wonderful shade gardens.