Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Gardening in dry shade.

I have a confession to make. I am, by trade, a Landscape Architect. When people discover this, I get a lot of questions. And that's cool. No really, I don't mind. But I can't tell you what to plant in your back yard at a cocktail party, because I am at a cocktail party and not in your back yard. I need to experience a space to know what it needs. And while I try to always maintain a professional attitude when the plant questions start, when you tell me that you can't have a garden because you have shade, or horror of horrors, dry shade, you might need to give me a minute because I am mentally rolling my eyes and picturing this:

That's my shade garden. My dry shade garden. Smashed between our cement walk and the neighbor's. Under a giant hemlock on the west end and a giant cedar on the east end (that's right, acidic dry shade). My house and porch almost completely block the southern exposure. My neighbor's side gets sun between oh, noon and 1 pm. My side gets almost no direct light. And I never water it. Isn't it lovely?

I love to garden, and I have a number of seperate gardens on our postage stamp lot. There's the dry shade garden next to the porch. I call it my "spring garden" because it's peaking about now. The upper hill, half day lilies, half iris and a few shrubs, the lower hill, which I refer to as "that mess", and my edible/natural play garden in the back. The dry shade garden is by far, my favorite. Why?

  • It's the only garden not on a hill (this is Pittsburgh after all).
  • It's cool to work in, even on hot summer days.
  • It's right off the porch, so I get to stare at it during dinner every night and whenever we hang out on the porch.
  • It contains some of my favorite plants
  • I spent almost no money on it. (Seriously, I might have spent $100 over the years, but not much more. I will get to that in a minute.)

I wish I had before pictures. It was a weedy strip of grass with a spite fence down the middle when we bought the house. Before pictures would be shocking. So, how did I transform a weedy mess into a beautiful urban garden?

It took some patience. I started by killing the grass with newspaper and mulch. Then I planted native plants and garden favorites that I knew would be hardy in dry shade. For every condition that you can imagine, (including every condition that you have in your back yard,) there is a group of plants that specialize in that condition. We call those plant communities. And once you understand the concept of plant communities, you can have a flourishing garden just about anywhere. When my neighbor saw how great it looked, the fence came down and we expanded the garden. The current neighbor shows no signs of being interested in the gardening, but he likes the garden, so he takes care of the mulch and I take care of the plants, and everyone is happy.

To create a garden you love, start with plants you love, that will love the conditions you will be introducing them to. It's like fixing up a good friend. You wouldn't send them on a date with someone who you don't like, and you wouldn't set them up for immediate failure with someone clearly unsuited for them. Be a good matchmaker to your plants, and they will reward you by flourishing and making lots and lots of adorable plant babies. (Which you can then move around to fill in all the empty spaces.) I like to start a new garden with a few "test" subjects, see how they do, then propagate the heck out of the ones that are clearly in love with their location. (All of the heuchera in the garden came from about 6 starter plants.) This is the slow road, with some trial and error, but I love to garden, so for me it is fun. (This is not the advice I give clients, but rather this is the advice I pass on to gardeners and DIYers.)

Pick plants for their foliage (leaf texture, color, shape, not just fall color) and consider flowers a bonus. While the flower show in this garden is peaking about now, the foliage lasts all summer and into fall. Most of the color and interest in this garden comes from the leaves, not the flowers. Pair lacy textures with broad leaf textures, grassy textures with round textures. Choose multiple varieties of the same plant with different colored leaves.

Be on the lookout for freebies. I hunted violets in the yard, dug them up and let them go wild near the stepping stones. I love my violets, they are a wonderful ground cover and underplanting.

I snagged everything my mother in law cleaned out of her garden. I accepted starts from friends and neighbors. I started plants from seeds, both collected and purchased. I regularly divided plants down to their smalles viable size (plug size) then replanted them closely in mass to create large drifts of a single plant. I found three different types of sedum in cracks in the sidewalk, pried them out, then tossed them in the garden. They are lovely. Below is the white flowering sedum next to some bright green heuchera.

Before I give you the run down of the plants in my garden, let me tell you that many are considered "rain garden" plants. Rain garden plants are generally natives that are adapted to both soaking and droughts conditions. Many rain garden plants listed for shade do well in dry shade. You can find lists of recommended rain garden plants from you local extension office or online.

So here's what is growing, and approximately what it cost me.

  • Two kinds of iris, free starts from friends.
  • Three kinds of sedum, free from the sidewalk.
  • Four kinds of heuchera (coral bells) around $4 each for the original plants, I think there were six. Divided into plugs last year, I ended up with almost 30 each of some varieties.
  • Two types of columbine, both grown from seed and allowed to re-seed freely. $2
  • Two kinds of hosta, some free from family, 2 plants purchased for around $4 each.
  • Mums, cast offs from Home Depot purchased for $.50-$1 each. They discount them after the blooms are spent, but the plants are still healthy.
  • One type of fern that is happily sending out new plants. $5
  • Violets, found in the yard and transplanted.
  • Primroses from the Hubster on Valentine's day. They are one of my favorites, and they show up in the grocery and box stores every February. By Valentine's day they are usually marked down to $.50 each. One year the Hubster surprised me with 3 flats of them. They make me happy every time I look at them.
  • On the sunnier side, my neighbor has some black eyed susans, lavender, sage, and a ground cover I honestly can't remember the name of.

So there you have it. My acidic dry shade garden. Smashed between the sidewalks. The personal assistant keeps sneaking out of the yard to "sit quietly among the flowers". He always knows just how to add joy to my happiness.


Happy gardening.




  1. This is a great post. While you were waiting for your plants to spread or become large enough to divide, did you mulch in between them?

    1. Thanks Shaina! To answer your question, yes. But I also filled the spaces with house plants and cheap annuals like impatiens to make it look fuller while I waited for the perennials to fill in. One thing that I enjoyed was actually putting my houseplant ferns in the ground for "summer vacation". They would be 2-3 pot sizes larger when it was time to dig them up and bring them indoors in the fall. It was a great way to transform my cheap little house plants into large lush house plants quickly.