Dealing with shade in the garden

Dry shade presents particular challenges for the gardener

Dry shade presents particular challenges for the gardener. Here's a book that tackles the problem and makes useful
suggestions, writes JANE POWERS

GARDEN PESTS VARY hugely, depending on where you live. In my urban garden, for example, the worst offenders are slugs and snails, and the occasional fox that digs out a freshly planted specimen, in search of earthworms. My country friends are martyrs to bunny rabbits and badgers. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, however, white-tailed deer and black bear are the scourge of garden writer Graham Rice’s patch. Somehow my molluscs seem inconsequential in comparison.

But we do share another affliction, one that is common to gardeners the world over: the curse of dry shade. Rice’s garden is in the woods – a mixture of deciduous and coniferous trees – so shadow and thirsty soil are his lot. In my case, and in that of many who garden in towns, it is a combination of trees and buildings that deny the soil light and moisture. It has taken me some years to work out what plants will survive in the dry and dim parts of my garden. Japanese anemone, pheasant grass (Anemanthele lessoniana), bergenia, Geranium macrorrizum and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum x hybridum) are a few that I’d recommend for the gloomier and drier reaches of Irish town plots.

Graham Rice, however, has given me a lot more ideas, as he has just written an entire book on the subject, Planting the Dry Shade Garden (Timber Press, £14.99). A respected garden writer who divides his time between the US and Britain, he has published more than 20 books (the Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Perennials, which he edited, is never far from my desk). He is also a judge at Chelsea Flower Show and a judge for various flower trials carried out by the RHS. In other words, he knows his plants.


His book, in common with almost all of Timber’s publications, is practical rather than showy. After discussing how to understand and cope with dry shade, he suggests over 130 species (most of which have several varieties) that will enliven the dismal and arid corners of the garden. His guide is categorised into shrubs, climbers, perennials, ground covers, bulbs, annuals and biennials, and also includes a selection of native plants for north America and Britain.

“Dry shade is that big problem situation that people think is insoluble. They think nothing will grow there,” he says, speaking on the phone from Pennsylvania, where he is finishing off his next book, before flying to England. “You don’t have to give up. You really can make it a beautiful part of the garden. It doesn’t have to be the place where you put the shed, or where all the old compost bags end up.”

As he explains in the book, though, a light-starved and parched space will grow very little on its own. Instead, it needs some beneficial modification – just how much depends on your energy and expertise. The least troublesome approach is just to choose the right plant, and make a better than usual planting hole, with plenty of organic matter, which will both feed the soil and retain moisture.

If you are more dedicated, and the shade is cast by a tree, Rice suggests lifting the crown (removing some of the lower limbs) or thinning some of the branches. If you need a full-size ladder instead of a step ladder for these operations, it’s safer to hire a professional, he cautions. The planting area can also be vastly improved by building a raised bed and filling it with a mixture of equal parts good topsoil and organic matter. Mulching when the soil is damp helps to lock in the moisture. He also advocates installing irrigation, in the form of a soaker hose (a perforated black rubber pipe) laid along the ground. Irrigating systems such as this are far more economical with water than a sprinkler or ordinary hose – but should still be used sparingly.

Wonderful wildflowers

Wildflowers of Ireland: a personal record is a beauteous book by Zoë Devlin (Collins, €29.99), in which she photographs and details hundreds of Irish plants, both native and introduced. Her entries are larded with folklore, quotations and her own observations. It's the perfect book for both beginners and seasoned gardeners

Graham Rice's shade plants for Irish gardens

Periwinkle (Vinca minor): trailing plant with blue, purple or white flowers, with stems that root into the ground; some varieties have variegated foliage.

Evergreen epimediums: ground-covering plants with heart-shaped leaves and yellow, copper or pink flowers. Make sure they are evergreen kinds, as these are more robust.

Foxglove: biennial plant with tall spires of flower. The native species has crimson bells; there are also white and pink forms.

Daffodil: choose small-flowered dwarf varieties such as 'Jack Snipe', 'February Gold' and 'Icewings' because the stems stretch a little in the shade. Heavier kinds may collapse.

Ferns: the male ferns (Dryopteris filix-mas and D. affinis) and shield ferns (Polystichum sp.).

Japanese hydrangea vine (Schizophragma hygrangeoides): self-clinging climber, with lacy white flowers, the cultivar 'Moonlight' has red stems and silver-washed leaves.