Shade Loving Heuchera, a.k.a Coral Bells

Heuchera, also known by the common names Coral Bells or Alumroot, is a sensational shade plant that is very easy to grow. These plants are generally pest-free and require little care once established.  This shade loving perennial is grown almost exclusively for its vibrant colorful foliage and they are gorgeous! Check out these colors:



Heuchera are a herbaceous perennial plant that is native to North America and it’s root is known to have medicinal qualities which is where the common name alumroot comes from.

Heucherella 'Alabama Sunrise' by Bluestone Perennials
Heucherella ‘Alabama Sunrise’.

Heuchera have been placed in the Saxifragaceae plant family which also includes perennial favorites like astilbe, bergenia, and tiarella (foam flowers).  In fact, the tiarella has been crossed with the heuchera to create the heucherella!


The heuchera is a relatively small perennial at between 10 and 20 inches tall with flower stems that reach 1 to 2 feet above the colorful foliage. The size of the leaves vary by variety.  They can quite petite or as large as your hand!

Foliage and Flowers

The foliage of the heuchera is the main attraction to this plant.  With so many colors of foliage to choose from, there is just the right heuchera to light up a shady corner in any landscape.

Heuchera does produce lovely delicate flowers on long 1 to 2 foot stems in early to mid summer.  The flowers are less showy than the foliage but they do add subtle beauty. The flowers also attract butterflies and hummingbirds to the garden.  The flowers make a beautiful filler for any cut flower arrangement.

Heuchera 'Berry Smoothie' in bloom. Photo by Bluestone Perennials.
Heuchera ‘Berry Smoothie’ in bloom. Photo by Bluestone Perennials.

Growing Requirements and Care

Heuchera will grow as a perennial in zones 3-8, depending on the variety.  These plants grow best in part sun, although different varieties tolerate different conditions.  In general, darker colored varieties are able to withstand more sunlight than lighter colored varieties.

Heuchera grow best in neutral to slightly acidic moist well-drained soil. Good drainage is a must in order to avoid root rot situations.  Add a good amount of compost to the soil when you plant your heuchera to improve soil structure and add nutrients to the soil.  Once your newly planted heuchera begins to sprout new leaves, add a slow release fertilizer to the soil to give the plant an extra boost.  Every spring add a good helping of compost and some slow release fertilizer to your heuchera plant to keep it happy and healthy all season long.

  Heuchera should be watered deeply once or twice a week depending on temperature and soil conditions.  Heuchera grow best when the ground is mulched to keep it moist but keep mulch one to two inches away from the stem to avoid stem rot issues.

Heuchera can be a beautiful addition to rock gardens, especially on slopes where the drainage is good.  Additionally, it’s easily grown as a potted plant to provide just the right punch of color for a mixed planter!

Trouble shooting


  • Powdery Mildew is a fungus that looks like baby powder on the leaf of the plant. It may also infect the stems, fruits, and flowers.  During hot wet weather, use a preventative fungicide before symptoms appear. Natural neem oil  is effective at preventing and treating powdery mildew.  As always, carefully read and follow the directions on any garden chemicals before use.
    • Powdery mildew fungi will overwinter in plant material so any plant debris (like fallen leaves) affected by this fungi should be thrown away.  Do not place infected plant material in the compost or it will spread the disease.
    • Spores spread on the wind and will take up residence on wet plant leaves so water using soaker hose or drip irrigation system to keep root moist and plants dry.
Powdery Mildew on lilac leaf. Photo by Iowa State University Extension.
Powdery Mildew on lilac leaf. Photo by Iowa State University Extension.
  • Downy Mildew is caused by a parasitic organism that is not a true fungus but has some fungal qualities. Downy mildew tends to appear in spring during cool damp weather. It appears as a  fuzzy white, grey,  purple, or brown growth on the underside of the leaf.  Yellow or brown spots may  be seen on the top of the infected leaf.  There are few chemical controls available to the home gardener for this disease but  Bonide makes a product called “Liquid Copper Fungicide” that can be used to help control downy mildew.
    • Remove infected plant material as soon as possible and  as Downy Mildew survives the winter on dead plant material, clean up dead plant material in the fall. Discard it in the trash.  Don’t place it in the compost pile or the disease will spread.
    • This disease is spread through water so use drip irrigation or soaker hoses to water plants.
Downy Mildew on a leaf. Photo by PennState Extension.
Downy Mildew on a leaf. Photo by PennState Extension.
  • Stem Rot can be caused by a number of issues from injuries to fungal issues related to overwatering and wet conditions.  To avoid stem injury, keep all mulch several inches away from the stem.  This will also help with wet conditions.  Make sure to water deeply once or twice a week and avoid quick frequent waterings, especially water on the leaves and stem. It’s best to water the ground around the heuchera and avoid getting the plant wet.  Stem rot can also be caused by a fungus so care in watering is very important.
    • Once stem rot has occurred, a fungal spray may help but most often the plant will need to be removed.

Insect Issues:

  • Aphids are a common pest among garden plants but they are relatively easy to control.  I use a soap and water mixture as a natural remedy to control aphids.  You can also encourage carnivorous insects like ladybugs and lacewings to take up residence in your garden to help control unwanted insects like aphids. Manufactured sprays containing pyrethrins can also be used to control aphids but some of these sprays will kill beneficial insects like butterflies and bees so use with caution.
  • Weevils may cause damage to the leaves and roots of the heuchera. In the larval stage, weevils look like worms or grubs in the ground.  In the adult stage, these bugs look like black beatle-type insects. To control root weevils, parasitic nematodes are added to the soil to kill the larvae and a shallow bowl of water will attract the adult beetles.  The adults will crawl into the water and drown.  Synthetic pesticides can also be used to control weevils as well.  Read and follow the directions on all manufactured pesticides before use.
Heuchera 'Delta Dawn' Photo by Bluestone Perennials
Heuchera ‘Delta Dawn’ Photo by Bluestone Perennials

Heuchera is an exquisite garden perennial with colors that will light up any shade garden.  They are extremely easy to grow and are versitile enough to grow in planters as well as a rock garden.  Add a few to your garden to add a shock of color!

Happy Gardening!

Quote of the Day

“Happiness radiates like the fragrance from a flower and draws all good things towards you.”

– Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Indian Philosopher


INTERVIEWS WITH EXPERTS: Renita Kainz, Master Gardener

Renita Kainz has been a been a serious gardener since her early 20’s.  She has worked in the commercial garden industry for most of her adult life.  In 2008, Renita furthered her experience as a gardener by gaining formal horticultural training in the Master Gardener program.

Tip:  If you would like more information about becoming a master gardener, contact your local extension service for details.

I met with Renita for an enjoyable morning interview, after which she took me on a guided tour to view her large collection of potted plants, landscaped gardens, and amazing backyard greenhouse.  We talked about how she became interested in gardening and how gardening has played a central role in her life.  I asked her a few questions to learn more about her long-term dedication to the hobby she loves so much.


How did the interest in gardening begin?

Renita said grew up on a farm in a rural area watching both parents work the ground,  her mother through vegetable gardening and her father through farming.   Then, when Renita was in her teens, her mother brought home a collection of houseplants that tickled Renita’s passion for plants.  Renita said it was in her college days that she dove head-first into gardening herself when she came into ownership of her own large collection of houseplants.

How did that interest become a lifelong activity?

Renita said that in her 30’s, she began work as a seasonal greenhouse worker and once she began working at a greenhouse full-time, she was content and happy.  At that point, her passion for gardening stuck.

“Remember, every gardening year has successes and failures, just like people.”          – Renita Kainz          

Renita’s garden organization participation.

The Garden Plotters

Renita explained that in 2006, she, along with greenhouse co-workers, started a garden club known as the Garden Plotters. The club has evolved into a fun social group that allows members to share their passion for gardening.  The club meets monthly to share ideas, view local gardens, and listen to speakers among other things. The club members also volunteer time, energy, and money to Kuhnert Arboretum.  To date, the Garden Plotters have raised nearly $17,000 for Kuhnert Arboretum with their club’s annual plant sale.

Aberdeen Garden Plotters Photo from Kuhnert Arboretum Facebook Page
Photo courtesy of Kuhnert Arboretum Facebook page.

The 2018 Garden Plotter’s Plant Sale is celebrating its 10th Anniversary.  For more information about the annual plant sale, please check out the club’s Facebook page at Aberdeen Garden Plotters.

Master Gardener Program

Renita started her master gardener training in 2008 and became certified in 2010.  Since then she has been involved with the Prairie Partners Master Gardener Club,  holding office for six years, including serving as president for three.

Hardy Rosarians of South Dakota

Most recently, Renita joined the Hardy Rosarians of South Dakota. This club also volunteers time and resources to Kuhnert Arboretum, having designed and installed the recent rose garden addition which includes 100 roses of 51 varieties that are hardy in South Dakota’s Zone 4 climate zone.

Kuhnert Arboretum rose garden
Kuhnert Arboretum rose gardens. Photo courtesy of Kuhnert Arboretum Facebook page.

Any areas of specialty or favorite type of plants?

Renita said she doesn’t really have a favorite plant or area of gardening which she prefers.  She said that in general she loves landscape plants which include a variety of trees, shrubs, and perennials.  But, Renita said, as a hobby, she has a fondness for airplants, orchids, succulents, and exotic geraniums.

Gardening books Renita recommends:  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson,  The Truth About Garden Remedies by Jeff Gillman, and The Truth About Organic Gardening, also by Jeff Gillman.

Why is gardening organically important?

Renita said she has always loved nature.  She said she prefers organic gardening, as opposed to using synthetic chemicals, because not only do chemicals “smell bad” but as she has learned more and more about synthetic chemicals, she realized just how dangerous they are to people and the environment. Renita pointed out that synthetic chemicals sometimes kill off the beneficial microbes in the soil which help keep plants healthy and strong.

“If you wouldn’t eat it, don’t put it on your plants.” –Renita Kainz

What are three frequently asked gardening questions?

Renita said the most frequently asked question is, “How often should I water?” followed by, “What’s wrong with this plant?” and “What can I plant that I don’t have to do anything with?”  These are all very common garden questions that most gardeners face at some point.  The answers to these questions of course, rely on the details of the garden, the plant, or the gardener involved.

Column evergreen with metal flower

What are three gardening tips or hints every gardener should know?

  1.  “Tough love is better than too much kindness.”  Renita and I laughed about this hint because we agree that more plants are killed from too much attention than not enough.
  2. “Don’t be afraid to try anything.”  Renita said that she has killed far more plants than she has ever successfully grown, which I think most gardeners could agree with!
  3. “Do your own research, either through books, magazines, the internet, or by asking experts.”  Renita recommends educating yourself on your topic of interest prior to planting.  She cautioned that in regard to internet searches, it is best to use sites that end in .edu or .org as these sites can usually be trusted for accuracy. Use caution with information from other sites as the information may not be reliable.

What are the benefits of becoming a master gardener?

Renita said that master gardeners are trained in horticulture by experts in the field.  The “job” of the Master Gardener is to pass along this information to educate the public.  She said the experience allowed her to meet like-minded people and the training  satisfied her deep desire to keep learning about gardening, a subject she is very passionate about.


It was great fun to interview Renita about her passion and expansive knowledge of gardening.  And, I was very honored to have a tour of her beautifully landscaped yard and awesome backyard greenhouse.  I hope this interview stoked your passion for gardening and all the joys that come with it.

The next interview in the Interviews with Experts series is with expert commercial grower and retail operations manager, Dana Althoff.  Until then,

Happy Gardening!

Quote of the Day

“The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies.”

-Gertrude Jekyll, British horticulturalist



Laundry Basket Planter Video

Using a laundry basket as a planter.  What a great idea!  But, it’s not my idea.  I found this video on Youtube on the Garden Answer Youtube channel.  This is such a unique inexpensive idea for a garden planter.  I had to share it with you.  Happy Gardening!

Note:  I do not own this video and I am not paid to advertise it.


Growing The Nearly Indestructible Daylily

For new gardeners, the vast sea of flower choices for a new perennial garden can be overwhelming.  Hemerocallis, or the daylily as they are more commonly known, is a great place to start.   Not only are daylilies easy to grow and hard to kill, but they also come in a rainbow of colors and many sizes.

Fun Fact:  The common name “daylily” comes from the fact that each individual bloom on the hemerocallis plant lasts only 1 day.

Origins of the Daylily

Hemerocallis or common daylily
Hemerocallis: photo by Wanette Lenling

Daylilies are perennial plants that have been grown in Asia for thousands of years.  These plants were relished not only for their beauty but because they are also edible and used for medicinal purposes.  Daylilies are thought to have been introduced to Europe around 400 years ago and then were imported into the United States by early Europeans.

Fun Fact:  There are now more than 80,000 registered cultivars of hemerocallis.

Plant Description

Daylilies are fast growing easy care perennials that come in a wide variety of colors and sizes.

double daylily bloom
Peach double daylily bloom: Photo by


Daylilies grow in a vase-shaped arching clump of dark green grass-like foliage with blades that are 1-2 feet long and up to 1 inch wide. Daylilies can grow anywhere from 12 to 36 inches or more in height and between 12 to 24 inches wide.

Hemerocallis 'Swirling Waters'
Hemerocallis ‘Swirling Waters’: Photo by Wanette Lenling


Hemerocallis blooms generally have six petals centered around a tube-shaped throat, however some recent cultivars have double blooms meaning they have more than 6

Hemerocallis 'Seal of Approval'
Tri-colored bloom from Hemerocallis ‘Seal of Approval’: Photo from Bluestone Perennials

petals (see peach double bloom daylily pictured above). Daylilies  come in shades of nearly white, yellow, blue, red, pink, orange, purple, and black. Many cultivars have blooms with dual or triple color combinations as well.

Petals on more recent cultivars have also been bred to exhibit a ruffled appearance. The tri-colored cultivar ‘Seal of Approval’ (right) exhibits such ruffled petals whereas the ‘Swirling Waters’ cultivar (above) has the more traditional smooth petals.

How to Grow a Daylily

Daylilies are extremely easy to grow and generally take care of themselves. Daylilies naturalize well in open areas but they don’t compete well with trees and shrubs.   The plants are adapted to grow in zones 3-9.  Plant in average well-drained loamy soil.  For best results, grow in full sun to partial sun.  Dead-head spent flowers and remove old flower stalks to keep a tidy appearance and to encourage re-bloomers to continue blooming.  Water established plants deeply only once or twice per week unless there are drought conditions, extreme heat, or sandy soil, in which case plants may need watering for frequently.

Fun Fact: Some newer cultivars are referred to as “re-bloomers” which means that they  will bloom more than once or continuously throughout the summer.

Trouble Shooting:

  • Few to no blooms:
    • Over-fertilization can reduce the number of blooms. Add compost in the spring around your hemerocallis or a small amount of general all-purpose slow release fertilizer to feed your daylily all summer long. High nitrogen fertilizer will reduce the number of blooms.
    • Low light can reduce the number of blooms.  Move the plant to a full sun location if the plant fails produce abundant blooms.
  • Over-watering:
    • Over-watering can lead to many issues including fungal disease and root rot. In general,  water deeply only once or twice per week.
  • Diseases:
    • Leaf streak fungus: This fungus is not normally deadly to the plant but causes cosmetic issues. Remove infected leaves.  Water and fertilize the plant to encourage new growth.  Water with
      daylily leaf streak fungus
      Daylily leaf streak fungus infestation. Photo by University of Wisconsin Extension

      soaker hose or drip irrigation which puts the water directly on the ground to stop the spread of the fungus.  Apply fungicides containing chlorothalonil, mancozeb or thiophanate-methyl  during wet weather to prevent the disease.

  • Insect trouble:
    • Aphids and thrips may take up residence in your hemerocallis.  Remove dead foliage and treat with a soap and water mixture or a commercial insecticide.

Daylilies are a fantastic addition to any sunny garden. They can be used in a formal as well as informal garden and require little care for the beauty they produce.

Happy Gardening!


Quote of the Day

“A cloudy day is no match for a sunny disposition.”

-William Arthur Ward, American writer

What Do The Numbers On Fertilizer Mean?

There are a few basic things that every gardener should know and one of those basics is what the numbers on a container of fertilizer mean. You may have seen the numbers on fertilizer2seemingly random numbers, usually in larger print, on a container of fertilizer that look something like this:  “5-10-5” or “10-6-4” or “24-8-16”.  It’s very important that gardeners know what those numbers mean, BUT DON’T WORRY it’s not hard, so keep reading.

What do the numbers on fertilizer mean?

The numbers on a fertilizer container are simply the ratios of the nutrients the fertilizer contains, specifically nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium.  These nutrients are similar to a well-balanced diet for a human.  The right balance of nutrients for your plant will make it thrive in your landscape and garden.

numbers on fertilizer


The first number refers to the amount of nitrogen in the fertilizer.  Nitrogen is important because:

  • It promotes top growth on plants and grass
  • It is essential for lush green foliage growth and grass blades
  • A lack of  nitrogen causes plants to have yellow-green foliage and little to no top growth
  • Too much nitrogen reduces the production of flowers and fruits

Nitrogen that is found naturally in the soil comes from the decomposition of plant matter so adding compost to the soil is a natural source of nitrogen for your landscape and garden.

Autumn Joy Sedum: Photo by Wanette Lenling


The second number refers to the amount of phosphorous the fertilizer contains.  Phosphorous is essential for:

  • stimulating root growth and development
  • promoting the development of flowers and fruits
  • promoting plant vigor with deficiencies resulting in slow or stunted plant growth

Phosphorous is retained in the soil well as it binds itself tightly to soil particles so it’s important not to add too much phosphorous as it may lead to leaf burn and unhealthy growth.

Mock orange : Photo by Wanette Lenling

Potassium (Also known as Potash)

The third number is the amount of potassium in the fertilizer.  Potassium is necessary for:

  • Overall plant health as it allows the plant to regulate its physiological processes  (This simply means that potassium helps a plant’s internal mechanisms function better, like when you take a vitamin everyday.)
  • Inadequate potassium leads to lowered disease resistance  and a reduced tolerance to environmental stresses, like drought

Potassium also tends to be retained in the soil well so don’t add too much.  On the other hand, a deficiency is easy to spot as the lower leaves of the plant will be yellow in color between the greener veins.

Cabbage: Photo by Wanette Lenling

There you have it.  That’s what the those funny numbers mean on a container of fertilizer. But,  this is just the basic information. If you would like more in-depth information on fertilizer, click on the links below from three great educational sources of horticultural information including South Dakota State University, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Illinois.

Happy Gardening!

Quote of the Day

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

-Albert Einstein, physicist


Fertilizing Gardens (University of South Dakota, pdf)

Garden Issues: Nutrient Deficiencies (University of Minnesota)

Characteristics Of Natural and Manufactured Fertilizers For Lawns (University of Minnesota)

Choosing Fertilizers for Home Lawns (University of Illinois Extension)







Garden Tips and Helpful Hints

Sometimes as a gardener you have small questions that don’t require an extended answer.  Today I’m going to give you five helpful hints and garden tips for everyday garden questions.

 1. How do I know when to water my potted plants?

For most potted annual plants a good rule of thumb is to stick your finger into the soil up to your first knuckle.  If you feel moisture, hold off watering.  If you don’t feel any moisture, go ahead and water.  This is just a general guideline.  It works well for most potted annuals (that have good drainage) but doesn’t work well for plants like succulents which need much less water and plants like ferns which need more. Be sure to educate yourself on the water requirements of your specific potted plants.

Annuals in a tree stump flower bed

2. Should I dead-head my garden plants?

Unless you want to save seeds, dead-heading garden plants keep them looking tidy and also encourages plants to produce more blossoms.  If you want to save seeds, don’t dead-head your plants.  Leave the expired blossoms on the plant.  Most plants, especially annuals and biennials (that are in their second year of growth) will produce seed heads or seed pods where the spent blossoms are located.  Simply collect the seeds, allow them to dry fully, and put them in containers until you’re ready to use them. (Don’t forget to label your seeds!)


3.  Should I mulch my garden and landscape?

You should use mulch in your landscape and garden to not only keep moisture in the ground but to keep the roots of your plants cool. Summer sun will heat up black dirt very very quickly and can damage sensitive roots.  You can use landscape rock or bark mulch in your landscape for a neat appearance and anything from straw to leaves in your vegetable garden which not only keeps moisture in but breaks down into compost to add nutrients to the soil as well.


4. When should I fertilize?

The general rule is to apply fertilizer in spring and fall but it depends on the kind of fertilizer you use.  Compost can be added at any time but adding it in the spring when you plant is best.  Slow release fertilizers are usually applied in spring and early fall.  This helps plants get going in the spring and build up nutrients for a winter’s rest.  Liquid fertilizers are generally applied weekly because they act fast and wash away quickly. Always read the label on manufactured fertilizers and follow the directions for proper application.


5. And finally, a question I am asked all the time is should you have a gardening buddy?

Yes.  I highly recommend a gardening buddy to cuddle with, oops I mean to visit with, while you enjoy the fresh air and sunshine.

Happy gardening!

Quote of the Day

“I take care of my flowers and my cats. And enjoy food.  And that’s living.”

-Ursula Andress, Swiss actress

How to Garden in Dry Shade

Lady’s Mantle

Dry shade is a difficult condition in which to grow a garden, even for experienced gardeners.  Dry shade provides only limited sun and moisture for plant life. Without these two elements, most plant life will not grow.  So what is a gardener to do? There are a few steps a gardener can take before starting a dry shade garden in order to have a more successful garden.
Solomon’s Seal

STEP 1. The first step is to visit the area where you would like to put the garden.  Go to the area several times during the day to determine how much sun is actually hitting the area and at what times of the day sun is getting through.

Look up and determine how much cover is provided by trees and other structures in the area.  Some trees, like birch and honeylocust, provide dappled shade because of their small leaves. Other trees, like oak and maple,  may create  deep shade with their large leaves essentially blocking most of the sunlight the area would receive. You need to determine what type of shade you have because that will determine the types of plants that will grow in that area.  Many plants will grow in dappled shade but far fewer plants will grow in deep shade.

Next, determine what time of day the sun is hitting the area? Morning sun is much cooler than afternoon sun.  This means a shade plant that is shaded most of the day but hit directly by afternoon sun, even for a short period of time, may actually suffer from burns by the sun. Believe it or not,  in this case, you may need to plant a sun-loving plant in that area of your shade garden!

STEP 2. Look around on the ground. Is there any plant life growing in the area now?  If so, what is it?  Is it herbaceous weeds, like dandelions and crabgrass, or is it mostly moss and mushrooms?  If plant life is abundant on the ground, it’s a good sign. This means that the area will likely support your new shade garden.   If there isn’t vegetation on the ground, it doesn’t mean you can’t put your new garden there,  it simply means you must determine why plants are not naturally growing in that area and fix the problem.
bare woodland floor

 If the ground in the area is desolate of herbaceous plant life, you’ll need to determine the cause. Is the area too shady for plant life? Is it too dry?  Is the ph of the soil really high or really low?  Is the ground infertile? (Hint:  If there was a house or other structure located on the area for many years, the ground may be sterile or contaminated.  If the ground is sterile, add compost.  If you feel the soil may be contaminated, contact your local authorities to determine what the contamination is and what needs to be done to contain it if necessary.)

Use your senses to determine the moisture level in the soil. Look at the soil.  Is the soil dry and cracked on the surface.  When you hold it in your hand, does it simply fall apart (dry) or can you press it into a ball (moisture is present)? If the soil is too dry,   you need to determine why.  View the area after a rainfall. Is dense tree cover keeping rain water from hitting the ground? Does rain hit the ground but simply run away from the area because the area is on a slope? Or, is the ground boggy and water pools on the surface, not soaking in as it should?
step landscaping

If the area is dry because it is covered by a canopy of large dense trees, the area will need to be irrigated to provide the moisture necessary for a garden.  Running soaker hoses under the mulch after you plant your new garden is a great way to provide the moisture your plants will need to grow. (Hint: I don’t recommend using sprinklers in a shade garden because it creates a situation wherein the foliage of the plants remains wet for extended periods of time which could cause fungal issues in your garden.)

If the problem is that rain water is running down a slope, you may need to create small level areas called steps or terraces on which to plant your gardens.  This will help the area retain natural moisture from rainfall and dew. It also stops the soil from washing away in a heavy rain.

If the water is not soaking into the ground as it should and the area is not in a low spot on the ground that naturally collects rainwater, then the issue may be compacted soil.  Compacted soil is generally due to having too much clay in the soil.   Clay soil holds little by way of nutrients and because it is made up of such small particles, it compacts and does not allow water to flow through it.

How do you determine what your soil consists of?  There is a very simple and fun test you can do to determine your soil structure.
soil composition test

Fill a glass jar with approximately 1/3 soil and 2/3 water. Seal the jar with the lid and shake it up.  Let the jar rest for a day to allow the soil to settle out of the water.  When the soil settles,  you should see three distinct layers: sand, silt, and clay. If there is any organic matter in the soil, like leaf particles, it will be floating on top. Sand particles, which are the largest and heaviest particles, will settle to the bottom of the jar.  Silt particles will make up the center layer of soil in the jar and clay particles, which are the smallest, will form a layer at the top.

Now that you know what your soil consists of, it will help you to determine your next step. Sandy soil allows all the moisture to drain away and creates a situation in which your garden will need to be watered constantly.  On the other hand, too much clay in the soil will create a situation in which the ground will retain water and become boggy and lack oxygen.  (Hint:  Plant leaves take in carbon dioxide but cells in the plant roots need oxygen to stay alive.)  Also, clay soil, with its small particles, tends to get compacted which creates a very dense and hard growing medium that plant roots struggle to penetrate.

Under most circumstances, it is almost always necessary to amend the soil in a new garden area with compost.  This will correct both sandy and clay soil situations. Compost adds organic matter that breaks down into the nutrients your plants will need to thrive.  It also improves the soil structure by aerating the soil. Oddly enough, it improves water retention in the soil while simultaneously improving drainage creating the perfect growing medium for plant life.

STEP 3.  Check the ph level of the soil.  This step is optional but it may help you to understand what will and what won’t grow in your new garden. (Hint: Look around to see what types of plants are naturally growing in the area.  Evergreens, oak trees, and hydrangeas like acid soil while grass, lilacs, and linden trees like neutral or slightly alkaline soil.)  Testing kits for ph can be found either at your local garden store or online.  They are generally under $10.  The test usually consists of a test tube, a capsule that tests the soil ph,  and a chart showing different colors for different levels of ph.  To run this test, add a small amount of soil to the test tube along with distilled water and the ph capsule.  Then seal the test tube and shake it. The water should change color.  Look at the chart that comes with the product to determine the ph level of the soil by the color of the water in the tube.  (Hint: Directions for each test product may vary so read the directions carefully before using your new soil ph test kit.)

Soil ph is important  because certain plants grow better in acidic soil, like hydrangeas and azaleas,  while others grow better in a more neutral or slightly alkaline soil, like spirea and brunnera. (Hint:  You can adjust the soil ph by adding amendments to the soil but I don’t recommend it. If the soil ph is really high or really low, amend the soil with compost and imported top soil.  If you simply want plants that don’t grow well in the soil that is present because of the ph, try growing them in pots because artificially changing the natural soil ph of the area may, through leaching,  injure or kill the plants naturally growing in the native soil around your new garden.  It’s always best to work with the soil ph that is present and plant accordingly.)

STEP 4. Is the ground fertile? There isn’t really an easy test for the average gardener to check the ground for fertility. The fertility of the ground is measured by the  nutrients that are present and in what amounts.  Generally, to begin any garden (or to add nutrients to an existing garden), the solution is to add plenty of compost.  Compost adds nutrients back to the soil naturally.  In addition to compost, you can also use a starter fertilizer when you plant your new garden plants to give them a boost and then use a general all-purpose fertilizer twice a year thereafter.  As always, I recommend using organic fertilizers when you can. They won’t burn your plants and they are better for the environment.

Finally it’s time to plant.  What types of plants grow in dry shade? Here is a list of just a few garden plants that will grow in dry shade to get you going. Remember also that the level of shade a plant will tolerate, from dappled shade to deep shade, will vary depending on the plant and sometimes by the variety as well. Don’t be afraid to do your own research to find just the right plants for your new garden.

  • Lady’s mantle
  • Helleborus
  • Brunnera
  • Fern
  • Hosta
  • Foxglove
  • Pachysandra
  • Vinca Minor
  • English Ivy
  • Bergenia
  • Dicentra (Bleeding hearts)
  • Foamflowers
  • Lenten Rose
  • Lamium
  • Tradescantia
  • Perennial Geranium

Dry shade is a challenging condition in which to grow plants but don’t shy away from it.  Gardening is all about trying new things and using your creativity to tackle the problem.  Dry shade can be a tough venture even for an experienced gardener but it’s well worth the work when you finally get to take that walk through your beautiful new shade garden enjoying the beauty of the landscape and the scents around you!

beautiful shade garden

Happy gardening!

Quote of the Day

“Gardening is learning, learning, learning. That’s the fun of them. You’re always learning. ”

–Helen Mirren, actress