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.
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.
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?
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.
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
- Vinca Minor
- English Ivy
- Dicentra (Bleeding hearts)
- Lenten Rose
- 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!
Quote of the Day
“Gardening is learning, learning, learning. That’s the fun of them. You’re always learning. ”
–Helen Mirren, actress