A dry shade challenge

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Shrubby Begonia arborescens

Dry shade is one of the most challenging areas in a garden. I have recently offered to plant up a garden bed in a neighbour's garden that is shaded by large surrounding trees and has a lot of root competition in the soil. The garden bed is along the front of the house, so the plantings can't be too tall. I have similar areas in my own garden, and over the years I have experimented with a number of different plants to see what can cope with these less-than-ideal conditions, and for this bed I am using only plants that I can easily propagate or dig up from my own garden. Maintenance is to be fairly minimal.

Cane-stemmed Begonia Sophie Cecile

My first thought in such a situation is always of the many and various shrubby and cane-stemmed Begonia species and cultivars. They cope with shade and dryness very well once established and flower over such a long period. They grow to about 1 or 2 m height if pruned annually. Many have beautifully decorative leaves. All of my specimens coped admirably with the searing 46-degree heat of last Friday - unlike many other plants, which got burnt. I plan to put some of these at the back of the border. The flowers are generally white or a variant of pink. Also at the rear of the border I will put a white-flowered Justicia carnea, as these shrubby perennials grow very well with Begonia and also cope with dry shade. The Begonia and Justicia both need a good cut-back at the end of winter and to be fertilised at that time.

Plectranthus argentatus

I love silver plants in the shade: though most silvery specimens grow best in sun, there are a few that cope with shade, especially the Australian native Plectranthus argentatus, which has wonderfully velvet silver leaves. It can grow to about a metre tall, though it can be trimmed back at any time to control its height. There are also some more compact cultivars around, such as 'Silver Shield', and there is a groundcover hybrid called 'Nicoletta' that looks very much like the shrubby form, although I am not sure if it is directly related to it.

Ctenanthe setosa Grey Star

Another good foliage plant for dry shade is Ctenanthe setosa 'Grey Star'. It has tall, upright lance-shaped leaves of silver-grey, with dark green markings. It forms a robust clump that needs to be reined in occasionally but it is an excellent and undemanding plant otherwise. I like to grow it near the plain green foliage of Aspidistra elatior, the old cast-iron plant, which is also shade- and drought-tolerant. The foliage is of a similar shape to that of the Ctenanthe. The larger forms of Spathiphyllum can also be tried in dry shade - their leaves are similar in shape to the other plants mentioned here but they have the bonus of large white flower spathes, which last for a long time through the warmer months.

Strappy foliage can provide contrast to these bolder-leaved plants and some good candidates for dry shade include various forms of Liriope muscari. I am fond of the giant form ('Evergreen Giant') and 'Silver Dragon', a silvery white-striped cultivar of Liriope spicata , but the plain green-leaved ones provide excellent spiked flowers in late summer and early autumn. Larger strappy foliage can be provided by spring-blooming Iris japonica and summer-flowering Hymenocallis species, with its pristine white spidery flowers.

Plectranthus hybrid - Cape Angels series

All the many forms of flowering Plectranthus are excellent in dry shade and provide lovely blooms in late summer and autumn. The taller ones include Plectranthus ecklonii, with flowers of pink, purple or white; on a smaller scale are cultivars such as the Cape Angels series. Plectranthus saccatus is an excellent filler in dry shade and its purplish-blue flowers appear throughout the warmer months. Groundcovers Plectranthus ciliatus and Plectranthus verticillatus are faithful workhorses in difficult, dry spots too. Low-growing rhizomatous Begonia are also excellent groundcovers for dry shade and there is a wide variety of colours, shape and textures in the leaves of these plants, plus pretty clouds of dainty pink or white flowers in spring.

All this is still in the planning stage at the moment, as it is far too hot to be thinking of planting anything. However, the soil can be dug over and improved by the addition of organic matter such as compost and decayed cow manure, and when the cooler weather arrives, I hope to see my vision realised! Further suggestions very welcome!

Reader Comments

  • By Julie 4510 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 21 January 2013

    Some great shade ideas there, thanks so much. I have a variegated aspidistra that I thought wd thrive in the shade/semi sun, but it seems to be frizzling ( is that a word?) with the heat. Might try again when weather cools and rain is more plentiful. I have also found the variegated Aspidistra needs a lot of shade or else it burns - seems to apply to a number of variegated plants. Mine took a very long time to establish but now I have a big clump that doesn"t need too much moisture. Deirdre

  • By Lee 3070 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 21 January 2013

    Hi Deirdre, Dry shade is such a challenge so thanks for your suggestions. I have growing under my large fig tree a scented geranium. I"m not sure which one it is but it"s beautiful mid green, flat hairy leaves are really beautiful. It forms a lovely spreading clump that"s easily tidied up when it starts to smoother other nearby plants. The colour of the leaves can really brighten a dull dark corner too. Clivia "Belgium hybrids",Honesty(seed heads), Eupatorum megalophyllum work in my garden... Thanks, Lee. That geranium might be the peppermint one, suggested by another reader below. It is a fantastic plant for dry shade so thanks for reminding me of it. I also enjoy the Clivias and the Eupatorium you mentioned in another shaded spot in my garden. Deirdre

  • By Libby 2093 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 21 January 2013

    Hi Deirdre, I have a lovely ground cover of Pelargonium tomentosum under my crepe myrtle and a mass of bromeliads under my cypress tree which flowered for the first time this year. Also another plant that does well in my dry shade is the peacock iris otherwise know as Moraea neopavonia. Thanks, Libby. They are great plants for shade. The bromeliads are fantastic as they also need so little soil to survive, so good where there is a lot of root competition under trees. Deirdre

  • By madeline 2145 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 21 January 2013

    Hi Deirdre, Euphorbia Silver Frost is brilliant under trees. I have a mass of it under my big crab apple and it is a delight, tough as, I actually have to hedge it back as it is growing so well, grows to about 1 mtr. Aspedistra like deep shade and do like a drink. I have some very old plants 3 1/2 mtr in diameter and high under my old osmanthus trees (you would need a back hoe to dig them out), but the ones in more light do burn especially the variegated ones which are also very slow growers. Thanks, Madeline - I have a similar Euphorbia called Diamond Frost and I never thought of using it in shade but you have inspired me! I agree with you re the variegated Aspidistra - takes ages to establish but eventually make a good clump. Deirdre

  • By Ann 2076 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 21 January 2013

    A horticulturist friend suggested Vinca Minor "Periwinkle" with blue or white flowers for a mostly shaded area with root competition from a large protected Cedrus Deodara on our site. Since the previous wetter months, unwanted self-seeded plants are appearing so it is time to do something about this! I have never had much luck with the periwinkle as mine never flowered that well and just went berserk! But I have a gold variegated one in a very dry shady bed that I don"t mind as it looks quite effective rambling between other plants. Deirdre

  • By Stephanie 2075 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 21 January 2013

    What a welcome article! I have experimented (with mixed reults!)in a an area below a huge Camelia sansanqua.I found that Arthropodiums(renga lilies) do well, if they get just a bit of moisture(mine are close against low wall) The tall flowers spikes brighten up the gloom.The variagated plectranthus is bomb proof,just needs the occasional curb as it does spread.I found that the beautiful,but prolongued fall of the camelia blooms can turn some plants to a soggy mess after rain! Yes the renga renga is a good one for dry shade. Good point about the camellia petals. Deirdre

  • By JANET 4211 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 21 January 2013

    I live on the Gold Coast and have a very shady very dry part of the garden - I have avoided begonias because I didn"t think they would do well here. Thanks for your article. I will give them a go. Also does anyone have any ideas about whether or not I could plant some sort of bulbs in a warm, shady, dry garden; cliveas might do well but any other suggestions, please? Clivias are very good for dry shade; maybe also try Scadoxus puniceus, Albucca and Hymenocallis - see my plant reference for information on these bulbs, which I grow in dry shade. I hope the begonias will be OK where you are - worth giving them a go. Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 22 January 2013

    Loved this blog. I also have a variegated aspidistra, mine receives morning sun, and likes the position, having increased to five times its original size. Most cane begonias and shrub-like begonias will adapt well to dry shade, although the majority of mine receive some sun for a greater part of the day. As Deirdre mentioned, Albuca, Hymenacallis and Sacdoxus grow well, with mine receiving sun for most of the day. Thanks, Margaret. All yours grow extremely well! Deirdre

  • By Sue 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 22 January 2013

    Great blog, tricky area, and seems we are growing the same plants. One other which does well for me is blue ginger,Dichorisandra thysiflora, and as a ground cover Lamium "Hermans Pride" a very well behaved tidy one. They are great suggestions - the lamium can go a bit berserk if the soil is good but in dry shade is OK. Deirdre

  • By Kate 4104 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Wednesday, 23 January 2013

    For Janet - I have many begonias doing well in Brisbane, but they do need just a little sun to colour up and flower well, and do cope very well with the dry once established. Clivias and blue ginger mentioned here are also great in Brisbane, as are many ruellias (some varieties can become weedy), diffenbachias and syngonium. I am not so sure about spathyphyllums in dry shade - they are very thirsty! Of course with anything, they all cope with the dry but prefer some water. Thanks, Kate - I might have been deluded thinking the Spathiphyllums would be OK. Will rethink that one! Thanks for your feedback re Brisbane gardening as I don"t know anything about gardening there! Deirdre

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