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Too much dry shade!

Posted by may_flowers none (My Page) on
Sat, Aug 11, 12 at 11:51

My garden along the back fence frustrates me to no end! There is a 25 foot tall zelkova tree in the center, a pine tree in one corner and two birches in the other, and they keep growing. It gets dappled sun but is very dry. Two thirds of my garden is now dry because of those dang trees, but we do like the shade of the zelkova.

I want to hide the fence but the perennials are one to two feet tall and probably stunted because of the root competition. I think I need some shrubs or understory trees in place of some of the perennials. What can you suggest for larger-sized dry shade lovers?

I need a colorful focal point in place of the hydrangea. I'm going to move it to my moist part-shade bed along the foundation because it's slow growing and I don't think it will ever reach its full potential of 4-5 feet. I also need a focal point in the curved center section. I have just started working on the left side of that garden. It's in deeper shade but gets late afternoon sun in August and then everything burns. I bought a boxleaf honeysuckle 'Edmee Gold' in spring--they grow 2-3 feet tall. I can move it anywhere. I'm thinking I should have bought two more and grouped them. I'm happy with the area under the birches, where the birdbath is, with a few minor tweaks.

We'll be adding compost and moving everything in the fall. We're in Oregon and plants establish well during our mild, wet winter. Is it possible to have an attractive, healthy garden along this fence or is it a losing battle?

Thank you for giving my garden some thought!


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: Too much dry shade!

Summer 2011. I took out the azalea on the left because it had some type of insect infestation every year. A lot of what was in there in this photo I moved last fall because it didn't look so good after early summer. We get almost no rain in summer.


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RE: Too much dry shade!

Standing under the birches, looking toward the zelkova tree, spring 2011. As you can see, the bed is pretty deep there, so I need something to fill in that area.


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RE: Too much dry shade!

  • Posted by bahia SF Bay Area (My Page) on
    Sat, Aug 11, 12 at 14:35

You might consider adding an irrigation system on one valve so you can effectively target water to the smaller plants and help them in competition with the tree roots. Sunset Western Garden Encyclopedia also has comprehensive lists of plants for specific purposes such as dry shade. If you want to keep it even simpler, lay out a soaker hose in this area, and connect it by hose and install a manual timer at the hose faucet. Giving that area a half hour soak a couple of times a week in summer will probably make a huge difference, but is not as efficient water-wise as a drip system.


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RE: Too much dry shade!

Gardening in dry shade is a relatively common occurrence in the PNW......all those big native conifers can create significant shade planting issues :-) It is most certainly possible to have a lush garden under these conditions, provided you make some good plant choices. The SWG book is a good start but I do classes on plantings for dry shade and have an extensive plant list suitable for the NW and info sheet available if you contact me directly.


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RE: Too much dry shade!

Thanks, guys. I haven't had any trouble establishing plants in dry shade and I do have a good variety of perennials that are doing well. Problem is they are all front-of-the-border types. When we look outside, all we see is fence. We should have established shrubs when the trees were smaller, but we didn't know anything about gardening then. I'll probably need to find shrubs in one gallon pots so I won't have to disturb the roots so much.


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RE: Too much dry shade!

  • Posted by bahia SF Bay Area (My Page) on
    Sun, Aug 12, 12 at 22:13

I don't know if others will agree, but I actually prefer to use 5 gallon size or larger when planting shrubs for dry shade with root competition, and make extra wide planting holes. Planting at the start of the fall rainy season definitely helps. I'd be interested to see that list of dry shade plants for the PNW, although in general I find I do better with more Mediterranean and subtropical plants in those conditions here locally.


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RE: Too much dry shade!

I'd be interested in the list of dry shade plants also. I have an area in my front lawn under a large deciduous tree that I want to change from lawn to plant which makes it dry shade for summer and wet "sun" for winter.


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RE: Too much dry shade!

Have you looked into any of the many Loropetalum species ? I've had great success with them in dry shade up on the coast of Northern California.
Another successful shrub has been Ribes sanguineum.
I have had good luck with the native Rhododendron occidentalis too,
Choysia ternata comes to mind as well as Azara ( love the variegated one )

Pix below show a dry shade front yard with Loropetalum , daphne odora and a few ferns. This garden does have an irrigation system but the owner is a little on the frugal side .


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RE: Too much dry shade!

Plants that are good in my dry shade garden are hellebores, epimediums, hostas, ferns, pulmonaria, heucheras, oxalis, foxglove, and hardy cyclamen. Solomon's seal does well once established. Hakone grass and cimicifuga are doing well in their second year.

Things I've tried that haven't done well--astilbe, toad lily, daylilies, and Rozanne geranium. Asian lilies bloom, but they stretch sideways trying to reach the sun and have to be tied up.


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RE: Too much dry shade!

Not sure about OR but loropetalum not a great shrub for other areas of the PNW. Too mild a summer to adequately ripen the wood, so they often fail to survive our winters.

Many NW natives make suitable shrubby additions - red or black huckleberries, osier dogwoods, the flowering currant Michelle mentioned (Ribes sanguineum), mahonia. Other non-native choices are sweet box (Sarcococca), hardy fuchisas, Aucuba japonica, Kerria japonica, Viburnum davidii, nandina, Japanese holly, Euonymus fortunei and Fatsia japonica. All are very drought tolerant once established and happy as clams in shade.


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RE: Too much dry shade!

Not sure about OR but loropetalum not a great shrub for other areas of the PNW. Too mild a summer to adequately ripen the wood, so they often fail to survive our winters.

Many NW natives make suitable shrubby additions - red or black huckleberries, osier dogwoods, the flowering currant Michelle mentioned (Ribes sanguineum), mahonia. Other non-native choices are sweet box (Sarcococca), hardy fuchisas, Aucuba japonica, Kerria japonica, Viburnum davidii, nandina, Japanese holly, Euonymus fortunei and Fatsia japonica. All are very drought tolerant once established and happy as clams in shade.


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RE: Too much dry shade!

Gardengal, Thanks for your experience with using loropetalum in some areas of the PNW.
It has become one of my ' go to ' plants based on my N.Cal experience. It is such a work horse of a plant here. Good to know how it performs in a more nothernly PNW climate. thanks.

I just came back from a trip from Singapore and Borneo and was suprised to see that loropetalum was used somewhat commonly in the developed residential landscapes.

I attended the Singapore Garden Show and noticed that it was used quite a lot in the designer gardens. I saw quite a few species that I had never seen before.

pictured below is one of the gardens that I liked that was in the Singapore 2012 garden show : I think the design was done by an American or an Irishman.


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RE: Too much dry shade!

Thank you for all your suggestions! I'll need to read up on several of these. I knew ribes was a native, but I think it might get too big. I've always liked the mock orange--I see there's a golden one called 'Sundance. I need something golden or variegated between the zelkova tree and pine tree. That's my "black hole".

Gardengal, you mentioned hardy fuchsias. I've been wanting to plant some in that area but I didn't know they were drought tolerant. I have 'Aurea' next to my deck and it's getting too big. I think it'd be wonderful in that center curved section, but I didn't want to take the chance of moving it. Should I try to move it? It's been in the same spot for about 5 years and gets full sun in moist soil. Or would it be better to buy a new one? Usually I cut it to the ground but I didn't this year because it started sprouting on the old wood very early.

Joy Creek Nursery has dozens of hardy fuchsias, so they may be able to suggest the most drought tolerant ones.


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RE: Too much dry shade!

mayflowers, IME most all hardy fuchsias are equally drought tolerant once established, although not necessarily equally hardy - at least in my climate :-) Magellanicas and their close hybrids probably top the list for both classifications. They are not particularly difficult to transplant so I think you should be OK but I might wait until late winter to do so (when dormant).

Michelle, I wish we could grow loropetalums easier up here. The purple leaf forms are big draws - everpurple anything is a big draw - but the lack of summer heat and the excessive winter wet create major handicaps. Same with most of the pittosporums, which I love. I am a currently coddling a tenuifolium 'County Park Dwarf', which will be going into its third winter. But in a container, which I often use to offset the effects of soggy inground winter soils.

Singapore and Borneo, huh? Sounds good. I made it to Eatonville this year :-) (an inside joke for any Washingtonians lurking - Eatonville is really a flyspeck in the middle of nowhere)


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RE: Too much dry shade!

Growing shrubs in your black hole and around the trees is do-able, but there are some complications - as you've noted, establishing them and controlling lean. I don't know if those tree species are susceptible to root damage, but personally I wouldn't think you could do significant damage by planting in their vicinity. But one option that hasn't been suggested for planting is to simply insert cuttings... many shrubs are easy to propagate.

To the shrub suggestions you've had I would add some evergreen options. I love Cephalotaxus harringtonia 'Fastigiata' even from a distance, and also an Ilex called "Mariesii." I think they would do well in the conditions you have.

You could also consider some tall perennials. I was just contemplating Kirengeshoma koreana in my garden, which grows at the base of an aggressive mock Orange where it is pretty dry and not too sunny. I also grow Baptisia australis in considerable shade (albeit not too dry), and it even blooms although it might bloom better in more sun. There are also some marvelous statuesque ferns that are pretty much shrub-sized.

But there is another approach to the problem you have of seeing "nothing but fence" from the house. This would involve growing taller plants that you like in the foreground of your view, so that they front the fence from your perspective even though they are not right AT it. This is not just a matter of giving the fence a foreground, but of giving your eye more taller things to look at in the foreground so that it is distracted from the fence.

If you do something like that, you could maybe leave your dry shade for what grows there well, which would include spring ephemerals such as trilliums and erythroniums. And actually, that is the perfect place for hellebores because you can enjoy their blooms when nothing in front of them is doing anything, and then ignore them in summer when everything else is putting on a show. Stylophorum diphyllum is another good plant that will fill the area with foliage for the summer, Myrrhis odorata another.

Dry shade under conifers might have the additional problem of debris burying plants - I used to have hostas and some other plants actually decrease in size every year under the various challenges that such an area presents to plants. It's not easy, and going with the flow - garden there for spring and let the rest of the yard carry summer - may be the most economical from a labour point of view.

Karin L


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RE: Too much dry shade!

Wow! I have a ton of good ideas now! Thank you all! In Googling some of these, I came across the Great Plant Picks website, which I had forgotten about. You can search the plants by category and they have all the shade conditions listed. I'm going to investigate which small conifers can handle shade, like ilex. I would like to add more evergreen shelter for birds since we feed.

Karin, your comment about fooling the eye--I'm going to spread the plants out and pull them forward in the fall. I've wanted to pull my ghost fern out to the edge of the lawn but I've left it because it's doing so well. It likes dry shade and is a pretty silvery color for purple heucheras and blue hostas. I'll just bite the bullet and move it.

I've always wanted to add a short stacked flagstone wall to deepen the front of that bed. It slopes toward the lawn and I'd love to level it, but then there's the problem of suffocating the tree roots. We added 3-4 in. of a soil compost mix in all the beds last spring and it didn't bother the trees. What do you think of that idea?


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RE: Too much dry shade!

I was actually thinking of taller plants than ferns being added to the bed around the deck - like a gold cone juniper, for example, or columnar yew (I'm suggesting these narrow plants because like me you have not got that much room). Chamaecyparis Wissel's Saguaro is another of my favourites.

Your gardens look to be very much all of one level/one height, which is the other thing that makes me want to stick in some upright accents :-)

But if the fern does have enough height to make a difference, then why not divide it so you still have it where it is working? Sticking with what is working should be rule #1.

Also, I find that trees in my small yard are best off not getting too huge - I have several generations planted and I cull the biggest ones from time to time. So if these trees are already causing you difficulty, you might put a new one in the bed by the deck, so when it grows big enough, one of the ones at the back fence can go.

Karin L


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RE: Too much dry shade!

The deck bed has a Fireglow Japanese maple. It went in last spring, so it will take a few years to be the focal point of that bed. It's the red plant to the left of the golden fuchsia.

Eventually I'll divide the ghost fern but it looks so lush and lovely now. It's probably reached its full width though since it's competing with roots.

The left bed needs height especially. I would love for it be a well-designed bed instead of a dumping ground for flowering perennials that can't handle the increasing shade. It gets sun till about 3 pm so I can grow anything there. I have 'Goldflame' honeysuckle and a clematis on separate trellises on the fence and a large clump of gorgeous phlox. I've always loved Joe Pye weed, but I'd have to give it some space. But none of those are evergreen.


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