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Preview: Dry Shade Stars

Limited water and sun don’t stop these babies from shining through season after season

Fine Gardening - Issue 184
The M and G garden. Design Cleve West. Angelica dahurica, Melica altissima 'Alba', Valeriana pyrenaica, Phlox divaricata 'Clouds of Perfume', Aquilegia alpina, Zizia aurea, Euphorbia Whistleberry Garnet, Quercus pubescens. RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2016, Designer: Cleve West MSGD, Sponsor: M and G

Dry shade is arguably the toughest gardening condition to deal with, yet it’s one of the most commonly encountered. Virtually any yard with a nearby established tree canopy benefits from cooling shade at the loss of precious soil moisture, particularly in naturally dry parts of the growing season. In urban gardens, the built-up environment has much the same impact on available soil moisture as large tree roots do. Building shadows, hellstrips, and a general abundance of concrete make for dry, shady, alkaline planting spaces. But with a careful selection of plants that prefer partial to full shade and dry, well-drained soil, these challenges aren’t insurmountable. In spite of the hurdles, the palette of plants for dry shade doesn’t have to be boring or limited.

‘Claude Shride’ martagon lily is among the first of its tribe to flower, and it’s made for shade. Whirligig stems of pendant flowers seem almost suspended above leafy umbrellas that grow from 3 to 4 feet tall. These stems reach heights occupied by few other plants in the shade garden, which can often be one-dimensional and flat. ‘Claude Shride’ is a classic cultivar that’s known for its vigorous growth and mahogany red flowers. As with most martagons, first-year plants do not usually predict the performances to follow. Once established, they form outstanding colonies, thriving for years without needing to be divided, although after a few seasons you’ll have plenty to share. Don’t believe claims of deer resistance; as with almost all lilies, the succulent leaves of ‘Claude Shride’ make for tasty morsels to most nuisance herbivores.

The serendipitous personality of reseeding plants is especially valuable in the dry shade garden. Once a frequently planted favorite in our grandmothers’ gardens, Balfour’s touch-me-not sports intricately bicolored flowers that seem to hover atop tender, succulent stems. While not a selection for the densest of shade, it’s suitable for bright spots between trees. Its lack of thirst makes it an adaptable companion to more permanent plantings; think of it as a sugar plum fairy for a scene glutted with hostas. For all its delicateness, this annual isn’t small in stature. In a season or two, especially if you have humus-rich soil, you might find it substituting for the weeds you hadn’t planted.

To read the full article and see more perfect plants for dry shade, subscribe to receive your digital copy of the newest issue of Fine Gardening magazine. 

Impatiens balfouri
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