Sunday, March 8, 2015

Tips for Planting and Growing a Garden in Dry Shade

When my husband and I first purchased our home in 2004 I was super excited.  Not only because it was our first home but because it had some mature trees and shrubs to provide me the shade I needed for my very own woodland gardens.  What little did I know.  Those mature trees are moisture and nutrient robbing thugs that rule my backyard.  The first few years I was beaten into submission by them and put my backyard on the back burner and concentrated most of my efforts on the front yard.  But eventually I had to tackle the backyard and boy it turned out to be quite a feat.  My entire backyard was a mass of tree roots and hard packed dirt.  Weeds wouldn't even grow. 

I tried to do some research to find out what would grow there.  I read and asked other gardeners for ideas what to plant and how to approach the area.  I got varied responses on everything I asked from "roots aren't the problem" to "shade gardens are the easiest gardens to take care of".  They were so wrong.  My first issue is that all the tree canopies prevent most of the rain from coming down and watering the plants and what does make it through is sucked up by the tree roots.  My second issue is that my problems don't come from a couple of trees it comes from 2 Silver Maple, 7 White Pine trees 2 Native Black Cherries, 1 Spruce  and 1 Green Ash.  That makes 13 big trees in a small area (maybe 60 ft x50 ft) fighting for every drop of water and every bit of nutrients available.  Tree roots are the worst abomination any gardener can deal with.  There-I said it. Here are pics of my backyard and the trees:
My backyard

My backyard
Silver Maple surround by Hostas

Row of White pines in my backyard

The first year or two I would plant something and watch it slowly shrink or struggle to survive.  I would water and fertilize the poor things without any positive results.  Then I would go to dig the poor thing up and move it only to find the roots of the plant being strangled by tree roots.  This would happen even though I had cleared the roots to plant.  Those darn roots had come back full force to replace those I had removed.  What is a gardener to do? 

I ended up taking my own approach to this battle.  These things listed below I have done and they have made a world of difference in the survival of my plants. 

1.  Do not fertilize individual plants.  This causes the tree roots to grow heavily in the area that is fertilized to absorb the nutrients for itself.  You might think you are fertilizing the plant but you are actually fertilizing the tree.  The tree will win.  If you must fertilize I suggest you fertilize the entire area so that the tree doesn't concentrate root growth in one particular area.

2.  Do not water individual plants.  This has the same effect as fertilizing individually.  The tree roots will grow heavily in that concentrated area.  Water the overall area not just the plant.

3.  Try to bareroot the plants you are planting.  By this I mean remove all the soil from around it's roots before you plant.  I have found that the planting medium that the plants are sold in are tree root magnets.  This might be due to the fertilizer or the ability of the medium to hold water. 

4.  Mulch to retain moisture.  Enough said:-))

5.  Plant in containers.  You can do this either above the ground or even in the ground.  Some Hosta enthusiasts do this to keep the tree roots from overtaking the Hosta.  There is also a product sold called Spin Out Bags that help prevent root intrusion.  I have never used them but have heard other gardeners swear by them.

6.  Don't be impatient.  If you plant your garden it make take a little longer for the plants to take hold than in other garden areas.  Don't give up too easily.  They just need more time to get established.

7.  Choose appropriate plants.  Native plants are a wonderful choice and some are suited to just this situation.  There are also some great non-native plants that will work too.  I had some great suggestions from some wonderful gardeners and other sources.  Some were good, others not so good.  Some that were suggested to me and I planted but failed to thrive because they had a difficult time dealing with the extreme dryness are:  Alchemilla mollis, Pulmonaria, Brunnera, Bergenia, Tiarella and certain Astilbe.  Here are some pics of a few that have done well for me:
Campanulastrum americanum
Most varieties of Aquilegia will grow in dry shade
well in dry shade
Geranium maculatum handles dry shade well
Digitalis grandiflora can handle dry shade

8.  Avoid invasives!  I know the temptation to fill in the area is overwhelming but DO NOT go out and buy plants deemed invasive.  You will be sorry.  I know many a gardener who thought that they could control these evil plants but in the long run you can not.  Just say no to Ivy, Vinca, Lily of the Valley, Wintercreeper, Lamium Yellow Archangel, Pachysandra (non native) and the rest of those nasty invasives.  There are not worth the damage to the environment or the work it will take you to remove them. Oh-and they really aren't that attractive anyways.  I have seen lovelier plants in my time. Here are some pics of some of those plants taken in my neighbor's yard:
Invasives Ivy and Variegated Euonymous

Invasive Ivy Vinca and Lily of the Valley

Invasives spreading into the lawn

There is still a lot of work and growing to be done but I think in time I will eventually have the lush shade garden I have always wanted in my backyard.  If you have any questions or comments fell free to leave them below and as always-Happy Gardening!