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Often the trickiest area in most gardens is the bit where it is shady or dry, or both. Whether shaded by trees and shrubs or buildings, garages or sheds, most people wring their hands in despair when it comes to knowing what to do with these often dark and forlorn corners of the garden. However, all is not lost, and rather than using these corners to hide rubbish and old compost bags or rotting piles of grass cuttings, I would urge you to try some of these winners as they really will enhance your garden.
The first important job is to make sure that the ground is well prepared, particularly underneath trees or conifer hedges and I would also recommend ruthlessly removing any old planting particularly if it looks as if it has been struggling for ages. When you are planting into a dry shady spot, there will always be competition for moisture amongst the other trees and shrubs so ditch whatever you do not love or that looks a bit straggly. Gently fork over or rake any compacted soil, and aerate as much as possible, taking extra care around tree or shrub roots. Add plenty of new rotted organic matter, and later remember to mulch as much as possible with more organic matter, compost or rotted bark chippings.
It’s always worth looking to nature for inspiration for any perceived difficult planting areas in a garden, and a much -overlooked plant, but one I use a lot is Epimedium x rubrum and Epimedium x versicolor . I was introduced to these during my horticultural training and we were shown how to cut the leaves back during the early part of the year to reveal the delicate flowers that would often be hidden amongst the foliage. New foliage follows on quite soon afterwards but these plants revel in dryness as well as shade.
Planted in groups they work very well with other planting including Vinca minor ‘Alba’. With it’s twinkling white flowers, this glossy leaved, evergreen plant is pretty much entirely self –reliant and needs very little attention. Give it a good start by planting it in a good compost mix with a little fertiliser and it will soon spread across the ground and can grow around all kinds of other planting. I’m also very fond of the very dark purple variety, Vinca minor atropurpurea as it has a stronger colour than the Vinca major varieties.
Another lovely plant for dry shade is Brunnera macrophylla. This plant has heart shaped leaves, and particularly the Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ has silvery leaves with amazing bright blue flowers, which look rather like a Forget-Me-Not and will provide both great leaf shape as well as the colour and flowers.
This plant looks good surrounded by bulbs such as snowdrops, chinodoxa and scilla, which also all don’t mind the dry shade and will really enhance a dark shady area.
A good hard worker and tough plant, one I use a lot as a background plant, is Euonymus fortunei ‘Silver Queen’. This will grow in most conditions and it can be clipped into a shape or left to do it’s own thing. It can also climb up walls over time and is evergreen. It’s not particularly a star in it’s own right, but it can add green and shape to an area of planting and act as a great backdrop.
I also find that cyclamens will work well in a dry shady border or corner. These beautiful little plants, originally found in the woods of southern Europe are easy to establish once they are given a good start using a well rotted compost or leaf mould, but their silvery marbled leaves and pretty flowers always cheer the soul at this time of year. If you are looking for ground cover, Geranium macrorrhizum can cover a lot of poor soil, particularly between larger shrubs and will tolerate dry soil. There is also Lamium maculatum, a type of dead nettle, which I have also grown underneath trees in shady areas and it works very well, with its silvery leaves and pink flowers.
Finally the white form of Digitalis purpurea, Foxglove, will almost always enjoy a shady but not bone-dry setting, lighting up dark corners. I also love Dryopteris filix-mas, the common male fern that can grow to over a metre high, I use Cristata, and this attractive and dramatic plant will also tolerate seemingly impossible conditions.
There is no need to be ashamed of the darker, drearier bits of your garden with this range of interesting and beautiful plants.