Strategies for Dry Shade Gardening

Outside my house, nestled in the shade of a large Japanese maple in front of the house, are a variety of plastic pots containing ferns, hydrangeas, and native azaleas that are destined for the woodland garden. These were recent purchases at a local 50% off sale.A few of my new plants, awaiting their permanent homesIt looks like a mini-nursery, and I am waiting in anticipation of cooler weather. Lou, who has to dig the holes for me, is maybe not so eager.

Autumn will soon be here, and in the southeastern US, this is the best time for planting and transplanting perennials, shrubs and trees. Since our ground does not freeze in the winter, plants will have months to establish themselves before next year's summer stress. Unfortunately, planting in the woodland area is not a matter of just digging holes. Shade is priceless in my part of the world, but the downside of all those trees is that their roots extend throughout the garden, sucking up available moisture. I have often put my shovel into the ground, only to find dry earth and lots of roots. This condition is called "dry shade", and it is one of the greatest challenges in creating a woodland garden. New plantings must compete with preexisting trees, as well as shrubs and other plants, for available water and nutrients. 

When planting in dry shade, there are a number of strategies to give ornamental plants a good start:

1. I get rid of all weeds in the surrounding area before planting. These weeds will compete with newly planted ornamentals and if given the chance will smother them.

2. It is ok to cut through small tree roots, but never disturb major roots. If there are a lot of roots, I usually try to find another spot. Those roots will grow back quickly, and my little plant may not have a chance in the root competition game. If I must plant in that spot, sometimes I will line the hole with newspaper, forming a biodegradable barrier that will hold out competing roots until my plant's roots have had a chance to grow. Another thing I have done for perennials, if their root systems won't spread too far, is to plant inside of a large plastic pot buried in the ground. This will keep competing roots out. This also gives protection against root-eating critters such as voles. 

3. Add mulch and soil conditioners to the soil at the time of planting. I do this 100 percent of the time. I usually make about a 50/50 mix of soil conditioners and native soil. I use home-made compost as well as soil conditioners I have purchased. These amendments improve the soil structure so that it will hold moisture longer. Sometimes I also pile wet, rotting leaves and other debris from the forest floor in the bottom of my planting hole.

4. Water the hole before planting. Of course, I also water the plant well after planting. It is very important to water new plants regularly for at least three to six months after planting. Remember that plants need to be watered deeply, not just sprinkled enough to wet the top layer of soil. Sometimes I have checked after I thought I had watered well, only to discover that the soil was bone dry less than an inch from the surface! The moisture needs to extends down far enough to reach below the plant. This is another reason I like to plant in the fall, as we tend to have wet winters that will promote good root growth.

5. After planting, I put a 2 to 3 inch layer of mulch around the plant. The mulch can be shredded leaves, pine straw, wood chips or any good organic mulch. The mulch should not actually touch the plant. The mulch itself holds moisture that will be available for the plant, and it also creates a small well around the plant that allows water to reach the plant's roots, rather than running off. 

Mulch will break down, improving the soil. This also means the mulch will need to be replenished. In our climate mulch breaks down rapidly, and we replenish it once or twice a year around most of our plants. 

6. Sometimes I create elevated mounds of improved soil in which to plant. This works well for plants that should be planted high because of their need for excellent drainage, such as azaleas and hydrangeas. Sometimes I find hollow spaces between large tree roots and fill them with good soil. I like to do this for ferns, hostas and other perennials that look good at the bases of trees. Elevated planting beds and pots beside the woodland steps allow me to have plantings where thick magnolia tree roots would otherwise make that impossible.

7. I like to plant shade-tolerant, drought-resistant plants. Natives will often do better than exotics. Remember that even these types of plants will need plenty of water when they are newly planted. They will not become drought-tolerant until their root systems are well established.  

If you have a wooded area filled with dry earth and roots, don't despair of planting. But here is a secret: You don't always have to add new plants for a natural area to look beautiful. You can just clean the space of weeds, maybe cut some lower branches from trees to allow room to walk, add a nice layer of mulch, place a comfortable bench or swing, and hang a bird house and some wind-chimes. Voila! Instant (or almost instant) woodland garden!There is always lots to see in a woodland garden!


August in Alabama

The sky is so bright the blue pops like cerulean paint splashed against a white wall. Hot air blankets the earth, moist and thick. We all shrug at the soaring temperature and humidity. It is August in Alabama, and what do you expect? I watch clouds form in the afternoon and evaluate their potential for rain.I am thankful we have not had a drought this summer, but even a day or two of high nineties heat can cause plants, as well as people, to wilt.

The clouds thunder and rain briefly pours over us. There is temporary refreshment, but when the sun comes out again, steam rises from the drive's hot pavement and only increases the sauna-like conditions.Deodar cedar 'Feelin' Blue' grows along the edge of the drive that overlooks the woodland garden. Steam rises from the road after a brief summer shower.But summer will soon begin to fade, and within a month the weather will be changing. Meanwhile, a quick tour of the garden:

The succulents take the heat gracefully. Not many plants will survive the summer in concrete pots, but these do well. I initially planted Sedum 'Vera Johnson' in the ground, where it languished for several years. After I transplanted it to this old concrete pot, it began to flourish.

Echeveria runyonii 'Topsy Turvy' is another succulent that is blooming this summer. It is growing in a hypertufa pot in full sun.

Hydrangea 'Limelight' continues to bloom, despite the heat. It is in partial sun, and I do have to water it whenever we don't get rain for a few days. I can see the blooms from the kitchen window. They brighten my day, for the greenish-white panicles truly glow amidst the greenery of the garden.

My watering can is put to good use this time of year!Arborvitae fern (Selaginella braunii) and wild violets surround my old watering can.

Some more plants around the August garden:Clockwise from top left: Coral colored Impatiens is a good companion to golden Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea'); Yucca filamentosa 'Bright Edge', also called Adam's Needle; Variegated Liriope; Coneflower is spent, but the seeds remain for the birds.

We are harvesting lots of apples from our two apple trees. One is a Golden Delicious, and the other is Red Delicious. Neither are recommended for our Deep South location. I did not do my research before I purchased them! They are also prone to apple-cedar rust, and we have many cedar trees on our property. These trees should be doomed, but they don't seem to know it.

August is hummingbird season, as they travel through our area on their way to Central America. They will fly five hundred miles, non-stop on their southern migration across the Gulf of Mexico. I love these amazing little birds with such feisty personalities. I spent over an hour in the sweltering heat, trying to get a good shot of one. I had little success, for their aerobatics are too fast for my reflexes. I finally managed this out of focus image and decided that would have to do!


I had no trouble at all getting a photo of this ornamental metal bird:

Finally, the most amazing photo that got away... I was walking through the arbor garden and noticed black-capped chickadees flying around the iron chandelier that hangs over a small sitting area. The chandelier holds six candles, and a chickadee was perched on each candle, pecking furiously away. The chandelier was holding six chickadees, and wax was going in all directions! I don't know what they liked about the candles. Perhaps the wax was similar to suet. By the time I got back with my camera, the chickadees were gone and so were all the candles. Here is a photo of my iron chandelier, with new candles:

and here is a black-capped chickadee, a public domain photo, not mine:

So the moral to that story is to always keep a camera with you. Don't we all know that, and does anyone actually do it? Happy August to you. Soon it will be September!