Adjacent to my driveway, ending where my neighbor's holly bushes begin, is a little strip of land that I have dubbed the Valley of Death. A few years ago, Ron and I had the harebrained idea of turning it into a shade garden; ever since, it has been the place where plants go to die. The entire experience has been an education.
First, some background. When we moved in 8 years ago, our future shade garden was an unsightly slope of not-very-nice grass. Two mature trees, an oak and an alder, did a good job of preventing anything decent from growing around them. Throw in years of topsoil erosion and the reflected heat from the driveway, and you had just about the least likely place to plant a garden.
Fast forward to fall 2008. We had just replaced our ugly cracked driveway with pavers, and suddenly the wasteland seemed like a shade garden waiting to happen. We spent fall and winter preparing the site, piling on bag after bag of compost and top soil to improve and raise the planting bed. Then, beginning in March 2009, we filled it with a very expensive assortment of "tough" and "drought-tolerant" shade plants. Among the lucky winners were some A plants (asarum, aspidistra, and acanthus), some H plants (hostas, heucheras, and hellebores), one bergenia, two carex, one euphorbia robbiae, two "heat-tolerant" primulas, and assorted ferns.
Four years later, half the plants are dead or have been moved to a more congenial location. Apparently "tough" and "drought-tolerant" are relative terms. Take hostas. Forget those pretty pictures in the White Flower Farm catalogue - I'm here to tell you that, in the South, hostas do not belong at the base of trees. They need consistent moisture if you expect them to do anything other than shrivel up and die. Ditto for Japanese holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum). Primula, in my humble opinion, should not be attempted in the South at all. To paraphrase Jimmy McMillan, the temperature's too damn high.
Some things did survive the Valley of Death, though: most of the hellebores (except Helleborus foetidus, aka "stinking hellebore," which didn't smell but which didn't live either), the aspidistra (ugly but I can't blame the location), and Acanthus "Summer Beauty" (which never gets as grand as it might in a moist spot but which is still very striking, especially when it's not going dormant from the blazing heat). But the real winner of the dry shade contest is the euphorbia robbiae. This guy got the worst seat in the house - smack under the the oak tree. But once established, he began taking over previously abandoned Valley of Death real estate, moving into territory that no sane plant would even consider. Ordinarily I would object, but since not even weeds will grow there, I feel he's doing me a favor.
What else did I learn from my shade garden experience?
I learned that improving the soil is a never-ending process. That "dry shade" doesn't mean that you don't need to water, especially in North Carolina. That it's best to start with 3 inch pots when you're planting under trees.
I learned that Lowes' $1.50 top soil is a pretty decent product, far preferable to the clay-in-a-bag that others sell at that price.
I learned that the trunk of a 2004 Hyundai Elantra will hold up to 12 bags of top soil if you load them properly.
I learned that I have no problem spending hundreds of dollars on plants for dry shade but for some reason won't spend more than $1.50 a bag for top soil.
I learned not to spend hundreds of dollars on plants for dry shade.
This wonderfully told tale could come from my history of gardening too. I have tried similar grand garden projects, used the same math to justify imprudent purchases and watched a lot of things die. You have a good spot, especially with the great look of the pavers as backdrop.
2/2/2013 12:42:54 am
Thanks, Laurrie. For a long time I was not an epimedium fan and was appalled at how expensive they are. But now I am giving them a second look. There is one with reddish foliage that I like quite a bit. Funny you should mention sedum - I have "watch chain" sedum nearby and it now seems to be showing up in my valley of death. That works for me!
Wow, that sounds tough. I second Laurrie's suggestion of Epimedium. Perhaps Lamium or Big Leaf Aster (S. macrophyllum)? I have to say I don't have experience with your conditions, but if you keep experimenting I'm sure you'll figure something out. Maybe you should devote one year to buying just a couple of specimens of lots of different plants, then see which one do best.
2/2/2013 12:44:26 am
Thanks for the suggestions. Lamium, alas, won't work - I've killed it before. I think it needs more moisture down here (but not too much). I do like the idea of spending a year buying different plants to experiment. It's a great excuse to go plant shopping.
2/1/2013 11:15:45 pm
Isn't it amazing? We will all spend money on the plants, but not on the soil. I do it, my father does it, my in-laws do it. Seems to be the way of things.
2/2/2013 12:45:29 am
They say dig a $50 hole for a $5 plant. I dig a 5 cent hole for a $50 plant, then cry when it dies.
2/1/2013 11:29:42 pm
I don't have a valley of death; I have a valley of moss, dirt, and weeds--aka my front yard, in deep shade and filled with tree roots. I have mainly just accepted my plight. My neighbor, with a very similar front yard, put down sod, then watched it die very quickly. Her next move made a lot of sense: she put a large flagstone terrace in front of house (very nice looking) and cut through the hilly front with two retaining walls fronted by more flagstone. In short, she made a lot of the yard unplantable but still attractive. Maybe this is a place for a lot of stone paths, birdbaths resting on gravel, etc. The less dirt there is, the less opportunity there is for things to die. (Obviously not a cheap solution but pretty permanent.)
2/2/2013 12:47:35 am
Sometimes, as much as I love gardening, I want to pave over entire sections of the yard because they frustrate me so much. So I know where you neighbor is coming from. I like the idea of a birdbath there - or maybe a few well placed boulders.
2/2/2013 11:22:33 am
Since I have so much sun in my garden, the areas where shade rules is very hard for me to plant successfully. Like you, I have gone through tons of plants, and am never happy with that area. Good luck to us both!
2/3/2013 01:42:52 am
You've gained experience and a plant that will grow there. I like the Lowe's top soil as it it just the right addition to our limestone clay. I also like their clearance rack for plants. I figure that new plants will look like the old ones after a few days in my garden so why pay full price?
2/4/2013 10:03:39 am
I laughed out lout when I read your comment! It's so true! Just look for some signs of life and you're good to go...Thanks for stopping by the blog and commenting. I'm enjoying your blog too. I made my very first trip to Texas ever this past fall (Dallas, not San Antonio) and loved it.
2/9/2013 01:52:01 am
Violets are the greatest, aren't they? When all else fails, let the violets take over!
2/10/2013 03:56:27 am
Dry shade is a tough one, I've gone through a similar experience. I've decided to incorporate a few large and lovely containers throughout the area and add my flower power from them.
2/10/2013 07:12:20 am
That's an inspired idea. I think it would work very well in that area, as well as in a few other trouble spots in my yard.
2/23/2013 03:14:37 pm
I have a lot of dry shade and have amended the soil heavily with compost and peat. These plants have done really well for me: amsonia, northern sea oats, Solomon's Seal, aster divarcata, linaria purpurea, kalimeris, heuchera, epimedium, aster ericoides, solidago caesia, ruellia White Flower Form (Lazy S's Farm Nursery),porterantus (Bowman's Root), and diervilla humilis (native not the hybrid). I also filled a few particularly tough spots with garden art or bird baths.
2/24/2013 12:17:05 am
Thanks for the suggestions. Interesting that you mention heuchera - mine bombed in my dry shade, but maybe I hadn't done as good a job amending the soil as you had. I thought Solomon's Seal was for moist areas - that's where I put mine, but it's good to know I can always move it to dry shade if necessary.
2/24/2013 10:05:02 am
Heuchera needs sharp drainage, at least the newer varieties do. I have an old cultivar that grows well in moistish soil while my 'Lime Ricky' grows in a rock pile and my 'Georgia Peach' grows in a pot with big holes in the bottom.
2/24/2013 11:58:38 pm
Interesting that they need different things, depending on the variety. I've been focused only on their heat tolerance. I had luck with Georgia Peach, but none of the others. If I could get Lime Ricky to grow I'd be thrilled.
2/26/2013 12:16:48 pm
Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my own blog! I have been reading the last few of your posts and have really enjoyed them. I have to make a suggestion about dry shade, maybe not a welcome one, because it sort of means you have given up. But a low maintenance and I think beautiful solution is to plant a ground cover like Othiopogom japonicas, dwarf mondo grass. I also like the idea of adding some colorful containers.
2/26/2013 01:32:39 pm
Thank you! I've been enjoying your blog. I hear you on the mondo grass and containers. I am not 100% sure I love mondo grass, and I think the euphorbia may serve the same purpose. But I definitely agree about the containers! I am shopping for some not hideous or cheesy looking ones that can fill in the bare spots.
5/9/2013 11:32:01 pm
I'm a NC gardern (Charlotte) with a ton of dry shade. Cedars, Oaks, Maples and Pines are lovers in this yard. I've been gardening with some success and a lot of failure with these dry shade beds of mine. It took a lot of experimenting to get it right. So far in my shade beds I have Solomon's seal, Fernleaf Bleeding heart and the Old fashion one, Acanthus (the same kind as you!), Bugbane (or Snakeroot), Coral Bells, Hucherellas, Columbine, Hardy Begonias, Bergenia, a couple Oakleaf Hydrangeas, French Hydrangeas (they aren't doing as well as the oakleaf), Lenten roses (you have these too), Cast Iron Plant (this does AMAZING in dry shade, just don't let the sun hit the leaves or they look horrible), cranesbill (hardy geranium) as a groundcover, barrenwort, hostas (I have found the ones with H. plantaginea in the history work well), Sweetshrub, a couple viburnum , and bulbs bulbs bulbs! It was a small experiment that I started a couple years ago. But most bulbs like dry shade for some reason. Most come up and bloom long before our shade trees leaf out and die back to the ground when the horrid dry summers come. I hope I helped some. I know when I first started the whole dry shade thing it was frustrating, but kind of fun to experiment.
5/11/2013 04:23:42 am
Thanks so much for your suggestions. I especially like the idea of bulbs. I have some iris reticulate but think I will add some other kinds as well, based on your advice. My huecheras bombed in this location, for some reason! They are much happier in a moist spot.
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The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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