The Q&A Archives: Small, Shady Garden with Heavy Soil

Question: This will be my second year of working on my small 20x20 townhouse garden. It receives only a few hours of sun each day in the summer, and seems to have fairly heavy soil. I would like recommendations on a small hydrangea and a climbing vine that might do well. I would also appreciate any ideas on a small tree (perhaps a holly) that could be kept trimmed in a nice, tidy shape.

Answer: The site you describe can be a problem; technically called "open shade", this type of shade can be a challenge for growing shade-loving plants in the middle of summer as the hot afternoon and evening sun may cause burning of leaves.

"Taunton Yew" (Taxus x media 'Tauntonii') is the best yew shrub for regions with severe winters, because Taunton yews are resistant to winter burn. Yew trees and shrubs aren't affected so much by the severe cold as they are by the snow. Taunton yew shrubs grow about 3'-4' x 3'-4'. Yew trees and shrubs require a soil with good drainage.

The short, flat needles of the yew are dark green on top and light green on their underside. New foliage in spring is bright green and soft. Taunton yews are hardy to Zone 4. Yews are relatively slow growing and can either be left unpruned, or pruned into a hedge.

Shade-tolerant red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea 'Allemans') puts out white flowers in May that are followed by white fruit. But red osier dogwood is grown for its bark, not its bloom. The bark ranges in color from red to burgundy. Its height is 6'-10', its spread 5'-10'. A fiery red patch of red osier dogwood against a backdrop of pristine snow makes for an unforgettable winter scene, an important consideration if you are aiming for a landscape with year-round interest. Zones 3-8.

Impatiens (Impatiens wallerana) has been at or near the top of the list for annual gardening plants in the U. S. for some time now, due to its ability to bloom continually -- and in shady conditions. Grows 6"-24" tall, depending on variety. This shade-loving plant comes in various shades of pink, rose, red, lilac, purple, orange and white.

Fringed Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia) has a feathery foliage and whimsical, heart-shaped blooms of a rosy pink color. This old-time perennial blooms continuously in the garden from April to October. Height 12"-18", width 12". Zones 3-9.

Deadnettle (Lamium galeobdolon) is a shade-loving perennial for zones 4-9. Deadnettle grows to a height of 1'-2', with a similar spread. It puts out a yellow bloom, but is more often grown for its medium green foliage that is splashed with silver blotches. Not only does deadnettle love shade, but once established, it is also drought-tolerant, making it an ideal plant for rock gardens. The silver in its foliage plays well with the bluish-green foliage of rock garden plants such as sedum. Just give it a soil with good drainage and let it go!

For best growth, I'd recommend amending your soil. To enrich the soil and improve aeration and drainage, spread a 2-4 inch layer of organic matter on the soil surface. Compost or well-rotted manure is best. Chopped leaves or grass clippings can be used although they may tie up some of the available nitrogen in the soil, making an additional application of fertilizer necessary. Carefully dig this into the soil to a depth of 6 inches (if fibrous roots are too thick to dig this deep, start with a 2 inch layer and incorporate 3-4 inches). This is best done by hand rather than with a rototiller which can damage important tree roots. Plants with roots growing in soil high in organic matter will have better growth than plants grown in soil that is low in organic matter, compacted and with poor drainage.

Best wishes with your landscaping project!

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