The Q&A Archives: shade plants and shrubs

Question: I want a large perennial plot around 3 large oak tress with practically no sun. Please advise what flowers and shrubs to plant.

Answer: Following is a list of perennial plants for dry shade. These are plants that can tolerate a lack of water and sunlight. Such conditions are characteristic of areas under trees or beneath the eaves of north-facing walls. Lack of sunlight is obvious at once when one considers such areas, but one may not as readily recognize the equally challenging lack of water there. In areas under trees, the tree roots suck up much of the available water.

Note that "tolerating" dry shade is not the same as "thriving" in it; most of the plants for dry shade listed below will grow better if supplied with average amounts of moisture. Before installing plants in dry-shade areas, you can improve your chances by mixing organic matter (e.g., compost) into the soil, thereby increasing the soil's water-retention. Sandy soils are like sieves and are notorious for quickly losing whatever water may come their way. Mixing compost into such soil is rather like adding pieces of sponge to it.

Here are a few suggestions:
Hosta plants present a choice that is quite distinct from the other choices of plants for dry shade in this list. They have greater mass than the rest, standing a foot high or taller, with a slightly greater spread. Hosta plants form a leafy garden dense enough to choke out weeds. If planted in rows, they are impressive enough to serve as borders.

Liriope spicata also has a feature that distinguishes it from the other plants for dry shade in my list. For liriope looks like a grass (its common name is "border grass", or "lilyturf"), even though it's actually a member of the lily family. But liriope also has a spikey flower, ranging in color from white to lavender. In autumn it bears a dark berry.

Foxglove, like the next entry (daylilies), is distinguished by its showy floral display. It is also the tallest of the plants for dry shade discussed here. But don't grow foxglove around small children: it's quite poisonous!

While "Stella de Oro" truly is a "daylily," in the sense that its individual flowers last only a day, don't be fooled into thinking that you won't get much of a show out of this perennial. Another bloom will be along shortly to replace yesterday's departed beauty. In fact, its ability to re-bloom over a long period makes Stella de Oro daylily perhaps the most popular of the daylilies. Its popularity is also due to its ability to adapt to a wide range of planting zones and conditions, including dry shade.

Pachysandra terminalis produces white blooms in spring but, like English ivy, is grown primarily for its robust green foliage.

The bulb, squill is also called "scilla," because its Latin name is Scilla siberica. If the white blooms of snowdrops aren't what you want after looking at the color, white all winter, then the blue of these perennials for dry shade may be more to your liking. Scilla does need a good deal of water during its growing season, which is spring. But considering the abundance of moisture in many regions during spring, this usually isn't a problem.

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