Dry shade

Cast iron plant — dry shade.

Thumbing through garden magazines, we see beautiful shady gardens full of lovely hostas, Solomon’s seal, native ginger, ferns, violets of all kinds and lots of sweet little springtime flowers. A shade garden is just what we want. Have you ever walked through woodlands here? Have you walked beside woodland creek sides? Well I have and believe me, there is little beauty to see other than the trees themselves and a few shrubs that bloom. There are no little crested iris, no coral bells, no maidenhair ferns, no native columbines, woods phlox, or false Solomon’s seal with its lovely frothy flowers — not one. Why? Texas is a very dry state, even here in the far eastern part.

There are many more dry creeks in summer than rapidly flowing streams you find east of the Mississippi River. Mix dry with lots of tree roots and you know the reason we have practically dessert woods. So, what can we plant under trees or on the shady side of buildings? There are many plants that will work, but they aren’t necessarily dainty and sweet. Texas is not a dainty sweet place. It’s tough and it needs tough plants that can take whatever the weather dishes out, from hot dry drought, to occasional floods and, hot one day and cold the next, winter weather. If you can really water, and I mean soak the area, you can grow much more, but here are some of the plants I have successfully grown here with minimal water. Cast iron plant (aspidistra spp.), azaleas (really do not need so much water as I once thought — once they get a good foot hold), woods ferns, Christmas fern, holly fern, begonias, impatiens, setcreasea, hostas (with water), and hellebores (which really excel) are some that I really love. Shrubs that grow well in fairly dry shade — if the bed is prepared well with lots of compost — Oakleaf hydrangeas, azaleas, camellias (both sasanqua and japonica). Some of our native viburnums are really beautiful all year and do well with some sun. My favorite is V. dentatum, Summer Snowflake.

It is a large shrub which can be shaped into a small tree and is fabulous all four seasons. Old Turk’s cap is a sure thing in either sun or shade. Just whack it back every now and then to make it thicken up. Winter honeysuckle needs a half day of sun but makes a lovely large nearly evergreen shrub that blooms in the dead of winter. Other plants such as bulbs (will grow in deciduous shade if they bloom in late winter — early spring). Ground covers like variegated English ivy and Algerian ivy with it’s large white and green variegated leaves really brighten up fairly dark shade.

There are tons of lovely shade plants if you are diligent to water and are willing to prepare your bed well. Of course mulch is a given. It helps to keep the soil cooler and holds moisture in. Impatiens, browallia, tricyrtis, and torenia all grow and bloom well in bright shade with extra water. Tree roots can be your worst enemy. They suck up all the water they can. They grow much thicker in good soil and with extra water. In fact tree roots often take most of all of the water you put into the bed. Remember how long you watered in last summer and the plant died anyway? Get a spade and dig down to see if tree roots have completely inundated the area. If so, remove some of the roots. Trees are greedy and losing a few roots won’t hurt them.

Shade in Texas is wonderful and can be landscaped beautifully. If you don’t care to water constantly, put more hardscape in. Things like brick or stone patios, water features, rocks or areas of bark mulch are all beautiful and with a large pot or two of color will give you just the “bling” you crave.


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— The Smith County Master Gardener program is a volunteer organization in connection with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.