Nancy Brachey

Wise choices for planting in dry shade

This epimedium has delicate yellow and white flowers and blooms in March
This epimedium has delicate yellow and white flowers and blooms in March Observer file photo

Just a month or so ago, I didn’t think I would put these two words on paper again: dry shade.

It was so wet that all thoughts of drought-tolerant plants faded away. I imagined not having to water the impatiens ever this summer. But, as you must have noticed, things change.

However, some fine annuals and perennials are remarkably good at living in dry shade, one of the most difficult environments in a home landscape. This is where large trees with shallow, mature root systems soak up water from the soil to the detriment of younger, less well-established bedding plants. Often, people give up on growing anything and settle for a neat array of pine needles.

While roots usually win the competition for water in the soil, some plants can hold their own and do well in dry shade. One of the best is epimedium, a lovely small wildflower that blooms in shade and bears delicate small flowers in spring. The foliage is neat and tidy through the season. Fresh foliage comes back every spring. The common name of epimedium grandiflorium is bishop’s hat. Rose Queen is a popular variety, but there are many choices. Over time, a few epimedium plants form a very neat ground cover of green foliage rising 8 to 10 inches.

Annual begonias, sold by the thousands at this time of year, are another choice for seasonal color in dry shade. Once established with regular watering or rainfall for a few weeks, these popular plants perform very well. They bloom over a long season in various colors, from white and soft pink to deep red.

Most hardy ferns arose in woodlands and are well-adapted to dry soil. These are very beautiful plants, with a huge range of shapes and styles. The color range varies from light to deepest green, and textures are highly varied, from sleek to frothy. I am particularly fond of the autumn fern, an evergreen fern. The new fronds in spring are a beautiful blend of copper, pink and yellow, turning green in summer. As with bedding begonias, they require watering in the early days, but I have found they stand up to long weeks of dry weather.

While all of these can stand up to dry shade, they will do even better if given the additional help of good, loose compost added to the bed at planting time.

Nancy Brachey:

Ask Nancy

Q. I have difficulty with hostas in the ground and think I would like to try growing them in pots. Is there any reason not to do this?

A. Hostas perform beautifully in pots. I like to see a single plant grown in a medium to large container solo. This emphasizes the round shape of the plant and allows it to mature fully. The good soil in pots is also a help. Mine have come back in spring very nicely.