January 2003
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Garden design using shade plants and shade trees   

Gardening Newsletter - January 2003, Issue 5

This issue covers shade plants in three different ways. First, we discuss the use of perennials in a planter (Sedum). Second, building on last months articles on plants that love mosisture, in this issue we cover plants that love a dry environment. Lastly, we discuss the use of fine textured foliage.

Rebecca Green
Horticulturist

A New Twist for Planters

Perennials typically aren’t used in container plantings because most have a short bloom period. However, the perennials known as Carex, commonly called sedge, are ideal for containers in the shade. Incorrectly, sedges are thought of by many to be ornamental grasses. Nevertheless, their strap-like foliage does strongly resemble that of an ornamental grass.

There are over 2,000 species in the genus Carex. With so many to choose from there is quite amount of variance. They come in every shade of green, as well as red, gold and, purple. Some are several feet tall, while others stand just a few inches. Most of the varieties I have seen in garden centers are only about six to eight inches tall, just the perfect size for a window box or average sized planter.

Unlike most decorative grasses, sedges love shade. They burn to a crisp in full sun.

Sedges also love water. If you have a pond or large fountain set a container planted with sedges right in the water. The sedges will be happy as clams and your water feature will have a lush, tropical look.

I love golden colored sedges tucked in around brightly colored Coleus. Sedges are also a great way of providing a container with some green foliage to separate hot colors from each other.

Gardening in Dry Shade

Dry shade is often thought of as the most difficult set of conditions to garden in. Thirsty tree roots quickly absorb most of the available water in the soil while luscious foliage not only shades out the sun light, but the rain too. What is a gardener to do?

Before attempting to plant anything in your dry shady area first attempt to improve the conditions. If you haven’t done so already, remove low hanging limbs from your trees. This will allow more light and water into the area, as well as improve air circulation. Not only will this help make it a little easier to grow other plants in the area, it will actually improve the health of your tree too. You’ll also want to add organic matter, such as compost, to your soil. Doing so will add nutrients to your soil and improve its structure, helping it to better retain moisture. Don’t forget to apply several inches of organic mulch on top of the soil. Mulch insulates the roots of your plants from dramatic changes in temperature, as well as hinders moisture evaporation.

Once you have taken these steps it is time to consider what to plant. It should be no surprise that most plants that do well in dry shade are native to woodlands where they have to compete with trees and other plants for moisture. However, even these plants need some water.

Epimedium (barrenwort)

No discussion of dry shade is complete without mentioning Epimediums, also called barrenworts. There are many kinds of barrenworts, which are generally deer resistant groundcover plants with delicate spring flowers and beautiful heart-shaped foliage. Some varieties are even evergreen. Epimedium's flowers aren't very showy though and frequently hide beneath the leaves.  Generally the attraction to this plant is the foliage.  Epimedium is hardy to Zone 5.

Houttynia cordata ‘Chameleon’ (chameleon plant)

If you have a large area that needs ground cover this might be the plant for you, as it is very aggressive. Dry soil slows it rate of spread. The leaves of chameleon plant are a pretty combination of cream, green, pink and, yellow. This is not a plant for a small area or flower garden. Houttynia cordata is hardy to Zone 5.

Lamium maculatum (deadnettle)

This pretty groundcover gets pink flowers and has white striped leaves. Its fuzzy leaves will spread indefinitely in sun or shade, making it a very versatile ground cover.  White, whether it be in the leaves or the flowers, is always great in a shade garden, as it reflects the light.  Lamium is very fast growing, which is a plus if you are looking for instant gratification, Lamium maculatum is hardy to Zone 5.

Dicentra (bleeding heart)

There are numerous species of Dicentra. Some species die back to the ground when they are done flowering, such as Dicentra spectabilis. Others keep their fern-like foliage throughout the growing season, such as Dicentra eximia.  Dicentra eximia is always a long bloomer, frequently blooming sporadically throughout the summer.  Unfortunately the showiest flowers are on the short blooming Dicentra spectabilis. Whatever type you choose, they are deer resistant and look great with big leaved plants like hosta. Dicentra are hardy to Zone 3.

Convallaria majalis (lily of the valley)

This old world favorite has sweet smelling flowers that are used to make perfumes. Unfortunately, this deer resistant perennial is extremely difficult to get started. I have never been able to grow it, but maybe you can. It is great along paths and near doorways where its scent can be enjoyed. Its also very dramatic planted in mass beneath trees. The flowers come in white or pink.  Convallaria majalis is hardy to Zone 2.

Potentilla fruticosa (cinquefoil)

This small shrub is one of my favorite plants. It grows in sun or light shade and is quite drought tolerant. It blooms all summer long in shades of white, yellow, pink, red and, peach. The red and pink flowered varieties fade in full sun.  It's also extremely disease resistant. This is a super plant to tie your sunny and shady parts of the garden together.   Potentilla fruiticosa is hardy to Zone 3.

Berberis (barberry)

There are many species and varieties of Berberis. Unfortunately, the red and chartreuse colored plants need full sunlight to maintain their beautiful colors. In fact, sometimes they change color while being shipped cross-country in dark, refrigerated trucks. However, they can live in a great deal of shade and are quite drought tolerant.  In shade they grow at an extremely slow rate, so make sure you like the size of the plants you are purchasing.

Fine Textured Foliage Should Make-up a Third of Your Garden

Opposites attract in gardens too. Fine textured foliage makes ordinary intermediate and bold foliage more noticeable. However, you don’t want too much of a good thing. You should limit your fine textured foliage to about a third of your plants. A garden with too much fine foliage looses its sense of rhythm. Accent a planting of hellebore, brunnera, lungwort, and wintercreeper with bleeding hearts, sedges, and ferns.

That's all for now. If you have any comments or questions on the newsletter, please email us at

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