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Right Plant, Right Place: Beauties for Dry Shade

The secret to a healthy, happy ... gorgeous ... garden? It's as simple as choosing the right plant for the right place...and learning about them from this new blog!

I might as well tell you right upfront that I’m a plant fanatic. So please don’t get all glassy-eyed if I carry on about the rainbow of new California sticky monkey flower hybrids or how every time I spot a madrone tree alongside a hiking trail I stop to stroke its sensuously smooth mahogany bark, dreaming of planting yet another variety of its sexy — and more garden-worthy — manzanita cousins in my own private patch.

If you’ll indulge my floriferous enthusiasm, I promise you’ll be rewarded. I’ll introduce you to plants (and gardening tips) that will make you truly fall in love with your garden while doing right by the environment and making your neighbors come to a complete standstill — because they just have to know what those amazing and unusual plants are that look so good all year long and that you never seem to water.

My name is Anne ... and I’m a plantaholic. And thanks to my happy addiction you will come to know why every gardener worth her mud-caked boots follows the age-old mantra “right plant, right place.”

You may ask, isn’t a garden like a blank canvas that every gardener can approach with her own artistic eye? Yes and no. Let’s compare planting a garden with decorating a room. We’ll consider an intimate living room in a Spanish Colonial house (you know, all terra cotta tiles and wrought-iron details). How would it look with a Victorian fainting couch, a mid-century chrome coffee table, a Liberace piano and African masks on the walls? Insane, don’t you think?

In the same way that the small Spanish living room has a certain character that lends itself to complementary furnishings, every part of a garden has its own particularities that make certain plants appropriate and others dreadful mistakes. Even a self-proclaimed black thumb would think twice before planting a saguaro cactus in an east-facing corner in deep shade. That’s when we’d say “wrong plant, wrong place.” (Of course, the garden can present many more complex factors than an interior room, such as soils, microclimates, nearby plantings and hungry deer, but I’ll keep it simple for now.)

Now let’s think about that dark, dreary garden corner. How can we transform it into a romantic and inviting nook filled with happy, virtually carefree plants? And, because we live in drought-stricken California, where it’s every citizen’s responsibility to conserve water (more on that later, too), how can we perform this magic with minimal irrigation? The key is to find plants that would be delighted to take root in the existing conditions of that location — Right Plant, Right Place.

The conditions our new plants will need to enjoy are called “dry shade.” Sounds ominous, but I’ve come to absolutely adore that situation, because there are so many fabulous plants that love it too. Here are some of my favorites, all of which offer two or more of the wonderful qualities we should demand of our plants in dry shade:

  • foliage with interesting color and/or shape (what we plant folks call “texture”)
  • foliage with variegation (white or creamy accents, usually around the margins) for reflecting light
  • flowers in winter
  • super easy care

Dianella (Flax Lily): These strappy-leafed Australian beauties take shade to part shade and come in several species, offering foliage in hues of green, blue and brilliant variegation. They throw out long stalks of tiny iris-like blue-and-yellow flowers in spring, and some varieties develop iridescent cobalt berries! In the same family as those pervasive (and way-too-big-for-most-gardens) New Zealand flax (Phormium), these darling workhorses need only the occasional brown leaf removed and range from 18” to 3’ tall.

Helleborus (Hellebore): Handsome year-round with their dramatic, large divided leaves, they explode with extravagant blooms throughout winter. Helleborus argutifolius has huge pistachio flowers December-March. Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince’ and many other smaller varieties have delicate single flowers ranging from creamy green to rich burgundy

Heuchera maxima (Island Alum Root): This sweet California native that stays green and cheery all year with big scallop-edged bright green leaves and fat spires of delicate pinkish-cream flowers midwinter through spring.

Azara microphylla (Boxleaf Azara): Need some height? Consider my all-time favorite for shade. The azara’s shiny, deep-green leaves are spaced airily along slender stems, which miraculously like to grow rather two-dimensionally, so they fit nicely in narrow spaces. Just be sure to prune back the tips of the branches occasionally to keep them from getting leggy (they can grow over 20’ if unchecked!). If you happen to get up close during late spring when its tiny yellow blooms appear, you’ll get a whiff of its seductive chocolaty scent. And if you go weak in the knees for delicate variegation, then you’ll absolutely swoon over ‘Variegata.’

Just throw all of these guys in any old shady dry corner and I guarantee you’ll be a happy gardener. Please remember, though, these basic tenets of common-sense gardening:

  • Allow enough room for a plant to grow to its mature size with minimal pruning.
  • Do prune, judiciously, when a plant begins to show signs of thinning or to maintain shape and balance (Do NOT cut the tips off of strappy leaves. If they look bad, cut them completely off.)
  • Even low-water plants need adequate water during their first year or so to get established. Water deeply when young, and cut back gradually.
  • Apply 2-3 inches of mulch around plants to conserve water and keep down weeds (but keep it away from the base of the plants)

I know you have questions about your own garden quandaries and dreams, so don’t be shy. I’d be happy to ponder them in upcoming posts. Now get out there and hug a madrone!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Gail Gordon February 27, 2012 at 09:12 PM
Wonderful article and love your writing style. I have shade under oaks. Do these plants work there as well?
Anne Weinberger, garden designer February 28, 2012 at 12:46 AM
Thanks, Gail. Many Piedmonters have the same situation you do, with a large oak canopy and an expanse of bare soil underneath. Of the plants in my blog post, the native Heuchera maxima would do best under oaks, which have sensitive root systems that can be damaged by any more than occasional summer irrigation. A great resource for dozens of natives that do well under oaks is the book California Native Plants for the Garden, by Carol Bornstein, et al (esp. p. 237) Remember that any young plant will need sufficient water in its first year or two, so try to water just at the roots of the individual plants rather than soaking the entire area under the oak.
Julia Waggener March 08, 2012 at 05:47 PM
Anne, will any of these plants, I am hoping for the Hellbore, do well in a raised bed that is shady and damp in the winter mornings but gets full afternoon winter sun?
Anne Weinberger, garden designer March 08, 2012 at 07:44 PM
Yes, Julia! The hellebores should do fine in that location...as long as they're not getting hot midday sun in summertime. Since they're in a raised bed, they should get enough drainage even if it does get wet. All of the other plants I mentioned will be happy in that situation too!
Lori Palmquist May 31, 2012 at 04:59 PM
Anne, Nice info and passionate, enthusiastic delivery. It makes me want to go out there and garden right now! Oh yeah, I have office work to do... Lori Palmquist

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