Gardening in Dry Shade 

Note: This is my Love Note From the Garden sent to subscribers on Feb. 14, 2021.

I am helping a friend expand her garden to create a plaza for outdoor parties. Her garden is almost exclusively shaded by deciduous trees in Zone 7. My first instinct in creating her plant list is to look at gardens: what is doing well in her garden (and saving on her budget by dividing proven perennials), the garden in my mother’s house a few miles down the road, and my own Zone 8 garden

No matter how drought tolerant, new plants need supplemental water through the first year and during extended dry spells. Also, every plant gets a ceremonial “Welcome to my Garden” spritz of deer spray when planted. If not, a deer may pull the plant out to taste test.

There are many wonderful shade plants. Among the toughest and most delightful in my garden are:

Epimedium ‘Pink Champagne’ (Zones 5-8, evergreen, 18” T x 30” W, deer resistant) –This should be by a bench or path, to appreciate the small, elegant blooms close-up.

Ajuga reptans ‘Burgundy Glow’

Ajuga (Bugleweed, Zones 3-10, under 6”) – So many cultivars are available of this low, evergreen groundcover. Since they thrive in my shade garden, I have a collection.

Sarcoccoa hookeriana var. humilis (Himalayan Sweet Box, evergreen, 12” T x 36”W, deer resistant) – I just shared some of this evergreen weedchoking groundcover with friends. Other Sweet Box species available mature into 3’-5’ evergreen shrubs. These Boxwood relatives have tiny fragrant winter blooms and spread by stolons.

Ruscus ‘Elizabeth Lawrence’ (Butcher’s Broom, Zones 7-9, evergreen, 2’ T x W, deer resistant) – This tiny shrub was originally found in Elizabeth Lawrence’s garden. My plant was given to me by Sam Jones at Piccadilly Farms, Bishop, GA, over a decade ago and is covered with red berries and painfully sharp leaves. I have a three-foot tall Ruscus too, which is tough as nails and painful when touched. I love them, but sometimes love hurts.

Danae racemosa (Poet’s Laurel, Zones 7-9, evergreen,3’ T x 4’ W) – OK, if Ruscus is too tough for you, consider the elegant, soft Poet’s Laurel, three feet tall with red berries and bright green foliage. Mine is growing in a never-saw-a-ray-of-sunshine deep shade. Flower arrangers love the arching branches. Probably the least drought-tolerant on this list, but a mature plant is tough.

Carex oshimensis Evercolor ‘Everillo’

Carex oshimensis Evercolor ‘Everillo’ (Japanese Sedge, Zones 5-9, 16”H x 16”T) – There are many golden Carexes, but this one grabs attention in my garden, adding a bright gold, fine textured, grassy foliage.

Daffodils – Great to mix with the plants that sleep through the winter to bring more color into the garden

About time for a native plant, don’t you think? Here are a few:

Spigelia marilandica  (Indian Pink, Zones 6-9, winter dormancy, 14” T x 14” W, U.S. NATIVE) – I add a couple of these each year to my shade garden and will water them  because they are among my very favorites. So I don’t test them as much as the others. This long-lived perennial offers lots of blooms in a vivid Pop Art red/yellow combo that hummingbirds and butterflies love.

Aquilegia canadensis (Columbine, Zones 3b-8 , winter dormancy, up to 3’,U.S. NATIVE) – These may look delicate, but they are tough. They also have a way of reseeding and filling in gaps in the garden. I think it is charming, showing me that nature often does what she darn well pleases.

Hydrangea quercifolia (Oakleaf Hydrangea, Zones 5-9, winter dormancy, large shrub of various sizes, U.S. NATIVE) – The quintessential four-season shrub, offering peeling, sculptura;, bare branches in winter and dramatic bloom clusters and huge green leaves that turn red in fall.

Bearded Iris – Whaaat? Those are full sun plants. Of course, the iris under the dense, very dry shade of my red maple never blooms. But it does add a fun, upright sword-leaf texture contrast.

Avoid English ivy, Arum and Vinca; these are terribly invasive, and you will regret planting them! A plant can be too tough.

Here a couple resources to discover more dry shade plants:

The Missouri Botanical Garden’s website is a wealth of information, including their article on ProblemSolver Plants for Dry Shade.

Fine Gardening Magazine offers this free 1-1/2 hour webinar on Truly Tough Plants for Dry Shade, with three experts discussing why they like each plant and showing numerous photos in garden settings. All three live in the Northeast but list growing zones for each plant. Just make sure you know your growing zone and are ready to take notes before you start watching.


None of these links are affiliate links. I’m just leading you to more information.

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I would call Lenten rose deer proof

It is risky to call any plant deer proof, but there are a few I would give that tag. One is Lenten Rose (Helleborus xhybridus or ), which seems like the perfect plant to me. It is evergreen, tolerates part to deep shade, resistant to deer and other pests, and blooms when few other plants bloom. Not just any flower either – sculptural, perfect blooms that entices me to pull out a sketchbook and concentrate on their beauty.

Lenten Rose is hardy from Zones 4-9 and is one of the longest blooming perennials in cultivation, with blooms that last for six weeks or more. To make it even more desirable, it is one of the earliest blooming perennials, with blooms starting as early as January in Georgia and lasting into April. Who couldn’t love a plant that blooms even before the daffodils?

Glossy, bold, leathery foliage is a year-round asset to the shade garden. Leaves are divided into seven to nine segments, falling away from the central stem like an umbrella. These coarse leaves are a great contrast with ferns and bleeding hearts. Although they are evergreen, the leaves can look a little ragged before the new growth emerges. This is just a little winter burn and aging foliage. Trimming off some of the older foliage in January or February not only makes the plants look better; it shows off the blooms better too.

The perfect spot for a Lenten Rose would be in deciduous shade, protected from the wind, in rich soil with plenty of moisture but good drainage. They would like the bank of a creek, along a woodland path. Lenten roses do better planted among hardwoods than pines, because they appreciate winter sun and pine needles accumulating around them can hinder growth. One thing Hellebores cannot take is soggy soil.

These plants are disease and pest resistant and prefer to be left alone. Once established, Lenten roses reseed to form a colony, creating a dramatic woodland groundcover that blooms in various colors. Seedlings can be dug up and moved, but established plants resent being moved or divided and may not bloom the following year.

My first few plants have reseeded to create a colony in my shade garden, with each plant producing slightly different blooms. The blooms come in many colors, including white, pale yellow, pink, maroon, purple and speckled. These are subtle, beautiful, nodding blooms on evergreen plants that are eighteen to twenty-four inches tall.

I love my colony of reseeded Lenten Roses but, oh my, what are available in nurseries now are stunning. The breeders have been working on Lenten Roses and now offer double blooms in bright colors with their faces rising upward, or pale pink fluffy blooms comparable to an English Rose, or blooms that look like they were hand painted in a porcelain factory. Just do a search on Pinterest to be amazed at the variety and beauty. These new Lenten Roses can be pricey – and worth every penny. Once in your garden, they will become your favorite plant, asking little and giving so much.

I suggest you shop for these plants locally, when they are in bloom. Then you know exactly what the bloom will look like and buy a plant that is already at blooming age.

Oakleaf Hydrangeas are Proving Themselves

Once again, the promise of rain (60%) was an empty one. I let the hydrangeas droop, sure that Mother Nature would give them much needed water, but she did not. The look sad, weeping and drooping, except for my oakleaf hydrangeas, native to the Southeast. They have been untouched by drought and deer. As good as they look now, they will look even better when donned with red foliage this fall, then showing off peeling bark this winter.

Dream Vacation for Garden Geeks – in Carolina.

This weekend I am reading up on the gardens I will soon be visiting in England. The adventure starts with a week in Sissinghurst, staying at the Priest’s House on the grounds. We can actually wake up in the morning, pad over to the window, and look out onto the famous White Garden. This stay includes access to Sissinghust grounds before and after hours. From there we will take day trips to nearby historic gardens and charming villages.

But you can have a similar experience by only crossing one state line, not a whole ocean. In March 2011 I attended a retreat at the Inn at Middleton Place. This inn is LEED certified, with each room offering a view of the river. Stroll down a path through the trees and enjoy a delicious breakfast outdoors or in a dining room with a woodland view. Middleton Place is one of the most famous gardens in the world, featured in landscape history courses and advertised as ‘America’s oldest landscaped gardens.’ It has been under the same family stewardship for over 300 years. One resident was President of the First Continental Congress, another a signer of the Declaration of Independence, The live oaks and camellias are ancient by our standards and the gardens and statuary are wonderful. It is where the first Camellia japonicas were probably introduced by André Michaux in 1786 and probably one of the places John and William Bartram visited (when they weren’t back in Philly chatting with Ben Franklin.) Middleton Place is also stunningly beautiful and peaceful.

Back to my visit. On Sunday morning I jumped out of bed, grabbed a camera, jacket and notebook and wandered the gardens at Middleton Place for a few hours, having the entire garden to myself. The birds were waking up. It was an incredibly peaceful, inspiring morning. Many of these photos are from that early March morning. I would think it would be as memorable an experience to visit the garden at twilight in summer, or during an early summer morning. Oh, and visiting other historic gardens and charming villages? The Inn at Middleton Place is about 15 miles from Charleston and just down the road from Magnolia Plantation and Drayton Hall, both well worth visiting.

My Spring Bulb Orders

OK, this was actually written on September 5th for my blog on the Georgia Gardening website, but it is not to late to order those bulbs! Yesterday I drove 1-1/2 hours each way to listen to 1-1/2 hours’ of talks as part of the national Daffodil Society annual meeting – and it was so inspiring and worth it! I have placed 2 of the 3 orders below and was waiting until I attended that meeting to place the third, so I will do that this morning. 

naturalized daffodils

I swear waiting for Hurricane Lee to arrive with much-needed rain for my garden is torture! So to distract myself from looking out the window every 30 seconds to see if it is raining yet I decided to place my orders for fall-planted bulbs. They will arrive to my garden when it is time to plant them, sometime in October. So instead of the typical ‘Fall Planted Bulbs’ discussion, today I’ll just chat about the bulbs I ordered and why and a few that I recommend that are already in my garden.

From Brent & Becky’s Bulbs: Brent Heath spoke at the Perennial Plant Association annual meeting in Atlanta this summer, so my order reflects the notes from his inspiring talk.  Daffodil ‘Monal’ is an early bloomer that takes the heat, and ‘Katie Heath’ performs well in the South, even in Dallas, TX. I definitely could use early bloomers in my garden. Although I have hundreds of daffodils, my garden seems to start blooming a week later than many others, so this year ‘February Gold’ is also on my list. When placing orders for daffodils, which are very long lived and deer-resistant, choose early, mid and late bloomers to create a long season of cheerful flowers each spring. I’ve chosen a few Ipheions, which Brent suggests scattering in the lawn, and Aliums, ornamental onions that come in many shapes and colors. Both are inexpensive, which makes it easy to try them out. I rarely order tulips, but ‘Lilac Wonder‘ is starred in my notes and too pretty to not order.

From Old House Gardens: This mail-order nursery specializes in heirloom bulbs and this year most the bulbs I chose date to the turn of the 17th Century. The exception is English bluebells, which date back to 1200. I also ordered Spanish bluebells and both like dry summers and shade – that I’ve got! The sternbergia looks like a big yellow crocus that blooms in fall and the sowbread cyclamen (which may not do well south of Athens) has leaves as pretty as its blooms.

From Lushlife Nurseries: I found out about this South Carolina nursery at the Garden Writers annual meeting last week. One of the few treasures in the garden surrounding my 50 year old house is a hymenocallis, a relative of amaryllis with large leaves and white blooms. When I received a small crinum bulb (also related to the amaryllis, rain lilies, and hymenocallis) last week from Lushlife Nurseries I had to find out more.  This blog post was a great intro. I couldn’t leave the Lushlife website ( without ordering ‘Bradley’. You can buy a bulb for yourself or send a gift box to a friend for a few dollars more, which is less expensive than most gifts and will bloom for decades! Expect this order to come quickly; there is no need to hold these bulbs for later planting.  I did receive my order quickly, with big, fat bulbs full of promise. Can’t wait to see them grow and bloom!

Favorites that I already have and heartily recommend you order:

From Old House Gardens: A Fall Planted Sampler. Just let them send you bulbs that will do well for your planting zone. It’s a great way to discover something new.

From Brent & Becky’s Bulbs: ‘Fragrant Rose’ daffodil, which is not only beautiful, but really does smell like a rose – a great conversation piece.

From your local garden center: Just about anything that inspires you, especially if the bulbs look fat and healthy and the photo inspires you. Indulge!

Ooh, I hear rumbling. Finally, the rains are coming!!!

The garden did get 1-1/2 inches of rain, much more than the 1/2″ that most of the county received. But the 10 day forecast only shows little chance of rain.

Add Interest to Your Winter Landscape

I have met homeowners who would not consider anything but evergreens in their front yard. What a shame, because the winter landscape can be so beautiful and so dramatically different. A landscape should celebrate the seasons. Blooms, berries, sculptural forms, increased visibility and attractive foliage all add to the character of a changing landscape.

Evergreens can form a strong backbone for our plantings and should be used in a landscape, but not exclusively. Dwarf conifers and ornamental grasses can add height and form to a perennial border, balancing the profusion of color spring through fall. In winter, when the perennials are subordinate, the shape of the conifer, the sound and movement of the dry grasses and the dramatic forms of seedheads become the focus.

Two of my favorite plants to enhance the winter landscape are daffodils and Lenten roses. Both are easy to grow, long-lived, deer resistant, and bloom when we so desperately need flowers in our life.

Winter is when groundcovers, subordinate to showier blooming plants, often get noticed. Evergreen groundcovers contrast with bare trees, brown lawns, and fallen leaves. The bold foliage of cast iron plant and holly fern, the delicate texture of autumn fern, the expanse of liriope or mondo grass, the color of ajuga foliage – all more noticeable in winter.

Trees and shrubs provide winter interest in many forms: foliage, structure, blooms, and bark. The dogwood is a classic example of a combination of all four. The horizontal branching, flower buds, rugged bark, red berries and early spring blooms make this an all season (albeit fussy) plant. Leatherleaf mahonia has bold evergreen foliage, fall color, yellow spring blooms and blue summer berries. Many of the best winter plants offer much in other seasons as well.

Other trees and shrubs with interesting winter structure include the weeping yaupon holly, the wonderful variety of dwarf conifers and the pieris. Foliage interest is added with the bold mahonia and magnolia, or the colorful aucuba and loropetalum,

Trees and shrubs with a show of berries include several hollies, pyracantha, cotoneaster and burning bush. Interesting bark can be found on river birch and oakleaf hydrangea (exfoliating), crape myrtle (mottled, smooth), burning bush (winged), kerria, coral bark maple and red twig dogwood (colorful) and corkscrew willow and Harry Lauder’s walking stick (contorted). Branches of these plants are fun to bring into the house for winter arrangements.

Many trees and shrubs have winter and early spring blooms, including camellias, quince, sweet olive, deciduous magnolias (which also have fat, fuzzy buds), winter daphne, winter jasmine, witch hazel and forsythia.

Ornamental grasses are at their peak in winter, with graceful forms topped by plumes ranging from airy to massive. Enjoy these all winter, then cut them back when the daffodils bloom to encourage more compact, upright growth.

This only highlights a few of the plants that can enhance the winter landscape. There are wonderful annuals, perennials, herbs and vines that can add much to your garden in winter. More can be discovered at the library or local nursery. I recommend a stroll through a botanical garden on a warm winter day, jotting down ideas in a little notebook.

When designing your landscape for winter interest, pay particular attention to those areas visible from inside your home so that you can enjoy the show. Also pay attention to the front entry and your path from the car to the house so that interesting, fragrant and colorful plants welcome visitors and you to your home.