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One of the challenges I am often approached with when implementing a garden design is that of the “shade garden”.  Not all shade gardens are built equally.  Many can be a pleasure; allowing a wonderful variety of shade plants to grow such as Astilbe chinensis ‘Erica’, Heucheras ‘Obsidian’, or Actea ‘Atropurpurea’, under a canopy of dappled shade in well irrigated garden beds. But, in most instances, these are not the spaces that prove to be the most challenging…in most cases the culprit for our struggling shade gardens is one of the following spaces:  


Culprit one is often the grove of evergreen trees blocking almost all light underneath its unsightly thinning bottom branches, all the while stripping all moisture and nutrients from the soil.  The result is an acidic, heavily shaded space with poor soil and poor planting conditions.   

Culprit two is usually the dense canopy of thick leaves and the shallow roots of the maple tree (or most deciduous trees); again, stripping moisture and nutrients from the soil leaving you with nothing but a dusty, empty garden bed.

The trick is not what you plant but what you plant IN that will help you achieve success.  Giving attention to the care of the soil is the first and most important step, especially when dealing with such spaces 

Adding an annual layer of compost to the area (such as mushroom compost) will enrich the nutrients in the soil, improve the soils structure, promote drainage and aeration to clay soils, enhance moisture to sandy soils, and reduce soil compaction.  In other words, it will improve the area for planting all the while improving the health of the trees. Secondly, adding mulch will also benefit the area by enriching the soil as the it decomposes, protect the soil and roots from extreme temperatures, reduce weeds, and conserve moisture.  Make sure to use natural mulch that is either shredded or composted, such as composted pine mulch or shredded pine mulch, for best results.

Lastly choose plant material that can withstand dry and shady conditions.  I’ve compiled a list of my 10 favorite “impossible growing condition” plants.  These are tried and tested and can provide you with lushness in difficult growing conditions.


Acanthopanax sieboldianus, Fiveleaf Araliafiveleaf aralia - june 2011

Withstands poor soil, air pollution and windy conditions.  Glossy, deeply cut foliage with prickles on the underside make an ideal privacy barrier.         




Cornus racemosa, Gray Dogwood

Vigorous, dense native shrub.  Gray bark and gray-green foliage turning burgundy in the fall.  Has attractive fruit and provides great winter interest.




  Euonymus fortunei ‘Coloratus’, Coloratus Euonymuseuonymus_fortunei_coloratus june 2011

Spreading or climbing broadleaf evergreen shrub with glossy dark green leaves.  Great for mass planting.  Turns purple in the fall.





Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’, Emerald Gaiety Euonymusemarald gaiety euonymus june 2011

Great contrast in shady areas.  Foliage turns pinkish-red in winter.





Geranium macrorrhizum, Bigroot Geranium

Fragrant leaves with clusters of flat pink, purple or white flowers. will grow in acidic soil.





Hosta, Plantain Lily  

Reliable leafy perennial available in many colours and sizes.





Matteucia struthiopteris, Ostrich Fern

Native plant that grows best in moist conditions (I’ve seen it do well in anything but).  Easy to grow, versatile and attractive.





Pachysandra terminalis, Japanese Spurge

Does well in acidic soil (under evergreens); retains its glossy green leaves all year. 







Taxus, Yew

Available in many shapes and sizes as well as in shades of yellow.  Great evergreen shrub for shady locations.




Vinca minor, Periwinkle

Stays green all winter and has pretty purple flowers in the spring.  Creates a dense mat once established.  Tolerates acidic soils. 



Good luck and may every inch of your space be landscaped, even the dark and dry ones.


Landscape Installation