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Rhonda Ferree's ILRiverHort

Rhonda Ferree's Horticulture Blog
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Plants for a Dry, Shade Garden


Several years ago I created a secret shade garden behind my backyard gazebo. What started as a few trees, shrubs, and a bench, has grown to a dense garden of various dry-loving, shade plants. Since I garden in the dry sand of Mason county, typical moisture-loving shade plants like hosta, fern, and azalea don't do well. Instead, here are some plants that work for me.

Northern Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is a semi-evergreen shrub that is native to Eastern North America. The 3 – 8 foot shrub is noted for its ornamental silver berries in winter and tolerance of various environmental conditions, including dry soils. I particularly like how the bayberry leaves and bark produce a balsamic aroma, which I also love as a candle scent. This plant has male and female plants, and unfortunately my first two plants were both male. Last year I added a female shrub to get the aromatic berries.

The blue violet (Viola sororia) is our Illinois state wildflower. We actually tried to remove them all when the garden was first established, but in later years added them back in. I love the way this plant fills in the ground floor with its dark green leaves and beautiful spring flowers. Violet is also a favorite food for caterpillars of many Fritillary butterflies. This plant loves my dry sand, blooming in various shades of purple, blue, and white.

Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) is another plant that I've transplanted from other areas on my property. This 3-4 foot shrub has glossy summer trifoliate leaves that turn an outstanding orange-scarlet in the fall. Showy clusters of hairy, red fruit appear in late summer and early autumn (on female plants only). This plant tolerates our dry, acid soil very well.

Barrenwort (Epimedium sp.) is an herbaceous perennial that many consider to be a tough, long-lived groundcover. Although this plant prefers moist, well-drained organic soils in light to dense shade, it will tolerate dry shade and tree roots once it gets established. This 12–15 inches tall plant blooms in late spring to early summer and also has nice fall color.

Helleborus plants have dark evergreen, leathery leaves that often stay attractive throughout the winter. These plants flower in very early spring with nodding flowers that are three to four inches wide with five separate sepals. My Lenten rose (Helleborus × hybridus Winter Thriller™ 'Pink Parachutes') blooms pink in late February and grows 12 to 15 inches tall. Although these plants prefer moister soils, so far this plant has done well for me.

Why do I call this a secret garden? Besides being tucked behind a large spruce and gazebo, it is also based on the Secret Garden book by Frances Hodgson Burnet. In the story, Mary discovers a neglected secret garden. Her new friend, Dickon and his animal friends, help her bring the garden back to life. My garden includes carefully selected and placed animal sculpture. For added whimsy, an occasional gnome makes this garden their home.



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