Planning the Garden – Dry Shade

Dear Readers, as you will know I have been very neglectful of my poor garden during the past few years. But in the last few weeks there has been a flurry of cutting back and digging up (the box bushes were so well munched by box moth that it wasn’t worth keeping them) and so I am at the point of planning what to plant to keep the critters and the humans happy in the years to come.

My garden falls into two parts. It is north-facing, with heavy clay soil, and to add to the challenges, the left-hand side is extremely dry, with several medium sized trees, while the right-hand side is dominated by the pond. The garden has always been something of a challenge, but this time I am going to give it some serious thought. What can I plant that will thrive, look good, have a long season and keep the bees and other invertebrates happy? Here are my thoughts on the dry-shade part so far. Feel free to interject :-).

On the shrub front, I only really have room to add one plant, and so I am going for Oregon grape (probably Mahonia aquifolium). I have grown this before and know that it likes clay soil. My wildlife reason is that it is often the only thing in flower when queen bumblebees emerge during mild winters and early spring. I will need to plant it closer to the house, where it gets at least some sun – you can plant all the nectar-rich flowers that you like, but if the shade is too deep you will not attract very many insects.

Mahonia aquifolium

On the perennial front, my garden has long lacked hellebores, and I intend to make up that deficit this year. My Gardening for Wildlife book by Adrian Thomas mentions christmas rose but I might also look at our native species, such as stinking hellebore.

I will definitely be avoiding the pretty double-flowered varieties, which have less value for the creepy-crawlies. Hellebores are, again, early flowerers, which is a bonus.

Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger)

I am hearing good things about some varieties of Heuchera (Coral Bells) as wildlife plants, which surprises me a little as I have always thought of them as pretty but useless. If you have any experience with this plant, do let me know. My book recommends Heuchera ‘Firefly’ in particular, but there are so many varieties these days that it makes my head spin. I have always had a penchant for the ones with lime-green foliage, especially when paired with the chocolate-brown ones. I think they remind me of the chocolate-lime sweets that I used to eat when I was a child.

Photo One by Ghislain118 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Heuchera sanguinea ‘Firefly’ (Photo One)

And then there is lungwort, or Pulmonaria. I love the way that the flowers change colour on this plant as each bloom is pollinated, and the spotted leaves remind me of a leopard. It’s another lovely woodland plant.

Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis)

Hardy geraniums will feature, of course. I already have a mass of dusky cranesbill (Geranium phaeum) but it finishes very early in the year, and I need another plant to take up the baton. My book recommends Geranium x macrorrhizum (or Balkan cranesbill), and I noticed this doing very well in my Aunt Hilary’s garden, so I suspect it will be soon be popping up in mine! There are several varieties, with ‘Ingwerson’s Variety’ winning an RHS Order of Merit.

Photo Two by Muséum de Toulouse [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Dusky cranesbill (Geranium phaeum) (Photo Two)

Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Ingersen’s Variety) (Photo Three)

For ground cover, I am thinking of some dead-nettles, probably Lamium maculatum, although I’ve had mixed experiences with it in the past – I think my dry shade is possibly too dry in parts even for this bruiser! I shall plant it in somewhere with a bit more sunshine this time, and am probably going to mulch everything this year as well.

Photo Four by MurielBendel [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Lamium maculatum (Photo Four)

On the bulb front, I am addicted to fritillaries, and shall pop in a few more this year.

Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris)

There is a company in the UK called Farmer Gracy which does all manner of intriguing, and they have a remarkable selection of fritillaries that I’ve never heard of. It is the kind of website that makes one positively salivate, so be warned to hide your credit card before you pop in. I am tempted by several, including Fritillaria persica ‘Twin Towers’. There is also a green variety. Now that I am a working woman, maybe I’ll indulge…

Photo Five from

Fritillaria persica ‘Twin Towers (Photo Five)

Photo Six from

Fritillaria persica ‘Ivory Bells’ (Photo Six)

And of course, no woodland garden would be complete without some foxgloves. Mine self-seeded last year, but of course they won’t flower until 2021, being biennials, so maybe I’ll find some plants that will flower this year, so that I’ll then have a succession.

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

And finally, a plant that I’ve never grown but which always seems like a pollinator-magnet is honesty . It has those lovely pink flowers, transparent seed cases in the autumn, and again it self-seeds. I shall definitely have a go this year.

Honesty (Annua Lunaria)

So, that’s the plan at the moment. I am considering various other plants (grape hyacinths, squill, snowdrops), but I will soon be running out of room (my garden is not enormous in spite of my ambitions!). Next week I shall be considering what to plant in and next to my pond, which is looking more like a muddy puddle than an oasis of calm at the moment, but if you have any thoughts on dry shade plants that have done well in your experience, do let me know. I haven’t actually bought anything yet!

18 thoughts on “Planning the Garden – Dry Shade

  1. trailriderincentraloregon

    I’m 100% with you, except for the Oregon grape. Although you’re familiar with the plant, I’m having trouble seeing it in such a petty plan. I’m in Oregon and know the plant well. It’s big, full of stickers, isn’t particularly pretty, and once it takes hold is difficult to get rid of. Just my opinion for it’s certainly around and does a good job of filling in large spaces. Great planning though, you’re an inspiration!

    1. Bug Woman

      You know, you might well be right. My other early-flowering possibility would be winter honeysuckle, which at least has the virtue of not being prickly. It’s just that it’s pretty boring for most of the year. Choices, choices….

  2. Andrea Stephenson

    They sound lovely choices. I have a yard but I’ve just planted a mahonia in a pot in the shade near the house – it hasn’t done much yet but it has grown since I potted it and there are some flowers on it now. I also just planted my first roses, though the leaves on one of them are still being decimated, possibly by sawfly larvae though I haven’t seen any, just the evidence! The thing that gets the most activity is in my front yard and is, of course, a ‘weed’ – purple toadflax – I never planted it but now it is everywhere, growing out of gaps in concrete and wall, but the bees love it.

    1. Bug Woman

      Purple toadflax is lovely, but I figured it needed more sun than I could provide? Maybe it would work in the front garden, where I’ve cut back the lavender a bit so there’s finally some space. Strangely enough I rarely see purple toadflax in my part of London, though it was everywhere in the West Country…

  3. Laurin Lindsey

    I love your plant selection! We have part shade and heavy clay too! Are there types of salvias that grow well there. I have some that flower frost to frost and the pollinators love them. I like Salvia ‘Ember’s Wish’ sage if you have a sunnier spot. Another with long bloom time and can deal with part shade is Salvia miniata. It is going to be lovely!

  4. Alexandra Rook

    Dry shade about the most difficult. I’m lucky enough to be walking distance from Beth Chatto so have tried a number of her recommendations at the end of my v dry Essex garden under trees which includes an inherited towering spruce that sheds acidic needles over it all. Suggest looking at the mail order catalogue & her publication on dry shade plants.

  5. Toffeeapple

    A lovely read, I am excited for you! My Honesty seeds itself every year and it always gives me pleasure as does the self seeding Borage, such a beautiful blue.

    1. Bug Woman

      I love borage too and have tried it a couple of times, but it definitely needs a bit more sunlight than I have in the back garden. I am toying with the idea of a raised bed in the front garden so it might feel more at home there….

      1. Izy

        Just stumbled across your blog, a nice read! The dried seedheads of honesty are great for winter flower arrangements too, great plant. What’s the book you refer to that recommends heucheras? I have seen bees on mine, growing in shade, but never come across ‘Firefly’ before so will be looking that up, what a striking colour!

      2. Bug Woman

        Hi Izy, the book is called ‘Gardening for Wildlife ‘ by Adrian Thomas, published by the RSPB. And I’m glad you enjoyed the blog, welcome!

  6. tonytomeo

    Oregon grape naturalizes for us in our chaparral climate. I happen to like it because it is the state flower of Oregon. I would not expect it to be popular there though.


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