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Midwest Gardening: Perennials Have It Made in Dry Shade

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Dry shade is a challenge for plants and gardeners, but lots of shade-loving perennials need no pampering and flourish lushly in these tough conditions.

hellebore and Virginia bluebells

By Marty Ross

Heat and drought test the resilience of Midwestern gardeners. We’re up for the challenge, but without the right plants our gardens can look worn out by the end of summer. Shade gardens have certain advantages: You escape some of the heat in the shelter of trees, and many fantastic perennials thrive even in the comparatively dry conditions under a leafy canopy.

geranium in bloom

My garden in Kansas City comfortably tucks into the shade of mature trees that block a lot of sun but limit the amount of rain that filters through. I’m good about watering new plants while they settle into my garden, but I still look for hardy, drought-tolerant small shrubs and perennials. I don’t like to have to pamper them after they are established.

A hardy geranium, ‘Ingwersen’s Variety’, is one of my favorite perennials for dry shade. It blooms in spring and continues to produce a few bright-pink flowers throughout summer. Through heat and drought its leaves always look fresh, and the leaves are highly fragrant. I grow it between ‘Green Velvet’ boxwoods along my front walk.

brunnera with blue flowers

Brunnera, which has rough-textured green leaves and blooms in spring with sprays of charming, tiny blue flowers, has spread very gracefully in the shade in my backyard. It weaves its way among handsome variegated Solomon’s seal under an oak tree and around the base of my native witch hazels. It flourishes next to a large flagstone, where its roots have found a cool spot under the rock.

Shady beds rely on texture and contrast for interest through the seasons. Hellebores are some of the most boldly textured perennials for shade; I grow them side by side with more delicately textured epimediums and Virginia bluebells. The bluebells have their own strategy for beating the heat: They bloom in spring and then slip into dormancy when summer arrives.

hosta leaves coming up

Hostas of all kinds lend exuberance to my shady beds. ‘Elegans’, with its huge, chalky blue leaves, is one of my favorites. I also grow ‘Night Before Christmas’, ‘Minute Man’, and several other variegated varieties to put a little sparkle in the shade.

I mulch them heavily with composted autumn leaves. Without mulch I do not think they would stand up so well to the heat and drought of a Midwestern summer. Mulch also keeps the weeds in check, and adds nutrients and organic matter to the soil. Over the course of a couple of seasons, it makes a lot of difference. From my chair under the oak tree, I have a lot to appreciate.

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