Every garden has its dry, dark places and these can be a real challenge when it comes to plant selection. But fear not... once you tap into the dark side, it can be incredibly rewarding.
It’s important to understand shade and dryness can vary from spot to spot. Shade from trees can be reduced through thinning or lifting canopies. But tree roots can provide stiff competition for water and nutrients. And, though it may seem like sacrilege from a keen plantsman, sometimes we can’t see the garden for the tree. So, if it's too big, boring or not pulling its weight, then perhaps it needs to go.
If the shade is created by structures, then roots may not be an issue, but the shade could, in fact, be more complete and probably impossible to change. After all, most of us won’t pull down our houses for the garden’s sake!
All of the following should grow where they are rarely, if ever, watered and they like an aspect with full shade, meaning the sun doesn’t get in at all. Some will actually burn in direct light. Given these conditions, they could almost be said to be idiot proof!
Aspidistra elatior ‘Variegata’
The humble Aspidistra was long used as an indoor plant and I still remember pots of it in the barbershop Mum took me to as a small child. No wonder it’s called a Cast Iron plant. Released into the garden, it will make a handsome foliage plant to 60cm or so and only needs a little bit of attention to stop its foliage being ruined by marauding snails.
Aucuba japonica ‘Rozannie’
A Japanese shrub, with the common name of Japanese laurel, that’s usually seen in variegated forms. This has glossy, straight green leaves that are quite beautiful in the shade. As a bonus, this hermaphrodite form will produce large crops of long-lasting red berries on a bushy, metre-tall shrub.
Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae
This is a shade lover in a usually sun-loving genus. It produces a suckering thicket of deep-green foliage topped in late winter with heads of lime-green bracts. Be careful where you release it, as it’s very hard to get rid of if you need to, but what a great plant for dry, root-infested shade. Prune the owered stems at ground level after blooming and control its wayward tendencies, and you will love it.
Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’
Another Japanese shrub that’s a must-have, with its huge, glossy hand-shaped leaves on rarely branched stems to 4m tall. A tropical look perfect for those of us not lucky enough to be in the tropics. This variegated form takes things to a new level with its leaves looking as if the tips have been dipped in cream paint. Variegations are a great way to light up a shady corner.
This is another frost-tender plant, but one that may be a bit of a thug in warmer climes. It trails along the ground and can cover quite some space in a fairly short time. The tops of the rounded leaves are deep green with silvery veins, and the underside is a rich purple. Come winter, it produces tiny, white owers that certainly light up the shade, as do most others of this worthy and attractive genus, so goPlectranthus nuts!
This strappy-leafed plant grows in clumps and has rich, evergreen leaves that are beautiful in their own right. The owers are, for an iris, small and dull in colour, usually cream with brown veins, or dusty mauve with darker veins. But this plant is grown for the huge, green seed pods. As they mature, they split open, exposing orange seeds that are wonderful for ower arranging in the house.
Ruscus aculeatus (hermaphrodite form)
Here’s another plant that doesn’t need a boyfriend to produce fruit, which, in this case, sits in the middle of what passes for leaves, making it a great conversation piece. This form is quite dwarf and has slightly prickly mounds, little more than 30cm each way.Ruscus, in any of its forms, is the plant I use for the driest and darkest spots in my garden – I think it could grow locked in a cupboard! Plus, the new shoots can supposedly be eaten like asparagus.
Why isn’t this South African shrub planted more often? It has glossy green leaves and grows to about 2.5m, making it ideal as a screen or fence cover. In late spring and early summer, it produces masses of white trumpet owers with violet veins, giving the impression of soft mauve from a distance. This plant will tolerate higher light levels than most of the others here, but ags in hot sun. It’s also a little frost tender, but always bounces back.