Month: April 2011

Tough Plants for Dry Shade, Part 2

This has been by far the most popular topic on this blog, especially now that people are getting back into their gardens and looking for suitable plants to add to them.

My first selections were really tough plants that are necessarily a little uncouth and seedy. Here are a few more, including more refined types.

Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, Plumbago, is a great plant for late summer and early fall, when it produces small, intensely blue flowers, sometimes with red-tinted foliage. It spreads, but not in a rampaging, ground-conquering way. Maintenance is simple — just cut the stems to the ground in winter or during spring clean-up. It works well paired with spring bulbs, since it sprouts out relatively late.

Ceratostigma plumbaginoides

Perennial Candytuft, Iberis sempervirens, is another reliable, moderately spreading, medium high groundcover.  The pure white flowers contrast nicely with the leathery, dark green foliage. It gets a bit lanky in shade, but can be cut back after flowering to keep it more  or less compact.

Iberis sempervirens

Several of the hardy geraniums do well in dry shade, but Geranium macrorrhizum is one of the best. There is a white form (although pink-tinted) that should please purists. Like the two plants described earlier, it spreads moderately but is not a pest. The foliage is rather strongly scented. Some find it objectionable, although one source describes it as similar to ripe plums or passion fruit. I can’t say I agree with that; it is an odd smell, hard to characterize, but not what I would call foul.

Geranium macrorrhizum

Sadly, my plants are not yet in bloom, but the picture also shows Euphorbia robbiae and a grey-green and white variegated ivy, both happy in dry shade.

The epimediums are wonderful in dry shade. For most of the year they are superior foliage plants. The foliage should be cut down in late winter or early spring, before the new growth starts. Flowers are produced soon after, in clusters on thin, wiry stems. Colours range from white through yellow to reddish. One of the best is Epimedium x perralchicum “Frohnleiten,” so reliable that it’s almost like furniture.  It does spread, slowly but relentlessly, so be prepared to take control measures around the edges of its territory.

Epimedium "Frohnleiten" with Iris and Tellima

Also in this photo is another good plant for dry shade — Tellima grandiflora, also known as Fringe Cups. The common name is more accurate than the Latin, in this case, since the flowers are quite small. They are fringed, however.  The leaves are somewhat rounded and lobed and are said to turn red in winter, although mine never do. This is a woodland plant native to the northwest coast of North America, that looks good with ferns and hostas.

Bergenias do well in both shade and sun. Naturally, they bloom better in sunny situations and some varieties have foliage that turns red in winter; this phenomenon also manifests better in sun than shade. However, they are patient plants that struggle along valiantly in pretty abysmal conditions such as are found under maples. There are several species; I confess I do not know to which mine belong.


Veronica peduncularis “Georgia Blue” is another low-growing plant (6 t0 10 inches high) with a slowly spreading habit, that does quite well in relatively dry, shady conditions. Dark blue flowers are produced in early spring. It’s good used as an edging for beds; can be clipped to shape after blooming.

Veronica "Georgia Blue"

The photo also shows foliage of Iris cristata (another good plant for somewhat challenging conditions) and an emerging variegated Hosta.

Another groundcover-type plant (do you detect a trend here?) for dry shade is Lamium maculatum “Pink Pewter.” There are many varieties of Lamium, but I have found this one to be reliable here. It dies out in spots, but resurges in other spots, so I always have it. Needless to say, if treated better (water and compost) it does better. The pink flowers in late spring look elegant with the silvery foliage.

Lamium "Pink Pewter"

Finally, a brief mention of Liriope (Lilyturf) and Ophiopogon (Mondo Grass). These related species form clumps of grassy leaves, ranging in height from a couple of inches to more than a foot. Blooms are white or purple, but it’s the whole plant that makes the visual statement. Ophiopogon japonicum “Gyokoryo” is a very dwarf form that spreads to form a grass-like mat. Near the Tommy Douglas Branch of the Burnaby Public Library I saw a fetching combination of what looked like Black Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus “Nigrescens,” most likely) and some sort of ornamental variety of Horsetail — a very modernesque looking pairing.

A final word — this selection of plants is, as I have already said, less tough and hardy than those listed in my earlier tough plants posting. You can’t just plant them and forget them, especially in less than ideal spots such as under trees. Occasional watering, fertilizing and mulching helps, but even so, don’t expect these plants to perform to their maximum potential under challenging conditions. And yes, I have featured a lot of groundcovers. Visualize them forming a kind of tapestry, combined with hellebores, hostas, ferns and shrubs, with spring blooming bulbs for early colour.


The Aesthetics of Lawn Weeds

As soon as I see the cheerful yellow faces of dandelions in my lawns, I go for the dandelion tool and mercilessly hoik them out. (And I don’t put them in the compost heap either. My heaps don’t heat up enough to kill seeds, and dandelions are quite capable of setting seeds even after they are uprooted and technically dead. Talk about zombie plants!) Even though I know that the dandelions will probably regrow from the root, I find this to be a worthwhile exercise because removing them immediately improves the look of the lawn.

Certain weeds just don’t look good in lawns. I speak from a lengthy experience with weeds, some self-inflicted, others not, in vegetable gardens, perennial beds and lawns. For some weeds (or “weedy plants” at least) I have a good deal of tolerance, to the detriment of the garden. Wall lettuce (Lactuca muralis), for example, is a handsome and elegant plant, with its jagged, red-tinted leaves and tiny yellow flowers. I was quite happy to see it here some years ago. But it seeds abundantly and the seeds drift on the breezes, so now I see altogether too much of it and am not so happy.

But back to lawns. I am not a lawn purist, and do not mind if certain other plants infiltrate my grass, as long as they aren’t gross and coarse, like dandelions, both the spring-blooming variety (Taraxacum) and another type that blooms in late summer and has somewhat leathery leaves. It may be hairy cat’s ear or possibly hawkbit. In both cases, the flat rosettes of leaves do not blend into lawn grass, and the flowers are too large and vulgar.

To live successfully in lawns, weeds must be short-growing and small-foliaged.  The English daisy, Bellis perennis, is a good example. Its little white and yellow flowers, sometimes pink-tinted around the edges, are charming. Even buttercups are almost OK. Needless to say, I have neither of these excellent subjects in my lawn. I have dandelions, bindweed and mallows. The latter are a new addition and I haven’t made up my mind as yet whether I need to do battle with them. Their foliage isn’t particularly coarse, but if  there are too many of them they become visually dominant. For a lawn to look like a lawn, rather than a weed patch, grass must dominate. And since the area where the mallows have popped up is already on the borderline of respectability, adjustments may be in order.

A plant I would be delighted to see in my lawns is one whose name is unknown to me. I don’t even know what its foliage looks like, but the flowers are pale blue and tiny, like a mist over the grass. I suspect it to be Glechoma hederacea, otherwise known as ground-ivy or creeping Charlie. Definitely a weed, but an elegant, lawn-enhancing one.

Then there’s moss. Moss in the lawn is supposed to be bad news, but I don’t mind it.  Since much of my garden is overhung by maples, there is a fair bit of moss around, on the stone paths and in the lawns. I tell myself that it gives an air of venerable age to the garden, and don’t bother trying to “correct” the situation by racing about with sacks of lime (to paraphrase Henry Mitchell, who was not a fan of lawns).

My worst lawn weed is field bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis, which occupies a slowly spreading area on the boulevard right in front of my place. It’s a sneaky thing, lurking inconspicuously in the lawn until the really dry weather comes in July. Then the grass turns brown (because I don’t water the boulevard) and the bindweed blooms — blinding white, dollar-size flowers that scream “Weedy lawn, weedy lawn!” to everyone that passes by. I have tried painting it with herbicides to no avail. My current solution (now that the municipality has banned pesticides for “cosmetic” purposes) is to go out in the gloaming and pull up the blooming plants, an operation every bit as futile as that of Sisyphus with his rock.

Maple Massacre

Every spring, I fell a forest. Or, more accurately, I uproot it. Trees by the hundreds perish at my hands. Hand, rather. It takes only one, because the trees are only an inch high when their lives end.

Sprouting Maple

My garden is dominated by two large maples (Norway, I suspect). There is also a giant red maple in the corner of my neighbour’s yard, right on our common property line. Maple seeds rain down in the fall, and although I rake up thousands of them along with the leaves, plenty remain to sprout in the spring.

When we moved here the 50 x 120 foot lot had six more trees than it does now. We cut down four of them (three young maples and a cherry) just about immediately, and had another huge cherry removed a year later. Another big maple, hogging a ten foot wide strip between our house and the one next door, was taken out ten years ago, freeing up land now occupied by hostas, lilies, ferns and hellebores.

I suspect that most of these trees were not planted deliberately, but were self-sown and overlooked until removing them became a major project. If not for my wholesale slaughter of innocent maple seedlings every spring, this lot would be a small forest of maple trees competing with one another for light, water and nutrients.

I don’t go on systematic hunts for maple seedlings, but every time I see one, I yank it out. A few always get missed and survive for a year or more, especially in unvisited corners of the garden. Eventually, though, they get big enough that I see them when they leaf out in spring, whereupon they are doomed. The instant I see their fresh, red-tinted green leaves, with the characteristic maple shape, out they come. I admit to a twinge of guilt for ending all these promising young tree lives. As a Canadian, I get an extra jab of guilt because of “The Maple Leaf Forever” and all that. There’s a maple leaf on my country’s flag, and here I am killing all these maples! At least they aren’t species native to this area. If I had a bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) or a vine maple (Acer circinatum), I would have a real dilemma when it came to destroying their seedlings.

The sad truth is that it’s either the maples or the garden. I can’t have both, and the garden suffers enough from the roots and shade of the maples that are already here. I tell myself that most of these seedlings wouldn’t survive anyway, but would be crowded out by the fortunate few. Superfluity seems to be Nature’s way — to sow the earth with multitudes, most of which are doomed to a brief and offspring-less existence. The big maples I live with are winners, and it’s possible that a few of their children will elude me.

I yank out seedlings of other woody plants as well — cotoneasters, spurge laurels, laburnums, hollies and the odd cherry. Garry oaks (Quercus garryana, also known as Oregon white oaks) are the great exception. They are sacred here, actually protected by law. These oaks are near the northern limit of their range, and too many are lost each year due to our habit of messing around with the land, building condos on it and so on. The Garry oak meadow is an endangered ecosystem, and efforts are being made (almost too late, as is typical of such efforts) to preserve and restore these meadows on southern Vancouver Island and the nearby Gulf Islands.

There was a young Garry oak, about a foot tall, on this lot when we moved here in 1992. It was about a foot from the house foundation, obviously not a good spot, so we moved it. Now it’s 20 feet tall and has been producing acorns for a couple of years. Last fall I found two baby oaks near its foot. Needless to say, I didn’t yank them out, and am anxious to see them prosper, never mind what will have to make way for them as they grow.