I RECENTLY HOSTED a shade-gardening webinar featuring my friend, Ken Druse. The enthusiastic registration and the outpouring of audience questions that evening reminded me how popular a topic shade is, especially the challenge of dry shade, so I asked Ken to join me on the podcast to talk more about it.
Ken is a familiar voice here at A Way to Garden, one of my longest gardening friendships and the author of 20 garden books, including “The New Shade Garden: Creating A Lush Oasis In The Age Of Climate Change” (affiliate link). He gardens in New Jersey, mostly in the shade, which is our subject today.
Plus: Enter to win a copy of Ken’s shade book by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the Aug. 1, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
shade-garden ideas, with ken druse
Margaret Roach: As I said in the intro briefly, we did a webinar a couple weeks ago and had like 800 people sign up, so I guess that says that people are interested. What was your take on it? Was it like every other time you’ve talked about the subject or any differences or what?
Ken Druse: Your perfect setup! No, it wasn’t like it’s been because I’ve been lecturing on that book and people … As you said, dry shade is a popular question. I think for the first time people were talking about shade to to make cooler places, to get out of the sun. That book that I wrote as it says global climate change and global warming is in the subtitle, because that’s what it’s about. It’s about planting trees, and making shade, and improving soil, and trying to save water and things like that.
But usually that’s not what’s talked about, but this time people… I got emails and people are talking about, “Oh, it’s so great to make a cooler spot to garden.” And, “It’s so wonderful to have all these plants in a cooler spot.” I think this idea, maybe it’s because of the temperature …
Margaret: Armageddon, you mean? Because of Armageddon.
Ken: Well, I was going to say, I hope so. Isn’t that a terrible thing to say? I hope that with fires and heat waves and record breaking heats all over the world, that maybe people are starting to get it. That book is mostly about how you can affect, not only your garden, but contribute to the health of the planet by making cooler spaces. Where I live I still see trucks going by loaded with tree trunks. I mean this is farm country and farmers don’t like trees or historically.
Margaret: Here, too. Same thing. Yeah. So any of the questions were about dry shade, about probably one of the most challenging environments gardeners face. I thought we could just spend a bunch of our time today talking about that since there were so many …
If there was like questions about shrubs for dry shade, and groundcovers for dry shade and natives for dry shade. Of course, everybody always asks about is it deerproof or is it deer-resistant and with that … Because we could take 10 hours to talk about that [laughter]. About Bambi and Woody and Bunny and all of them.
With that, I think I’m just going to say, we can mention any plants we know that happen to have those extra resistance, but maybe it’s best to like … I have some great resources on the website that people can really dig deeper into that. Yeah. So dry shade, tough spot.
Ken: Yeah. But there are, as you know, there are plants … Here in my garden with sandy soil… Both of us have had kind of a drought for the last few weeks, although we did get a deluge this last week. Then, even when it there’s a deluge, it kind of runs off and that’s it. We’ll see what happens. One day of rain isn’t going to change three weeks of drought.
Margaret: Right. You said you have a sandy soil, meaning it’s fast draining, meaning that it doesn’t stay moist. Correct?
Ken: Right. Also, I’m in a valley, and there’s ridges on both sides of the valley and there’s trees, many of which I planted to make shade. I’m in a dry-shade situation with a lot of plants. What do you think? Do you grow wild ginger?
Margaret: Yes, I do.
Ken: That’s pretty shade tolerant and drought tolerant.
Margaret: Asarum canadense. The native ginger [above, at Ken’s].
Ken: Oh, that’s good. This is a good test. I’ll say the common name.
Margaret: Oh boy. Well, we’re going to get to about two or three plants and then I’m going to have a moment [laughter].
Ken: It’s funny because Brunnera [above, at Ken’s] for example, which is one of my best dry shade plants … I mean, have you ever heard anybody say bugloss or say …
Margaret: No. The common name bugloss… It’s like, no.
Ken: We say Brunnera. Yeah. And I grow a little dwarf astible, Astible chinensis var. pumila. Pumila usually means dwarf. It’s a Chinese astible that flowers. For me, it’s actually on rock. It’s really drought tolerant. I grow it all over the garden. It’s in a lot of situations. But it’s drought tolerant and it blooms. Epimedium, that’s one of your favorites [photo, top of page, at Ken’s].
Margaret: Yeah. The barrenworts. Again, not native, but great groundcovers for a lot of purposes. The funny thing about that one for me—now, I’m in the North, I’m in zone 5B—is that even though it’s “a shade plant” or frequently marketed as such, I grow it also in full sun here in the North. That might not work in the mid-Atlantic or Southeast or whatever; I’m sure it would burn up. Do you know what I mean? It can even be in sun here. It’s persistent, almost semi-evergreen. It’s pretty durable in many ways and a long-season performer.
Ken: Yes. When we say that they’re shade tolerant, it doesn’t mean that they all need to be in the shade. Some of them, as you’re saying, can go from sun to shade like that little dwarf Astible. I have it in one of my sunniest places, too, and it looks just the same.
Margaret: Right. Right. Adaptable is the thing. Adaptable. There are many plants that are neither just dry, nor just moist and neither just sun or just shade, that have more flexibility, that are real toughies.
Ken: I grew heuchera—remember when ‘Palace Purple’ came out, that heuchera? That’s probably 20 years ago. I tried heuchera, it croaked. I tried heuchera, it croaked. You’d buy these plants that were so lush and big. I visited a garden along the Hudson River and one side of the garden was this gigantic rock wall and the heuchera was growing in the wall. I realized this is a plant that wants drainage. I’ve been growing heuchera more recently in dry places. Under a maple tree, for example. At last it doesn’t die.
Margaret: Oh, interesting. Are those the villosa types, the ones with purple leaves and stuff like that? No, that’s wrong. I’m forgetting. Is that americana?
Ken: Americana and villosa are both ones that I’ve had better luck with.
Margaret: Me, too. With the hairier leaves a little bit. Is that right? Is the villosa leaf surface a little bit …
Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. What was the famous sort of ivory-flowered one? There was a cultivar named of that. I want to say ‘Bartered Bride,’ but I probably just made that up [laughter].
Ken: You can make them up. No one will know.
Margaret: What is ‘Bartered Bride’? [Update, that’s a Eupatorium cultivar.] Where did that just come out of my head?
Ken: Now you’re putting me on the spot.
Margaret: Well, so we just have to tell people that if you garden long enough and get old, this is what’s going to happen to you [laughter]. You’re going to free-associate, just like you know for the rest of us humans, you know how a lyric of a song pops into your head? Well, what happens to me and Ken is a piece of botanical Latin or a common name pops into our head [laughter].
Ken: I’ve heard ‘Bartered Bride.’ We can’t go that way because [inaudible 00:09:28].
Margaret: No. We’ll fix it in the transcript. Don’t worry. I’ll give a citation in the transcript, if you want to know the secret answer. [Update: The H. villosa cultivar is ‘Autumn Bride.’].
Ken: Oh. Good idea. I thought the name of one of the Heuchera that was doing so well … I know one of them’s called ‘Citronelle.’ That’s a gold one. That’s doing pretty well, because some of the gold, ‘Lime Rickey’ and things like that just didn’t make it for me. But I thought the one that I was growing was ‘Sterling Silver’ and it’s ‘Stainless Steel.’ Now, how could I make that steel?
Margaret: Whatever. Okay. Yeah. I always loved ‘Caramel’ [above]. They’ve improved it.
Ken: ‘Caramel’ is beautiful.
Margaret: I liked the first, the original one.
Ken: That is a villosa, right?
Margaret: Yeah. That’s another one where you took a hint from where you saw it succeeding in a preposterous spot, in cracks in a wall and thought, “Aha, drainage,” and then extrapolated from there and made it happier.
Ken: Yeah. I’m growing Japanese anemone hybrids. The late summer beautiful anemones. I don’t water them. They look great. I never thought of that as a dry shade plant, but it is.
Ken: Let’s see…
Margaret: Well, I was going to say, people wanted to know about natives—and you can continue with your list, but people want to know about natives. That takes homework, but it is possible also.
I recently was kind of browsing around before we did our webinar, and for a “New York Times” article I was doing not long ago. I found that wildflower.org, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Society website, on the link wildflower.org/collections that you can filter the results among native plants by your state, and then by conditions. You could do your state and then you could do shade or part shade and dry and so forth.
The list isn’t going to be huge in most places, if you get to full shade, like two hours or less of light, and dry, you’re going to get a small list, but it’s a list nonetheless of shrubs, trees, perennials, etc. You can filter even further and just get all the shrubs or all the perennials.
We have to learn, as gardeners, especially if we want to delve into natives more deeply that are locally appropriate, we have to do some homework.
I noticed the area around Seattle, Kings County in Washington, the government website has a whole little mini-site about native plants that are good for there. They have groundcovering plants as one of the groups of plants that they list a whole set of.
Like vanilla leaf. Do you remember that plant Achlys triphylla, vanilla leaf? It has sort of fan-shape foliage. That turns out to be dry tolerant. Now, again, this sounds very esoteric maybe, but what I’m using as a case in point is, if I lived in that area, even my local government now, because of climate change and so forth, is trying to showcase these better, water-wise plants and climate-resistant plants and so forth and is providing that information.
Do the homework. That’s what Google is for [laughter].
Ken: Yeah. I always think of Vancouveria. Is that the name of it?
Margaret: Yeah. Vancouveria hexandra.
Ken: Mostly I was suggesting herbaceous plants and deciduous herbaceous plants, but we had a question about native shrubs.
Margaret: Yes. The other night, right. Exactly.
Ken: Right. I made a little list of that and I came up with Calycanthus floridus, the Carolina allspice. And Comptonia, sweet fern, if you’ve got acid soil, which I do not have. That’s such a beautiful plant. [Above: Calycanthus captured on flatbed scanner by Ellen Hoverkamp for Ken’s “The Scentual Garden” book.]
Margaret: It is a beautiful plant.
Ken: Corylus americana, American hazelnut. Diervilla lonicera. That became very popular. I always think where’s the flowers, because they’re so tiny, but that’s another one. Hydrangea arborescens, a plant that has exploded with so many different varieties. I imagine, not all of them are really drought tolerant, but some of them are. Especially the smaller ones.
Margaret: So the smooth hydrangea, and that’s a native to certain parts of the country.
Ken: More than you think. If you look at a map it’s … Because they always say Midwest because of ‘Annabelle,’ the most popular one, which came from, I think, Illinois. Yeah.
Margaret: I was going to say, and that’s another one where if you want to know, is it “native”—which the tags on plants are ridiculous in the nursery, because it says “native” if it’s native anywhere in the U.S., which is not necessarily relevant to where you live. But again, that wildflower.org, you can search for any plant in there and it’ll give you its native range, as well as the states in which it’s present, which is where it’s present compared to where it began, where it originally was native. Two different things. But it’s very interesting. They’ve gone to the trouble of creating all this information. We need to avail ourselves of it, and get more knowledgeable.
Ken: If you go around Connecticut in rocky areas, you often see mountain laurel, and you often see it in some shade and growing on rocks, because it, too, is drought tolerant. Here I have a weed, I shouldn’t say that, it just comes up everywhere, Lindera benzoin, the spicebush. I think that takes almost any situation …
Margaret: Right. It’s kind of an edge of the woods, edge of the forest, kind of a shady, deciduous shrub. Wildlife value. Great wildlife value. Great fall color.
Ken: Do you grow any Rhus, any sumac, intentionally?
Margaret: Yes. Some. Yes.
Ken: Rhus aromatica, I had that on my list because it doesn’t grow to 30 feet.
Margaret: So like ‘Gro-Low’? The cultivar ‘Gro-Low’ or something?
Ken: Oh, for example, right. I think the species only grows like 10 feet.
Margaret: That’s great for a hillside, too. If you have an in bank, a bank and you’re trying to hold it and you know, you want something that has multiple seasons of interest and is easy and is going to take over and kind of hold things in place, that’s a great one.
Ken: I didn’t know Taxus canadensis, American yew. Do you know that plant?
Margaret: No idea [laughter].
Ken: Well, we’ll have to do some research at some point, but those are some of the things that we were talking about. We really got into it.
Margaret: Yeah. You can go with sedums for instance, some of the low sedums that are used to being … That makes sense. These succulents are used to, in their native environments, being baked in the … They’re not plants that grow in the moist woodland or whatever. Some of those want more sun than we’re talking about, but there are some that are a little more tolerant. Again, doing the homework, I think. Yeah.
One that I came upon that I didn’t know when I searched on wildflower.org and so forth, for my state and stayed nearby was the barren strawberry, the Waldsteinia fragarioides. I hadn’t thought about that plant in a long time. It kind of has nice fan shaped leaves. They’re kind of toothed at the edges. I think there’s three leaflets on each leaf and yellow flowers. That’s a tough, dry shade, native plant.
The native plant nurseries that propagate things do sell it, but you don’t see it at the garden center. That’s one where you need a work horse ground cover that’s also going to add wildlife value. I hadn’t thought about that in a long time, that plant.
Ken: Yeah. You and you’re making me think of another one I hadn’t thought about that has yellow flowers. I can’t remember its name. It was very popular at one point. A ground cover, dark green leaves, yellow daisy flowers.
Margaret: Oh, boy. He is testing me again.
Ken: It’s got sun in the name, I think. Oh, I can’t remember.
Margaret: Oh my goodness. Yeah. I mean lots of choices. Again, homework required in some cases. You may not find it being showcased with all the petunias and calibrachoas [laughter], and who knows what at your local garden center. Might have to do a little searching to find some of these things, too.
In the webinar the other night, one thing that you showed is a really tough spot under, I think it might have … Was it under maple? [Above, heucheras under a maple at Ken’s.] I can’t remember the tree species. Because at first newly planted herbaceous things need water in the early going.
Ken: Oh, I’ll say.
Margaret: You had figured out a way to not necessarily have to drag the sprinkler out there every day for however long. We should put the caveat also that we’re not talking about digging holes under established trees with giant shovels or anything like that. We’re talking about gingerly, tenderly, putting in tiny little divisions or liners or plugs, as they say, or little bulbs or seedlings or etc. These things, new plantings, of especially little tiny things, while they get rooted they need water. What did you do in that case?
Ken: People think: native plant, it takes care of itself. They stick it in the ground and it croaks. Because even if it’s native and even if it’s local, it really needs some help that first year. When I did a little shade garden under actually a giant white pine. And I didn’t cover the whole area, I just covered a part of the outer edge of the drip line. I laid soaker hose, which was made out of recycled car tires—it’s a porous rubber thing, and the water just oozes out. I would run that for about an hour a day. I planted just in among the soaker hose. After a year I stopped doing it. It’s there under the soil and the mulch. Actually, when we had one of our floods, I found some of the soaker hose, because it floated [laughter].
Margaret: Oh, but that’s the kind of thing if you have soaker hose that you could even pin down with some of those earth staples that you can use for Reemay and so forth, when you’re covering hoops in the garden, like in your vegetable garden or something to keep out insects or provide some shade. You could pin that soaker hose down temporarily in an area, if you wanted to, and then remove it.
Ken: Oh, that’s true.
Margaret: Just so that people can remember not to be afraid of putting in a planting that may need a little TLC. Just turning on that soaker hose a couple times a week or whatever is going to be a lot easier than dragging hoses around and trying to get the spray to exactly hit everything equally and so on and so forth. Snaking a soaker hose through, and again, those earth staples are great, or whatever they’re called, for … They look like big hair pins.
Ken: Landscape pins.
Margaret: Right, right, right. We had a question that had nothing to do with the class, but came in. And it’s sort of … I just thought it would be kind of fun to answer this one, it got me intrigued, from someone named Donald, a reader and listener.
He’s in New Jersey and he’s moving in two years to Pennsylvania, between Philly and Harrisburg. He has a garden that he adores, and he wants to bring bits of it. He doesn’t want to destroy the garden where he is. He wants to leave it intact, but he wants to take bits and pieces. He’s already begun air-layering a magnolia and a crabapple.
Ken: Oh, wow.
Margaret: And he’s going to make cuttings of willows and other things.
You’d be proud of him. He started American persimmon, and blackgum and bald cypress, from seed, following in your footsteps, Ken.
Anyway, he has a lot of groundcovers and so forth as well. He wanted to know how would we advise him to do things in advance and… This really applies to anybody who’s planning on starting a new big bed. Sometimes you want to use your own stuff. You always talk about having a splinter nursery, like a nursery area. Same kind of thing. When do we do these types of uprootings and so forth in advance of a new project?
Ken: I think you should have this person as a guest [laughter]. He’s got two years. So I would say that after deciduous herbaceous things drop their leaves in the fall or in the very early spring, when they’re about to put on new growth. If it’s a ground cover, he could just take a hunk of it, like a little section of it and put it in a flat, add a little soil around the edges.
If it’s smaller, he could put it in a pot just like it was a nursery plant. Add some soil to that and make, just like you said, a nursery. Lump all these things together. You could put a sprinkler in the middle. Some things, if they’re already growing, he probably should cut them back by about half if they’re herbaceous.
Margaret: If you uproot them, cut the top growth back, you mean?
Ken: To compensate for root loss, if you think you’ve dug something and you know that some of the roots didn’t make it, are still in the ground, then if you cut the plant back, it’s going to probably survive a little better. Sometimes it takes them so long to get going again if they live. But if you cut them back—that’s true with native plants, too—cut them back to compensate for root loss.
If he’s got shrubs and trees that he wants to move, I would say water them in advance, like a year in advance. I move things like trees all the time, which I know sounds crazy. But a year in advance, if you can take a spade and sort of do some root pruning in a circle around the tree. Then it’ll make little feeder roots close to that cut that you made, when you move it.
We had an ‘Elizabeth Lustgarten’ weeping Cornus kousa that we have had for almost 30 years crammed into a tiny space. We moved it early spring, before it leafed out. Dug it up, took as big a root ball as we could, and moved it. It didn’t miss a beat. I’m surprised. We had a good spring, I must say, that was kind of cool and wet. You really can move almost that everything. We used to say “trees have wheels.” [A weeping kousa at Margaret’s, above.]
Margaret: [Laughter.] I wanted to add one thing to those good pieces of advice for Donald, which is that … You sort of hinted at it. You said flats, you said put the divisions in a flat of groundcovers and stuff and let it fill out a flat.
If you’re using pots, use pots that are the same, that fit into a flat, like a grid, so that at moving time … You know what I mean? Use 4-inch pots, for instance, that fit perfectly; I forget how many fit into a flat. So that it’s orderly, because at moving time it’s going to be a lot easier to move that than higgledy-piggledy, mismatched odds and ends.
Ken: That’s true.
Margaret: So I think that’s the other thing is, to get the gear. And you can get that at even A.M. Leonard or one of those types of places that supply nursery people. You can get a dozen flats and X number of … 100 pots or whatever, to make that system.
Ken: Sure. A lot of nurseries just toss these things.
Margaret: Right. So you could also go and recycle. Exactly.
Ken: I have one more thing to add too, which is Chrysogonum virginianum, goldenstar. I remembered [laughter].
Margaret: Oh, so that’s the other yellow-flowered plant. O.K. This is how it goes with people like me and Ken, guys [laughter].
Ken: You know, you stop thinking and then it comes into your head.
Margaret: Totally. Totally.
Ken: We stop thinking all the time [laughter].
Margaret: Yes. Thank you for making time again today and thanks for the tips. Like I said, people can do a little of their homework, as we were talking about. Also, in August, we’re going to have another event, a webinar popup event [Aug. 11, 2022; get details.].
Ken: Popup event. Right.
Margaret: Then in September, October, we’re going to do Virtual Garden Club again. We’ll have info about all that as well in a couple of weeks. Thanks for making time. Talk to you soon, Ken.
enter to win ‘the new shade garden’
I’LL BUY A COPY of Ken Druse’s book “The New Shade Garden: Creating A Lush Oasis In The Age Of Climate Change” (affiliate link) for one lucky reader.
All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:
Do you have any plant(s) you use in dry shade that do the job for you?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, August 9, 2022. Good luck to all.
(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 13th year in March 2022. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Aug. 1, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).