flowering miracles for dry shade


Miracle no 1.

Hellebores

Hellebores bloom in winter, which means if you plant fairly mature ones now you’ll get months of flowers. They are almost unkillable even if your husband mows them twice while they are still young (mentioning no names here).

Hellebores used to be boring unless you were into tasteful slate grey flower arrangements. Now the flowers can be white, white blotched with plum, plum streaked with white, green, pink or dappled with pink spots – I’ve probably missed at least 10 variations – and can be single or double. Some of the new hybrids have blooms that flower well above the leaves as well, making them even more spectacular.

Look for H. foetidus too, with its knee-high green flowers in winter and the elegantly finely dissected leaves. It doesn’t smell as bad as its name suggests.

Hellebores also make great cut flowers – very elegant indeed. They should be long lasting too. If the stems wilt and flop within an hour of being picked, float the flowers in a saucer of water instead, and feed your hellebores well for next year. Starved flowers wilt.

Cut out ALL hellebore leaves in early summer, after they’ve finished flowering – the old leaves soon turn brown and mottled from red spider mite and they can hand on a nasty fungus disease year after year unless the old leaves are cut and removed and new, brighter green leaves can take their place. Hellebores are superb under trees, and excellent along paths, except the space will be bare once you’ve pruned off the leaves, though you can interplant with summer annuals, big tall bright ones – if you can remember to water them.

Lamium

Lamium is THE ground cover for dry shade under trees, as long as you can mow it’s edges to keep it from straying – and unlike many would-be weeds it doesn’t seem to spread by seeds, just runners. Lamium’s dappled green and white leaves look good all year unless they get fallen leaves caught up in them, in which case the whole think looks like a mess till you rake the leaves out, or mow the whole thing and wait for the lamium to regrow. It probably will. The yellow or pink spring flowers are pretty, but not really dramatic.

Hen and chickens (Echeverria spp)

This succulent gets its name from the ‘chickens’ that the mother plant puts out each spring. One ‘hen’ will give you several chickens every year – and your echeverria will just keep spreading.

Echeverria aren’t supposed to tolerate shade. But I find them quite shade tolerant, as long as they are surrounded by a good dry pebble mulch – the pebbles help reflect more light onto the leaves – or they have a bright concrete or brick wall behind them.

They won’t do much unless they are watered – and if they are watered they will multiply fast. But if you neglect them for a few months they’ll still be there unless the lyrebirds or brush turkeys have dug them up. But they probably won’t – the dry soil won’t have many edible goodies for birds, and the hen and chickens don’t add much material to a brush turkey nest.

Euphorbia spp

These can be big, small, neat, messy, weedy spreaders or discrete slow growers. Read the label, Mabel, before you buy. Most have grey-green foliage which sounds boring, but isn’t. They all have superb sculptural shapes with great columns of yellow-green penny-like flowers in giant flower heads in winter or spring. The flowers last for months. The plants, however, do look boring when not blooming, but again, try interplanting and remember to water.

Dianella ssp (Blue flax lily)

Warning: wombats will ignore these till they discover the lower succulent stems are delicious in winter. But they survive well in dry shade – and flower better with a bit of sun – and the leaves keep their bright fresh green colour even when they are struggling.

They are excellent along paths or under trees.

On the other hand, forget about growing altogether. Go for pebbles, or even fakes (there are some I have to feel to tell if they are silk or leaf) or pave … or put in that drip irrigation system and suddenly have a world of shade lovers to choose from. Until the wombats chew it or the ants build a nest and you don’t notice till the plants all die…

PS: I think I’ll buy more hellebores, dark red ones, and if I can remember to water a crop of impatiens in summer.

This week I am:

  • Ordering more self-fertile apricot, cherry and almond trees, even if I am not going to be able to dig their holes, plant them nor feed, mulch and water them. I haven’t broken the news to Bryan yet. But the catalogue did look so very tempting.
  • Picking hydrangeas – as the water in their vases dries the bloom will dry too, to a lovely parchment colour all through winter.
  • Squeezing the first of the winter lime crop into an excellent vegetable soup.
  • Making nettle broth, which is something to be done with gloves and great care, and I very rarely bother, but the resulting tea makes a good base for black bean soup, and the rest can be thrown to the chooks or composted.
  • Wishing I’d had the energy and budget to plant 1000 daffodils and an avenue of crab apples. We still are pretty well off in the daff and crab apple stakes, but when spring comes – or when you begin to dream of spring – you can never have too many. Assuming you have a very large garden indeed.

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