As a garden coach, I am often asked the question “What can I plant in dry shady garden conditions?” Most of New England’s landscape is dominated by trees (and if you don’t believe me, look down when you fly across most of Massachusetts…mostly what you see are trees and water!), and gardening in the shade of a dense tree canopy can be a major challenge to gardeners here. Limited light in summer means less flamboyant blooms, and evergreen trees (which soak up water from the surrounding soil) leave little moisture for understory plants to grow. Peek inside a dense Hemlock or Pine forest and you’ll see very little undergrowth.
So what plants do thrive in dense evergreen shade in New England? More than you might think. Once again, let nature be your guide, and take a look around nearby natural areas and see what’s growing already. Use a good field guide so you can rule out any of the invasive non-native plants (eg Garlic Mustard!) that are muscling their way into our forest ecosystems. In cold areas such as north-facing hills with evergreen Hemlock trees, you’ll probably notice different types of Ferns, as well as low berry-producing groundcovers such as Wintergreen (Gaultheria species) and Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens). You might be lucky enough to see the Massachusetts state flower Trailing Arbutus aka Mayflower (Epigaea repens), and soak up the jasmine-like fragrance of its blooms. In drier upland woods, you may see Canada Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), or Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) with their diminutive but not unattractive blooms. All of these plants are garden-worthy for a naturalized “edge” garden, but a little hard to find at nurseries.
One native plant that I see growing in just about every growing condition in Massachusetts is White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricatus). On our property, it even grows (and blooms!) at the base of an old Hemlock tree in bone-dry conditions and heavily-compacted soil from our 3 dogs chasing each other round and around the tree! (see below):
Granted, its blooms are somewhat sparse under these inhospitable conditions, but the fact that it returns each year to bloom again is certainly a testament to this plant’s iron constitution! White Wood Aster does grow more luxuriously in areas with some moisture and sun, and has recently started popping up on the partly-shaded edges of our stream, where Jewelweed, Boneset, Goldenrod and Swamp Aster are also thriving. I always welcome these garden “volunteers”, because they are nature’s way of telling me what plants are suitable for the unique conditions in my yard. If they seed themselves in an inconvenient spot, just dig them up and move them somewhere more suitable. Your shade garden will quickly fill with color and life!
White Wood Aster is an excellent plant for a natural woodland “edge” to link your lawn with nearby woods. Pollinators find ample supplies of nectar and pollen in the aster’s pale late summer blooms, and if you leave their seedheads standing into winter, birds can feast on the numerous seeds produced late in the season.
So if you are looking for a tough plant to add a little pizzazz to shady areas of your garden, give White Wood Aster a try. You won’t find it at the big-box stores or the supermarket (yet!) but it is now readily available from nurseries selling native plants. In central MA I have seen it sold at Bigelow Nurseries in Northborough, Project Native in the Berkshires and the nursery at Framingham’s Garden in the Woods. It is easy to grow from seed collected from wild plants. Or, if you see it growing in one of your neighbor’s yards, ask them if you can dig up a seedling or two. Chances are, they’ll have plenty to spare, and you only need one or two plants to start your own populations of this native plant.