Q: My wooded half-acre has a rock ledge only inches below the surface, so the soil tends to be dry. What perennials and shrubs will grow there? — Judy Leger, Winsted, Conn.
A: While the palette of plants that thrive in dry shade is notoriously limited, I’ve seen several beautiful shade gardens in Connecticut created on rocky, wooded land like yours. Here are a few groupings for dry shade that combine plants of various heights, colors, and textures in an appealing, naturalistic way. Plant them in big sweeps — be as lavish as you can afford.
A feathery, spreading golden shrub, Juniperus communis ‘Depressa Aurea’, takes well to shallow soil and will provide winter-long color. Combine it with the evergreen perennial Helleborus foetidus, which begins showing chartreuse flower buds after Thanksgiving and reaches full glory in the first days of spring. To gild the shadows, add some yellow-flowered fumitory, Corydalis lutea, a relative of bleeding heart that blooms in May and continues well into summer. Fragrant pinxterbloom azalea, Rhododendron periclymenoides, flowers as the trees leaf out. Carpet the ground beneath with Phlox stolonifera, which holds clusters of blue, purple, rose, or white flowers 8 inches above the ground. Or combine the 6-foot thimbleberry Rubus ‘Benenden’ with the sky-blue, 18-inch-tall Siberian forget-me-not, Brunnera macrophylla. Thimbleberry produces 3-inch, white roselike blossoms in mid spring. For end-of-summer color, plant white-flowered, 2- to 3-foot-tall Eupatorium rugosum. Let black-stemmed Aster divaricatus grow beside it for mutual support and more white flowers. Near pathways and in open spots, plant the low-growing hardy cyclamen (C. hederifolium) with beautiful mottled foliage and pink or white flowers, perfect miniatures of florist’s cyclamen. All these perennials divide or self-sow readily, so you’ll soon be able to expand these pairings or experiment with new ones. If your woodland is dense and dark, you may want to remove some of the less desirable trees. These plants all bloom best in high, dappled shade.