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Small perennials for a shady bed of clay:

ElothirElothir Posts: 94

I was hoping some more experienced people might have some suggestions for some compact plants to go in a problematic bed of ours.

The bed in question runs between a path on one side and along a fence on the other side (which blocks sun from roughly the south/south west) is currently home to a Hibiscus, several Phloxes at one end and then meets a Cypress at the other end (which blocks a good amount of sun from south-east). It also has a rather sorry looking Lavender which we didn't plant but just popped up a few years ago, so quite how it got there is a mystery.

To complicate matters the bed in question is rather thick clay, and we can't really dig it over too much due to the existing plants and even then we'd need a lot of material to even start improving it. I'm going to try and do what I can but there's a limit to how much we can dig out etc so the reality is it's going to be fairly thick clay regardless.

Anyway, I'm hoping to find some suggestions of some un-intrusive plants that might do alright in this bed, if anything can.



  • TopbirdTopbird Posts: 7,708
    edited October 2019
    You don't have to actually 'dig out' the clay soil but just digging it over several times (quite deeply if you can) will help a lot. If you also dig in some sacks of well rotted farmyard manure (available at the garden centre) at the same time it will help even more.

    I think I'd start doing that now and also remove any plants you know you don't want to keep or are struggling (that lavender will never like those conditions). Be ruthless! Dig it over 2 or 3 times over the winter. If you leave the big clods the frost will do much to break those down. By next spring you should have a more workable soil.

    I'd then plant up in the spring. Many plants will just rot away if planted into heavy clay in autumn and left to get cold and wet over winter. After planting mulch well around the plants and then give them an annual mulch with something like homemade compost. The soil will come good after 2 or 3 years.

    Plants in my garden which don't mind shade and clay include hostas, astrantias, a lot of the hardy geraniums, thalictrums, epimediums and ferns. Roses are happy in clay and there are a few which will take quite a lot of shade.
    Heaven is ... sitting in the garden with a G&T and a cat while watching the sun go down
  • ElothirElothir Posts: 94
    edited October 2019
    Thanks for the reply.

    To clarify slightly, I'm not planning on planting anything until next year, just trying to get a 'plan' of some sort.

    The random Lavender I'm intending to transplant to the opposite side of the garden with the ones we actually planted, where it should be much happier. The Lavender is actually the only plant struggling out of those, which is hardly surprising, the Hibiscus and Phloxes are all quite happy so they're staying put. And yes I'm intending to try digging some material in and mulching going forward. 

    I've heard Geraniums suggested a lot for shade, but also see a fair amount of complaints that they're a bit thuggish depending on the variety so not sure how that would work given it would be along a path?
  • LoxleyLoxley Posts: 5,048
    edited October 2019
    Geranium macrorrhizum and x cantabrigiense will spread a bit in your border (not really in a thuggish way), but won't flop out much onto your path. Topbird's other suggestions sound great too.

    Personally I like plants flopping onto paths, so would feel comfortable with floppers like Alchemilla mollis and Geranium 'Anne Thompson' etc. 
  • ElothirElothir Posts: 94
    edited October 2019
    Thanks for the suggestions so far, all good things to look into between now and next year.

    Another suggestion I have had previously for shade on clay is Betony (Stachys/Betonica Officinalis) but whilst I've seen advice saying stuff like 'well behaved' or 'minds its own business', I also know it seeds around a fair bit if you let it and has a creeping root system I think, though I can't remember where I saw that so maybe I'm confusing it with something else (and even then, whether it would be able to cross under the edging board and paving or not I don't know) which after some fairly horrid times trying to get rid of Bindweed I'm rather wary of. 

    It's also probably too shady for it in the bed in question regardless.

  • Hostafan1Hostafan1 Posts: 33,721
    HOSTAS  :D
  • FairygirlFairygirl Posts: 50,262
    What size is it? That will determine suggestions too. 
    If you just chuck some compost and well rotted manure on top of the bed, it'll be in much better nick for planting in spring. No real effort required, although if you dig into it a bit, as @Topbird suggests, that will also help. In wet areas, it's better just to lay on top. 
    There are loads of plants which will be fine - from Potentillas, Acteas and Viburnums, to the aforementioned geraniums, hostas [  ;)] and things like Polemonium [Jacob's Ladder] Dicentra [can't recall it's new name] Polygonatum [Solomon's Seal] Ferns, Japanese anemones, Heucheras, and Hellebores will all be fine.
    There are loads of others, including bulbs :)
    It's a place where beautiful isn't enough of a word....

    I live in west central Scotland - not where that photo is...
  • ObelixxObelixx Posts: 28,827
    I wouldn't bother digging it but maybe forking over the top layer would help loosen it a bit now and then pile on a good, thick layer of well-rotted manure and garden compost or spent planting compost for the worms to work in over winter.

    Plants that might enjoy that spot are the epimediums - pretty foliage and delicate flowers too - several forms available such as 

    I like geranium macrorhizum in shade - good leaf shape and colour and scented too.  Flowers can be white, pale pink or rich pink depending on variety.

    Bergenia, hellebores and podophyllum would all provide leaf interest and bergenia and hellebores will also provide floral interest.
    Vendée - 20kms from Atlantic coast.
    "We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing." - George Bernard Shaw
  • ElothirElothir Posts: 94
    edited October 2019
    Thanks for all the suggestions and advice, certainly lots of food for thought over the winter. The various Astrantia, Potentilla and Geraniums all look especially interesting, but I can obviously take the next few months to investigate some more.

    Out of interest (since it's been years since I actually went to a nursery/GC and wouldn't have been looking for these plants then anyway) when about do these plants tend to start becoming available?

  • ObelixxObelixx Posts: 28,827
    A good nursery or GC will have them all year round.  GCs often sell their stock off in autumn to free space and reduce outside care needs so go and check them out now.

    Privately owned nurseries are more careful of their plants and will want to sell them at their best at any time of year so you need to make a decision between a good quality plant or one that's chep but may need some TLC.  

    If you are planning to improve the clay in your bed with forking and a serious mulch as advised above, I'd leave the plant buying till spring - except any bulbs that need to go in now - when the frosts and mulch and worms have done their work.  Rake or hoe the soil, add another layer of mulch and plant thru that.
    Vendée - 20kms from Atlantic coast.
    "We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing." - George Bernard Shaw
  • ElothirElothir Posts: 94
    edited October 2019
    Yeah, the reason I was asking was because from a quick look around I can see basically everything suggested is available now but as you say that doesn't do me much good (especially since I don't have a greenhouse or other location to store them over winter in pots which wouldn't be ideal for the plant anyway), and I'd want to have a more thorough look to get everything properly worked out just in preparation before planting anything next year, so I was just wondering when about's next year I should be starting to look for things once I've reached that point.

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