Q. What can I plant under mature conifers?

Brighten up dry shade with plants that can cope with the conditions, says Pip Smith

A design for dry shade under conifers

by Liz Potter |

A GARDEN FILLED with mature trees often presents a challenge. Broadleaf, deciduous trees might provide dappled shade during hot summer months, but evergreen conifers cast dense shade all year round. The ground under them can be hard and dry due to the trees sucking moisture from the soil. If their removal is too expensive (it costs about £400+ to fell one leylandii in the south east) or they’re not yours to remove, working with the conditions they provide is the next best option. This woodland garden design makes the best of a difficult situation.

Removing the lawn might help your design. Without adequate growing conditions, turf can become patchy and brown in summer. Build up the soil level with new compost to help enrich the soil and provide nutrients for new plants. It also saves digging deep planting holes into compacted ground. Adding a top mulch of composted bark helps stop the soil drying out, preserves vital moisture and gives an attractive finish.

Create the paths from reclaimed bricks or fine gravel. Changes in materials help distinguish the different zones as you move through a garden. Allowing plants to creep over the path edges helps soften the design and creates a more natural feel.

There are plenty of perennials to choose from that grow quite happily in dense, dry shade. Rich in contrasts of texture and shape, they’ll form an attractive layer of foliage and interest around the base of the trees.

Use perennials and shrubs with lighter or variegated leaves to brighten the darkest shady spots. Try Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’, with it’s gorgeous gold-green foliage, and fragrant white flowers in mid-summer.

Add pops of colour all through the year from low-growing shade-tolerant euphorbia species and tiarella, and add in some ferns for softness and architectural form. Ferns come in all shapes and sizes, so include a good mix for visual variety.

Mature trees can dominate a modest-sized back garden, so provide lots of focal points to distract the eye. This might be a vista down the garden, a bird bath nestled in the border or a beautiful terracotta urn overflowing with bright flowers and foliage. Planting a small multi-stem specimen tree such as Acer griseum will help to balance the conifers opposite, adding height and providing gorgeous autumn leaf colours.

Creating a sunny seating area towards the bottom of the garden will entice you through the space, offering the perfect spot to gather with friends for drinks or dinner, or maybe a snooze in the afternoon sun... Position a wooden bench for a place to perch in the shade, accessorising with some bright cushions for comfort and colour. Stay outside after dusk with lighting and a stylish firepit: perfect for toasting marshmallows well into the night.


Planting plan for long thin garden under conifer hedge
Planting plan for long thin garden under conifer hedge ©PIP SMITH/BAUER


Plant list for dry shady garden under conifers
Plant list for dry shady garden under conifers ©PIP SMITH/BAUER
  1. Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’ An attractive upright shrub with yellowish green foliage in spring and producing fragrant white flowers in mid-summer. H2m (6.5ft) S1.5m (5ft) in 5-10 years.
  1. Acer griseum A lovely specimen tree grown for its cinnamon-coloured peeling bark. Excellent autumn foliage colour, with the canopy turning crimson red. H and S5m+ (16ft) in 20 years.
  1. Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae A useful perennial that thrives in poor, dry soil in shade. Spreads to form an evergreen carpet, topped by lime green flowers in late spring. H50cm (1.5ft) S1.5m (5ft)
  1. Polystichum setiferum ‘Herrenhausen’ An elegant low growing, evergreen fern with finely cut fronds, perfect for the front of the border. H70cm (2ft) S50cm (1.5ft)
  1. Asplenium scolopendrium Fresh, bright green foliage makes this ‘Hart’s Tongue Fern’ a popular choice for a shady spot. H60cm (2ft) S45cm (1.5ft)
  1. Dryopteris affinis ‘Cristata’ A semi evergreen fern that looks good almost all year round. Cut back old brown fronds in winter to encourage new growth. H and S90cm (3ft)
  1. Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’ Deciduous shrub with dark purple foliage and producing pinkish white flowers in early summer. H and S2m (6.5ft)
  1. Liriope muscari A low growing perennial forming clumps of narrow foliage and producing stems of deep purple flowers from mid-summer until autumn. H and S40cm (1.5ft)
  1. Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Ballerina’ A vigorous small tree with bronze tinged foliage in spring. White flowers in summer followed by lovely autumn leaf colour. H and S8m (26ft) in 20 years
  1. Anemanthele lessoniana Ornamental grass with great all year-round colour, best in the autumn and winter. May need protection in cold locations. H and S 1m (3.5ft)
  1. Mahonia aquifolium ‘Apollo’ A compact evergreen shrub with spiky foliage. Bright golden yellow flowers in winter, followed by small black fruits loved by birds. H1m (3.5ft) S1.5m (5ft)
  1. Athyrium niponicum var. pictum ‘Ursula’s Red’ A striking fern with distinctive silver and purple foliage. Low growing and perfect for shady gaps and corners. H and S50cm (1.5ft)
  1. Rodgersia aesculifolia Large leafed perennial with talk white flower spikes in summer. Excellent foliage colour in autumn. H120cm (4ft) S105cm (5ft)
  1. Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’ Sprays of maroon-purple flowers are produced in spring and summer by this popular perennial geranium. Leaves are nicely marked purple too. H75cm (2.5ft) S50cm (1.5ft)
  1. Hosta ‘Halcyon’ One of the best glaucous blue leaved hostas. Spikes of pale lilac flowers in summer. H and S50cm (4ft)
  1. Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ This tough perennial is great for a dry shaded spot. Attractive silver foliage and sprays of tiny blue flowers in spring. H30cm (1ft) S60cm (2ft)
  1. Vinca major The greater periwinkle will provide excellent ground cover if allowed to spread. A mass of purple flowers appear in summer. H30cm (12in) S.2m (6.5ft)
  1. Osmanthus burkwoodii Slow growing, evergreen shrub that can be trained as an informal hedge. Tiny, white scented flowers in spring. H and S2.5m (8ft) in 10 years
  1. Sarcococca confusa Highly fragrant white flowers appear in winter on this low growing evergreen shrub. Glossy black berries follow in spring. H and S 1.5m (5ft)
  1. Tiarella cordifolia ‘Spring Symphony’ A perfect woodland garden perennial with attractive foliage and short spikes of pinkish white flowers in late spring. H and S 30cm (1ft)
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