Deep shade challenge



I hope you can help me find something that will grow in a challenging area in my garden. It is a space of about one square metre beside my front steps. It is in deep shade and only gets 1 1/2 hours of dappled sun mid-morning. It is also dry.

I have scoured your references and the internet and tried the usual suspects over the years – hostas, ferns, astilbe, coral bells, various ground covers for full shade – but they all die back. I have wild violets, Solomon’s seal and wood aster growing nearby but none off them spread to the “black hole”.

If there is anything you can think of that I might have success with, I would greatly appreciate it. My last resort might be a garden gnome.

Thanks is advance.


Thank you for contacting the Toronto Master Gardeners. This is an intriguing problem ! It sounds like you have done a lot of research trying to find plants that will work in this space, so you might already be aware of a couple of our Garden Guides that might be helpful, but just in case, they are : Perennials for Shade and Part Shade: A Toronto Master Gardeners Guide, and Drought Tolerant Perennials: A Toronto Master Gardeners Guide. All of our Garden Guides are available on our website.

I think you are saying that this problem area is at one end of a continuous bed where you are successfully growing other plants (wild violets, Solomon’s seal and wood aster) which have not spread to the problem area as you expected they would. So maybe there is something about the soil that is inhibiting plant growth in this area. Is it the same makeup as the rest of the bed, whether this is clay, sand or loam, or some combination ? Has it been amended, mulched etc in the same way as the rest of the bed ? Is it the same depth ? Same drainage ?

Perhaps the soil in the problem area has been contaminated in some way – by continuous dog pee ? Something leaking under your front steps that is spreading to the soil beside them ? A soil test might be helpful to determine whether there are contaminants present. Here are three options : The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs has a list of Accredited Soil Testing Laboratories in Ontario (instructions for getting a test are here), The University of Guelph Soil Testing Services, City of Toronto Guide for Soil Testing in Urban Gardens.

You could also put a container of some kind on top of the soil in the problem area, and plant it with a plant recommended for dry shade. If the plant grows well, then you will have an indication that the problem is not that it is in dry shade (you might need to water it more often though, since a container will likely dry out more quickly than the ground). A container might be your best option, short term and perhaps long term.

Good luck with this problem area in your garden!