Greenery/Shrubs for Shade and Tough Soil



Thank you for taking the time to answer my question.

I have a spot in my back garden in Toronto (south facing), it is about 6-8ft by 2ft. It is under a big tree and next to my neighbour’s 9ft high fence, as such, it sees very limited sunshine. The soil is a little tough and somewhat clay-y.

I would like to put some shrubbery, preferably evergreen that will survive the winter. Currently, I have 4 hydrangea bushes in the area, This will be their third winter survived. However, they are very dry and take a long time to come back to life each year. Usually by the very end of the summer, I have some green leaves and 1 or two flowers. They look a little sad so I would like to move them and replace them with something more jolly.

In my mind, I imagine something along the lines of rosemary or lavender, something with a romantic English garden feel that won’t grow too tall, although height is not really a concern. I can toss the soil with nutrients/fertilizer, to improve the quality but I’m not sure how much good it would do in the long run so hardier plants might be better.



Thank you for contacting Toronto Master Gardeners.

Before planting in the area you have in mind, you should improve the soil.

Amend clay soil by adding 2 inches of coarse sand to improve drainage and aeration.

Add organic matter such as well-rotted manure or compost by topdressing the area to be planted. This improves moisture retention and adds nutrients without disturbing the soil structure.

Additional information on improving soil can be found in this guide:

Improving Your Soil Organically: A Toronto Master Gardeners Guide

As to plant selection, since the area is shady, and given what you say about your hydrangeas, likely dry, you should choose plants suited to dry shade.

Lavender and rosemary will likely not thrive in the bed as they need lots of sun.

You indicate you would like to plant some shrubbery, preferably evergreen, that will survive the winter. The selection of evergreen shrubs that grow well in dry shade and the narrow space available is limited. Your local nursery may sell some dwarf evergreen shrubs such as the compact Japanese yew, Taxus cuspidata ‘Nana’, that would tolerant the location conditions.

Perennials may be better suited to the space.

For low maintenance and visual interest all growing season long, you may want to consider the perennial workhorse of the dry shade garden, Hostas. There are many varieties of Hostas to choose from. At your local nursery, you can likely find a Hosta variety with a foliage pattern you like and the size that fits your space.

A list of perennials that grow in dry shade can be found in this guide:

Perennials for Shade in Dry or Moist Areas: A Toronto Master Gardeners Guide