Monday, September 12, 2011

Redesigning the Bed of Death and Misery

Every garden has its tricky spots. The most difficult spot in my garden is The Bed of Death and Misery. Situated on a very small dry slope beneath a giant laurel oak and next to a large nannyberry (viburnum lenato),  this small dry spot receives morning sun for just a few hours and total shade the rest of the afternoon. So many plants have died in this spot, instead of always buying more, I should just invest in a headstone and call it quits.

But I can't. Stubborn and tenacious, I'm determined to figure out how to get something, anything, to grow there. Thanks to a stand of mature trees, the soil is quickly stripped of its moisture and fertility, leaving whatever unfortunate plant has been stuck there to starve and dehydrate. Despite having soil amended heavily with compost over the years, the plants still died while the trees grew larger and fuller.

Last fall I worked in an absurd amount of peat moss and fertilized with Plant-Tone. I fertilized again in mid-winter and in the spring and just hoped for the best.  In October I cleared the bed of its latest casualites and planted bare root native showy tick trefoil (desmosium canadiense), known to attract pollinators, populate waste spaces and tolerate dry shade. White Form ruellia and tough-as-nails native aster ericoides were added to fill in the empty spaces. By May, the desmodium and aster ericoides had sprouted, but the ruellia had died. Tough and versatile, dead ruellia was an ominous sign. Irritated and wondering when the rest of the plants would keel over, I stuffed in some variegated sedum just to make the bed look less empty, rearranged the soaker hose, and stomped off.

The Bed of Death and Misery

I fumed for a few weeks and then began planning my annual Bed of Death and Misery makeover. But in the midst of all my fuming and planning, something miraculous happened. Nothing died. Nothing at all! The desmodium, despite looking like an alpine ski jumper, was healthy and even bloomed for a day. The sedum wanted more sun and the aster didn't seem bothered by anything. Even the neighboring knautia shrugged off the dry soil and shade to self-seed with abandon, only to spend the summer lounging atop the 'Red Fox' veronica. By the time I cut back the knautia and excavated the veronica, it looked pathetic but was alive.

 Self-seeded knautia invasion

 Barely alive 'Red Fox' veronica

 All the desmosdium needs is some snow and a ski jump. 

This sedum only grows to 15" tall and has light pink fall flowers.
By this summer it was obvious the desmodium needed a sunnier new home and the sedum was too short to stay behind the asters, which left me with a lot of space to fill. Determined to finally succeed in solving a perennial problem, I recently bought the Clay Buster kit from John and Bobs and am in the process of treating the soil. On Sunday I cut down several large branches to lighten the shade and, once again, added new plants while rearranging others. The asters and sedum stayed and northern sea oats, variegated fragrant false solomon's seal, and amsonia were added. The knautia was pulled up and given to a friend while the desmodium was moved to a sunnier spot. I really like the new design. I just hope everything lives!

I cut several large branches out of the nannyberry. I kept the branches that grew to the side because I like the layered pagoda effect. 

I moved the sedum in front of the asters so they could grow through them, since they tend to lean. This also gave the sedum more sun. 'Annie' verbena grows between the grass the sedum. The northern sea oats are in the very back by the black dog run fence and the false solomon's seal is in front of them.

 I have a lot of amsonia 'Blue Ice' in my garden. It's incredibly tough and does well in dry partial shade. It has pretty steel blue flowers in the spring and is a host food for several spring butterflies. The two plants in the very front between the sedums have already started developing their yellow fall foliage. Solidago caesia (blue stemmed goldenrod) grows behind the amsonia.

I moved the veronica in front of a large stand of 'Autumn Joy' sedum. They'll form a large mat of little spiky pink flowers. Once I cut back the knautia so the veronica wasn't being suffocated, it recovered quickly.

 I'm going to plant another 'Annie' verbena in front of the amsonia. Verbena rarely do well in partial shade, but this cultivar doesn't seem to mind.

The northern sea oats can be 3 ft tall and about 2 ft wide so I left plenty of space for them to grow. The false solomon's seal will also fill in quickly. False solomon's seal has pendulous creamy white flowers that bloom in the spring. The cultivar I planted has a creamy white margin around the leaves. Soaker hoses help keep the soil less dry but it will never be considered moist.

This pot of solomon's seal looks like it has a weird toe sticking out of the bottom. Maybe that's why it was a few dollars more!

 This is a much better picture of variegated solomon's seal than the ones above. (

Northern sea oats


  1. Your new planting looks to be a success! I planted some variegated solomen's seal under a dogwood tree in an area that had killed many plants before. I wasn't hopeful, but the variegated solomen's seal has flourished. Those little toes will spread out and the plant can spread like a groundcover. Perfect for my situation, but you may want to keep a close eye on yours.

  2. You are truly an inspiration. I have a 'dead zone' by the front door!! I will add some homemade compost this week and see if I can get the soil a bit more workable. Mine had a gardenia in that spot....still there but half dead. I like your idea of Amsonia, Seaoats, Sedum and Solomon's Seal. Hope your Veronica thrives now. You have a lot of variety of plant material in there. Very nice. Love Solomon's Seal, when there is a stand of it, it is a striking presentation.
    Watch the Sea can reseed like mad.

  3. The title is so catchy and honest. At least you are making headway and the bed can lose the moniker. LOL.

  4. Looks like a good plan. Will see!

  5. Have you ever tried Horseherb? Does well in dry shade. Dry shade -- hardest of all areas to landscape for sure. Does Turk's Cap do well in your neck of the woods? What about Coral Bells (Heuchera)? Not sure if they like dry shade, but they certainly don't like wet feet and poor drainage. Oh, also, have you ever heard of African Hosta -- Drimiopsis maculata? Great plant! I have Solomon Seal in two places in my garden but plan to move them both in one spot for a bigger presence. Love that plant! I have horseherb, St. Joseph's lily, and Oxblood lily growing in my very driest parts of my landscape. So far so good. Oh, also, what about purple heart (setcresea)? Just some options you might think about... if you haven't already. Our zone is the same, but soil ph might be different. I might encourage you to use compost instead of peat moss. Compost is alive!! It cures whatever ails ya, and I think your bed of death and misery could use some :-) Hoping for the best :-)

  6. I love these design problems and the thoughts that go into solving them. How about epimedium for the dry shade? I think you mentioned that you do grow them elsewhere, wouldn't they survive nicely under the tree and the viburnum? Slow to get going, though, and they stay low, but they will fill the area.

    Limbing up the bigger shade trees and shrubs will help. I did that and found some improvement in the performance of the stuff below. Your poor bed of death an dmisery!

  7. love the northern sea oats! looks like you may have to come up with a new name for that bed.

  8. Jennifer@threedogsinagarden
    Hi Tammy, I have a similar bed that is always dry (the hose won't reach it) and in heavy shade under a very large maple. It is not a "bed of death" though, it is more a "bed of blah." The entire flowerbed is a sea of lily of the valley, green ivy and periwinkle. Nothing is more than a few inches tall! See blah! At this time of year it is looking thirsty and tired. I struggle with it just as you do with your bed of death. We could form a support group.

  9. I think everyone has those stubborn zones of death in their garden somewhere! I think some macabre garden art in those spots would be kinda neat.

    Dry shade is a really really tough thing to deal with. ime No. River Oats likes moisture but they are adaptable.

  10. I have spots in some of my beds that are giving me a bit of trouble. Like you, all I can do is keep experimenting and adding compost. I think one day things will catch up.

  11. Good luck with your new plan, I am sure it will go great. You have so many great plants to fill that space

  12. Great job. Once you discover a plant or two that works the rest falls into place doesn't it? I really like the variegated sedum and sea oats. I have seen both at nurseries recently and though I was tempted I'm banned from buying any more plants until I get the ones I have into the ground!


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