One of the questions that crops up in the garden or wherever else I might be is, “What can I grow in dry shade such as might be found beneath a tree?! The answer has to be “more than you think if you are prepared to work at it” or ‘nothing’, if the shade is particularly deep as might be expected beneath a horse chestnut!

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However, the question itself is interesting, for providing the gardener is willing to put in a bit of work interesting effects can be achieved.

I can always tell whether or not the questioner is worth bothering with. Those that are have a lively, appreciative and optimistic approach to the problem are interested and I like them even better if they have taken the trouble to arm themselves with a notebook so that they can and will remember my suggestions.

Those that are not really interested in the subject but have just broached it for the sake of talking to me will put obstacles in the way at my every suggestion; their cup is most likely always half-empty!

On such occasions I can be very blunt, rather like my maternal grandmother who did not suffer fools, gladly or otherwise, for in the world of gardening as in everything else, if we are to do it well then there is no such thing as a free lunch! So gardening beneath the shade canopy of a tree is not easy and I would never give anyone the vain hope that they could achieve great results.

Firstly, some form of irrigation is essential; a seep hose laid on the ground would be my first suggestion. This could then be left on for one night each week so that water could seep gently into the soil, penetrating quite deep. This works but it is unsightly so I should apply some mulch over the hose to disguise it; this could be your own homemade garden compost, spent mushroom compost or whatever material you have to hand.

Regular additions of fertilizer such as blood, fish and bone meal are almost essential; this should be applied early in the year for best results. If you are really keen and if, perhaps, this is the entire garden that you have, you might consider forking as much as possible between the tree roots to loosen the soil.

Then, having laid the seep hose and had it working for a few weeks, take some corms of Anemone blanda. They are very inexpensive, and use whichever colour is your choice (although white shows up particularly well in such circumstances), but do soak them in a bucket of water for 24 hours before planting. The reason for this is that will inevitably arrive in a dehydrated state, and rather than wait for them to rehydrate naturally you can speed up the process and give them a head-start. Then simply scatter these on the surface of the soil before applying the mulch, and come the spring you should be rewarded with a carpet of colour which – providing you remember to connect the seep hose regularly – may even prosper.

Small flowering hardy cyclamen could be incorporated too, both the autumnflowering cyclamen hederifolium and the spring-flowering cyclamen coum. These may even establish colonies with their delightful white, pink or purple flowers.

Try to think of plants that get their growing over during the first four months of the year before the shade canopy develops. This includes many early flowering bulbs such as crocus, narcissi, scillas, chionodoxa and of course, snowdrops and aconites. As long as you remember to irrigate regularly, these should thrive.

However, I should forget about having any flowery interest in such an area during our summer.

Whenever I have ever seen plants growing – nay, existing - in such circumstances they have been dried-out, dusty, shrivelled and more often than not infected by one fungal disease or another, such as disfiguring sooty moulds not to mention covered in bird droppings! Better then to leave the ground bare, make sure that it is raked and clean (which helps no end) and learn to admire the trunk of the tree and the tracery of its branch structure.

Bare ground in a border is unsightly, but beneath trees it is nothing to be ashamed of.

If you are really lucky you might find your bare ground gets colonised by mosses, especially if you remove some of the lowest branches from the tree, thereby allowing more light and air in and continue with the ever important irrigation.

A good place to see an example of how well moss can look beneath trees is at the entrance to the Savill gardens at Windsor. Here beneath the smooth grey trunks of a stand of noble beech trees where is a smooth carpet of fork moss, Leucobryum glaucum. These two together are an excellent example of how well simplicity works, ‘less’ being so very much ‘more’ in this case, and the effect is quite mesmerising. This always looks at its freshest in spring before the ground dries out too much, during the summer you wouldn’t notice it but, come the autumn rains

•This article was first published on October 15, 2011.

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