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Shade Gardening in Rocky Soil

Jean loves gardening and remains undaunted by the bedrock and clay terrain in the wooded area where she lives.

Living on a one-lane road in a wooded area has its advantages. The many trees help keep the air cooler during the summer months, and cleaner in all other seasons. My family enjoys the privacy the greenery provides for us. Each season has its own beauty, and we have a view of it from every window.

But shade gardening in rocky soil strictly limits the varieties and types of plants that may be used in a garden. Plus many shade-loving plants are annuals; they only survive one season. It is a constant battle to keep something growing, and so when any new plant that thrives in shade comes along, we are willing to give it a try.

Rocky soil is yet another challenge, but one that has to be tackled. It is helpful to keep a compost pile, so there is a good supply of healthy soil on hand. Why buy it when you can have it just from saving your leftover fruit and vegetable scraps? You can keep them on hand on an out of the way part of your property. But it is good to have a good-sized bag of potting soil on hand too, depending on your particular needs, and some plant food as well.



Necessary Gardening Tools and Supplies

If you are serious about shade gardening in rocky soil, you will need the following list of garden tools:

  • Trowel
  • Rock hammer
  • Pickaxe
  • Extra potting soil
  • Watering can
  • Plant food
  • Perlite
  • Scissors

There is no need for dainty pink garden gloves, but you may like those plastic disposable ones to protect your skin from any poisonous weeds or rashes. Then you just recycle them when you are done and use a new pair the next time you garden. No large brimmed hat either, unless you intend to be in the sun too long. Most moisturizers have sunscreen in them now. No plastic trowel works for me, my favorite garden tool is my father’s rock hammer! And if that fails, onward to the pick-axe!

Hostas, Perfect for Shade

Hostas, Perfect for Shade

Hostas, Hydrangeas, Impatiens, Rhododendrons

You can never go wrong with hostas, they are the ultimate shade loving plants and they will thrive on neglect. If you take good care of them, they will grow larger each year, sprouting a large purple or lavender flower in the middle. They come in many varieties now. We have several that have so much yellow in them that they are almost chartreuse. Others have a bit of blue in them. The more common are varied shades of green with leaves edged in white. Now Breck's Dutch Bulbs makes a White Feather Hosta which I tried this year. It didn't perform much the first year. I was excited and waited for the big, white plant to blend with all the green. And I'm glad to say I can see both of them coming up this year! They are solid white, and will be about two feet tall.

So far they are only a few inches big, but I can see enough to know they will add a lovely touch to my yard. Sometimes it takes a plant more than one season to get over the shock of new planting and align itself with the new conditions. So don't pull our your bulbs or get too disappointed, sometimes they just need that year from when you first planted them to get oriented to your seasons and soil conditions.

Azaleas also like shade, and so do hydrangeas, or snowballs, as many of us referred to them as kids. Other shade lovers that cannot be ignored are impatiens. They come in so many colors now, and although they are annuals, you get a long growing season, from May until the first frost, which in New Jersey is usually around November 1. Since there is so much greenery in our area, I like to choose impatiens in bold colors, like the red or purple star or the orange ones. White and silvery dusty miller is a nice contrast to all these colors as well.

Rhododendrons are also very pretty, though they struggle in shade and rocky soil, we have several that do pretty well and produce blossoms of pale pink flowers. If you need to break up clumps of rocky or clay like soil, loosen it up and mix it with the perlite. They are little white balls that will help air get into the soil so the roots of your plants can breathe, and can be bought at any garden store. Handle the roots of the potted plant gently, and use the soil they came in, mixed with your own, and possibly some perlite. It's healthy, and will help absorb the shock a plant endures when being replanted. The plant may look "shocked" for a few days, make sure you water it well, and it will perk up.



Achillea and Bugleweed

This year we were particularly happy to discover two new plants! We had to pull out yew hedges that were turning the house’s cream colored aluminum siding green, and found a great ground cover called perennial bugleweed. The directions say it needs 4-6 hours of sun, but they are thriving in a shady area of rocky soil, providing more color than we hoped.

They grow to about 6” high, green, but some of the leaves are silvery and shimmery, with little purple flower blooms about 2” high coming out of them as they reach their top height. So now that they are filling in, they look great. They also creep about one foot a year, so I'm really happy. Now it's several years later. and I'm happy to say the bugleweed is still coming back each year, and the purple flowers are staying for a longer while, and getting a little taller. It's a great and easy ground cover.

I keep my bugleweed covered with leaves to protect them for the winter, so as soon as I see the bugleweed coming up out of the soil, it's time to clear away the leaves.This year I added a few tulip bulbs in between some of the plants, since the tulips will only stay for April and May, and the bugleweed is there as soon as Spring gets warm and stays until frost. Since the tulips are about a foot taller than the bugleweed, it should make a pretty contrast for the month or so the tulips will last.

Now that it's around four years later, I find I like to add a little more bugleweed each year. If you just leave that first planting, it will eventually thin out, and it looks nice as you add more and it gets bushier.

Another great find was Achillea or “Moonshine” Once again the tag said only “part sun”, but they are doing well in a shady and rocky area. They are yellow and the bright splash of color is really appreciated amidst all that green. They also attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

Other Shade-Loving Plants

Spiraea bushes also come in many colors, and love to grow in shady, rocky areas with little attention. We have purple ones that have become bushy, but not too tall. Now they are available in yellow, white, pink, and many other colors. Also, there is hardy Cyclamen, which produces little pink flowers, in both a Spring and Summer variety. It took a few years to get them going, but this year they bloomed beautifully. Sometimes it will be a year or two before a certain plant "takes", so be patient.

Planting bulbs in the Fall is always great, because when all those lovely crocus, grape muscari, daffodils and tulips appear after a snowy and dreary winter, you have a beautiful and cheery display, and you’ve already done most of the work! Crocus bulbs come in orange now, and are really lovely! Fall bulbs do well then because the leaves have not yet begun to bloom on the trees, so full sun is available for a few months. I find its best to let the autumn leaves cover them through the winter, it keeps your bulbs warmer and protected.

So if you have shade and rocky soil, do not become discouraged if you love to garden. If anything is planted in an area of soil and survives, even if it struggles, it will improve the soil for the next growing season. You only need to keep trying new varieties of plants, and to be patient. Gardening is a calming hobby, as it makes you feel relaxed and close to the Earth. If you are digging and weeding even for a half hour a day, it counts as exercise too! So go for it! Not only will your family enjoy the fruits of your labors, but so will your neighbors!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Jean Bakula


Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 10, 2019:

Hi, Joan, the article is very informative. The ideas are good. I like the way you talk on making a compose with leftovers from the kitchen. That is very natural. It makes the plants real organic. The photo challenge I had note quite well from a fellow hubber. Thanks for sharing.

Jean Bakula (author) from New Jersey on September 17, 2017:

Hi Elena,

It is a challenge. Add a bag of good soil and growth vitamins. Try to buy perennials so they come up on their own each year. I do a lot of bulbs in Fall, daffodil, tulip, crocus, grape muscaris. Those grow every year without any work, They bloom each Spring. They don't last more than a few weeks, but look great because the leaves aren't on the trees yet in NJ. Summer bulbs are harder, that's why hostas are good, they come in yellows and white now. Cyclamen is pink, a summer bulb which likes shade. And for annuals, impatiens and begonias last from Mother's day to the first hard frost. Good luck! on September 16, 2017:

Hi Jean,

Thank you. Your article is very useful you gave me alot of advice on just the very thing I need help with. My rocky soil. I live in a basment flat with barreal size pots full of rocky soil. I would hate to get rid of it. Now thanks to your article I have a pretty Idea what I can plant in it.

Many thanks


Jean Bakula on August 31, 2011:

Thanks for reading, moonlake. I don't know what's going on with my comment box, I keep changing my email preferences and must be doing something wrong, so thanks for letting me know. I bought my first set of fiestaware for my 20th anniversary. I had never bought my own set of dishes, and finally wanted something I picked!

moonlake from America on August 31, 2011:

Lots of good information. Enjoyed your hub. I was going to leave a comment on your fiestaware hub but there was no comment box. Enjoyed that hub also.

annaw from North Texas on July 24, 2011:

Thank you Jean, I am really excited, and cab hardly wait.

Jean Bakula (author) from New Jersey on July 24, 2011:

Thank you annaw! If I can grow things in my terrible soil, I'm sure you can grow some really good flowers, or vegetables and fruits on your property. It's really just about finding what's right for the conditions. Best wishes with your new property!

annaw from North Texas on July 24, 2011:

Good advice thank you. I have land in Brazos county whivh I have not had the opportunity to really inspect and should my land be as you have described I will definitely utilize these tips. Voted up, useful and wonderful!