Plants for dry shade

Zone 5 Dry Shade Gardens: Growing Zone 5 Plants In Dry Shade

Dry shade describes the conditions under a tree with a dense canopy. Thick layers of foliage prevent sun and rain from filtering through, leaving an inhospitable environment for flowers. This article focuses on zone 5 dry shade plants. Read on to find suggested flowering plants for dry shade in zone 5.

Zone 5 Dry Shade Gardens

If you have a tree with a dense canopy, the area under the tree is probably in dry shade. Moisture is blocked from above by the tree’s leaves and branches and absorbed from below by thirsty roots, leaving little moisture for other plants to survive. There is no doubt that this is a difficult area to landscape, but there are some shade-loving plants that thrive in dry conditions.

There isn’t much you can do to improve conditions under the tree. Adding a layer of better soil or organic matter under the tree can seriously damage the roots and even kill the tree. When growing zone 5 plants in dry shade, it’s better to find plants to suit the conditions rather than trying to change the conditions to suit the plants.

Plants for Dry Shade

Here are some preferred plants for zone 5 dry shade gardens.

White Woods asters have thin, dainty white petals that show up well in the shade. These woodland plants look right at home under a tree where they bloom in August and September. Add spring color by planting golden narcissus bulbs. The bulbs will have plenty of sunlight to bloom and fade before a deciduous tree leafs out.

Lenten roses produce large blossoms in late winter or early spring. They come in white and a range of purples and pinks. The blossoms have thick petals, often with veins in contrasting colors. These lovely, fragrant flowers are often used as a groundcover under trees. Interplant with white anemones for a longer-lasting display.

How about adding some foliage to your zone 5 dry shade garden? Christmas ferns don’t just tolerate dry, shady conditions, they insist on it. They look best when massed together in large swaths. Yellow archangel is a groundcover that produces tiny yellow flowers in June, but it’s best known for the striking, variegated foliage. The white markings on green leaves stand out in the shade of a tree.

There isn’t a gardener anywhere who doesn’t feel their horticultural problems are more severe than everyone else’s. But there is one problem most gardeners share: shade, be it cast by man-made objects (buildings, walls or fences), by plants (hedges, trees and shrubs) or, as so often in the case of the urban garden, a combination of both. At ground level, this can result in large areas with dry, impoverished soil, reason enough to wring our hands and gnash our teeth.

But before throwing in the towel, it’s worth considering how nature deals with similar circumstances. There are numerous plants that not only cope with dry shade but even revel in it. Top of the list are epimediums, making it difficult to understand why this is such an underused family. All are amenable to shade and most are impervious to dry conditions, while some have the extra attraction of retaining their foliage throughout winter – and very striking it is, too: each leaflet is large, with its own wiry stem.

As winter progresses, the leaves of hybrids such as Epimedium x rubrum and E. x versicolor become burnished and more highly polished. In early spring, I have to steel myself to cut down the stems to ground level; they are still beautiful, but if left alone the new flowers already formed at their bases will have to fight their way through and lots of patience will be needed to extract the old leaves. Flowers in April are swiftly followed by new foliage, which is a delight – so thin as to be almost translucent, with all the tenderness and freshness associated with spring.

Epimediums are the ground-dwelling members of the mahonia and berberis family. Mahonia aquifolium is one of the best taller ground-covering plants for really dry shade, being pukka throughout the year with lustrous, purple-tinted foliage in winter and spikes of cheery yellow flowers followed by dark berries with a blue bloom.

Another subject for dry shade is the periwinkle, vinca. Vinca major is big and buxom, V. minor slightly more sedate. Both will extend stems, taking root as they go. In the early part of the year, until April, they are spangled with soft blue flowers, and these evergreens can be relied on to put on a good show all year round, even in the most inauspicious circumstances – close to my Devon home, a north-facing bank that’s 5m high and 10m across is currently smothered in its luxuriant growth. Vinca thrives in country or city and is almost totally self-reliant, so is perfect for gardeners with little time to spare.

In a small urban setting, you’ll want a non-stop show, but how do you achieve this if it’s shady and you have so little space? Again, look to nature for inspiration, particularly wild woodland. There are two main displays in wild shade. Snowdrops, celandines and wood anemones exploit the spring period, when there are no leaves on the trees, so some light and moisture are available to them. Then, before the canopy fills in overhead, ransoms (wild garlic) and bluebells take over; primroses, too, thrive in dappled shade, providing there is adequate moisture in the soil.

Sweet woodruff, asperula, is another winner, and pretty much indestructible; its stems run and root as they go, sending up short stalks with whorls of bright green leaves topped with tiny white flowers. It makes a dense carpet but does not interfere with other taller plants. Lily of the valley and Solomon’s seal, both natives, are close relations and adore life in dry shade, too.

At the other end of the summer, leaves begin to thin out and another range of woodlanders exploit the extra daylight, many of them able to cope brilliantly with the sort of shade cast by buildings. One of the best examples is the group of Asiatic anemones, usually known as Japanese anemones. Their elegant, chalice-shaped blooms in shades of pink and white are prolific and reliable without any attention. Another Asiatic plant, Kirengeshoma palmata, has drooping, soft yellow bells on tall stems. This is a class act and proves that, far from shady places presenting insurmountable problems, they offer a marvellous opportunity.

Steps to success

Ameliorate the soil, not by digging, which will destroy tree roots and compound water loss, but by mulching the surface of the soil with lashings of compost and/or leaf mould. This will conserve moisture and keep down competitive weeds.

Plant carefully among tree roots, probing the soil gently to identify pockets of soil and extracting just enough to get the new plant off to a flying start. Use small, young plants that will establish quickly.

Eventually plants will spread and colonise, so from time to time divide and replant, preferably when dormant.

Hostas are often recommended for urban shade, but walls harbour snails and slugs, so they may be quickly decimated. Instead, choose tougher plants such as Brunnera macrophylla, whose heart-shaped leaves may not be quite so big and bold, but they will last. B. macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ has silver foliage and sprays of brilliant blue forget-me-not flowers.

Many bulbs are in their element in dry shade: underplant perennials with chionodoxa, scilla and snowdrops to add texture and depth.

Fossils testify to the fact their ancestry stretches back 240 million years – and yet they have changed very little, if at all, since their initial appearance on this planet.

These outdoor – and indoor – plants are tough in the sense they’re not prone to disease, brush off pests and don’t need much looking after (although there are potential exceptions – see below). In fact, all that’s really required is that you cut away the dry fronds to allow the new ones to get going.

There are basically two different types of fern – Deciduous (which retain their leaves all year round, unless there proves to be an exceptionally cold winter) and those ferns which uncurl and announce their presence in our gardens in spring.

And not all ferns like dry conditions either; some ferns favour moist growing conditions, while others are more at home in practically boggy environments. Of those that do flourish in dry conditions, they tend to prefer dappled sunlight via the leaves of deciduous trees, rather than being completely exposed to the intense mid-day heat. Others are fine nestling in the ground at the bottom of a north-facing wall.

All will appreciate a little bone meal and leaf mould. They will also require a little watering in their first season, along with some mulch until they’re past the initial growing phase.

Beautiful fern foliage in the garden

In this article, we are concentrating only on ferns which prefer the dry spots in your garden – the areas other plants have, or will, shun. And here is a list of our particular favourites:

Dryopteris affinis ‘Cristata’

Cristata meaning ‘crested,’ this graceful king fern is capable of growing in both dry and moist soil, although it does best in the former. This fern is tall when fully-growing, reaching up to three-foot at its highest. The fronds should be cut back in the middle of winter. When flourishing though, appropriately enough, the crests on this fern are dark green and heavy, forcing the ends of the fronds to bend. This, in turn, makes the fronds appear to curtsey.

Polystichum setiferum ‘Pulcherrimum Bevis’

A beautiful plant reminiscent of lace, this soft shield fern’s fronds swirl upwards before tapering to a point around one metre from the ground. Some gardeners say the shape reminds them of a badminton shuttlecock which is green with brown bristles.

An elegant evergreen, it flourishes under dappled light but should be given lots of space to allow it to expand into a large and luxuriant addition to your garden. This is an expensive fern to buy but can be found growing wild in Devon where it was discovered last century by a hedge-layer of the name Bevis.

Polypodium vulgare ‘Common polypody fern’

A hardy evergreen fern, whose rather plain name, belies its pretty foliage. The fronds resemble a ladder with what appears to be pimples on the underside. It will a reach of height of around 30 cm and can certainly flourish unless you cut it back. Then again, it makes a pretty covering for dry soil underneath trees.

Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Hart’s tongue fern’

A tough and shiny fern whose strap-like fronds have a spikey appearance, this interesting-looking evergreen has the capacity to withstand even a drought when planted in alkaline-heavy soil.

It flourishes under trees and especially in forests where it grows wild. It will even grow out from a north-facing wall. Another fern which practically looks after itself, Hart’s Tongue only requires a little mulch now and again as well as a little snipping and tidying when spring comes around. It can grow to a height of up to 60 cm.

There are variations to the leaves such as ‘Marginata’ with its crinkly, serrated edges and ‘Cristatum’ with pretty ruffles at the tips of its fronds.

Athyrium otophorum Okanum ‘Eared Lady Fern’

Also known as Auriculate Lady Fern, this plant enjoys a well-known love of dry soil. It is a colourful fern with very light green, almost yellow triangular leaves and a prominent red/purple stripe down the centre with ribbed veins. Originating from Japan, it can grow to around 80 cm at its tallest. It suits most shaded locations. You’ll see it in spring, summer and autumn – before it takes a break for winter. Unlike a lot of ferns, it doesn’t spread.

Dryopteris filix-mas Linearis Polydactyla ‘Slender crested male fern’

Not your typical male fern, this rather delicate plant has long, arching but rather delicate fronds – to the extent it has an almost skeletal appearance. It is large though and will grow to a height of 60 cm. A delightfully-named fern – which also goes by the term ‘many-fingered male fern’ – it looks particularly good beside thicker and bolder plants.

Dry soil-loving ferns with amusing names

It is not just the varied textures and fascinating foliage shapes of ferns which have been delighting gardeners all these centuries. No, their often unpronounceable and amusingly descriptive names play a part too.

Names, such as congestum, for instance, to describe a ‘busy’ plant. Then there is the fimbriatum (with its small fringe), or the crinkled lettuce-like leaves of the frizelliae, the arrow-like leaves of the sagittate and thescallop-shaped crenatum.

Ferns and eco-friendly pest control

Although ferns aren’t typically known for being bothered with pests, there are a few garden culprits to keep an eye out for with particular ferns. Slugs, snails, and caterpillars often have a fancy for the strappy fronds of the Harts Tongue fern, finding them highly edible. Crosiers too, can prove an interesting snack for these insects.

One proven method to deter them is to add bark and gravel to your mulch since this can often prevent them reaching the ferns in the first place. You could also attempt to distract them from the fern by putting down beer traps and citrus peel.

Perennials for Dry Shade

Dry shade usually refers to areas found under the canopy of large deciduous trees. Plants here compete for moisture with the trees and soils tend to be droughty. Areas such as this are difficult to successfully grow perennials. While the plants listed will grow under these conditions, they will do so only once established. This means they will need to be irrigated regularly to establish a good root system that is then able to compete for moisture successfully.

Siberian Forget-Me-Not – Brunnera macrophylla

Height: 12-18 inches.

Width: 12-18 inches.

Bloom: Blue, May-June.

Cultivars: ‘Jack Frost’, ‘Variegata’.

Notes: Forget-me-not like flower clusters. Attractive foliage often with good fall color.

Big Root Geranium – Geranium macrorrhizum

Height: 12-18 inches.

Width: 18-36 Inches.

Bloom: White, pink, magenta, May-June.

Cultivars: ‘Bevan’s Variety’, ‘Ingwersen’s Variety’, ‘Spessart’.

Notes: Useful as a groundcover spreading by underground rhizomes.

Barrenwort – Epimedium x rubrum

Height: 6-12 inches.

Width: 18-24 inches.

Bloom: red, white, lavender, May-June.

Cultivars: ‘Lilafee’, ‘Frohnleiten’, ‘Rose Queen’.

Notes: Early spring bloom, attractive foliage and good fall color. Good as a slow growing groundcover.

Solomon’s Seal – Polygonatum sp.

Height: 2-3 feet.

Width: 18-24 inches.

Bloom: White, May-June.

Cultivars: ‘Variegatum’.

Notes: Gracefull plant, good naturalizer.

Yellow Archangel – Lamiastrum galeobdolon ‘Florentinum’

Height: 12-18 inches.

Width: 2-5 feet.

Bloom: yellow, Apr-May.

Notes: Attractive foliage, very useful groundcover under trees.

Lenten Rose – Helleborus hybridus

Height: 12-18 inches.

Width: 12-18 inches.

Bloom: Assorted colors, Mar-May.

Cultivars: ‘Pink Frost’, ‘Ivory Prince’.

Notes: Long lived perennial, semi evergreen foliage, very early flowering, newer double flowered cultivars available.

Dixie Wood Fern – Dryopteris x australis

Height: 3-5 feet.

Width: 2-3 feet.

Bloom: none.

Notes: Big, bold fern, spreads slowly.

Christmas Fern – Polystichuym acrostichoides

Height: 18-24 inches.

Width: 18-24 inches.

Bloom: none.

Notes: Semi evergreen fronds, attractive fiddle heads in spring.

Interrupted Fern – Osmunda claytoniana

Height: 3-4 feet.

Width: 6-12 inches.

Bloom: none.

Notes: Tall upright fern. Also good for shaded rain garden.

  • Annuals for Part to Full Shade
  • Annuals for Sunny, Dry Sites
  • Perennials for Dry Shade
  • Perennials for Shade
  • Perennials for Sunny, Dry Sites
  • Perennials Tolerant of Moist to Wet Soil
  • Shade Tolerant Ornamental Grasses and Grass-Like Plants

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