Shrubs for dry shade

20 plants for dry shade

Most gardens have some dry shade, at the foot of walls where foundations draw water from the soil, or under eaves where little rain falls. Trees also create dry shade, as their roots take up a lot of water.

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As a general rule shade-lovers with large leaves, such as rodgersia and hostas, are best avoided when planting in dry shade, as such lush foliage requires a continually moist soil.

More plants for shade:

  • Eight shade-loving herbs to grow
  • 11 wildflowers to grow in shade
  • Container plants for shade

Discover 20 beautiful plants for dry shade that will thrive in these tricky conditions, as long as you look after them while they get settled in.

Liriope muscari is a tough perennial that copes even in the darkest and driest of conditions.

Japanese anemones

Long-flowering Japanese anemones, such as ‘Honorine Jobert’ are brilliant plants for late summer and autumn colour. Their white and pink flowers, with a ring of yellow anthers, are held on tall, swaying stems.

Astrantia

Astrantias have delicate, pincushion-like flowers from June to August. These clump-forming perennials come in a range of colours, from white and dusky pinks to deep red. Though they prefer moist soil, they’ll tolerate drier conditions if mulched.

Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae

Revealing vivid lime flowers in late spring, this tough, fast-growing wood spurge, Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae, is perfect for dry spots under trees.

Fatsia japonica

One of the most dramatic shrubs for shade, Fatsia japonica is an exotic-leaved evergreen is completely hardy outdoors and will eventually make a magnificent plant.

Hellebore

The sumptuous flowers of hellebores open from late winter. The colours of this invaluable perennial range from white to pink, plum and near-black.

Hydrangea macrophylla

Hydrangeas are valuable plants with large, colourful blooms. They do well in shade, even under trees, and put on a show from summer to autumn.

Ivy

This evergreen climber is synonymous with shade. Our native Hedera helix has glossy green leaves and is ideal for ground cover or clothing a wall.

Ivy-leafed cyclamen

Perfectly adapted to growing under trees, Cyclamen hederifolium sends up a volley of tiny shuttlecock flowers in early autumn.

Lily of the valley

Convallaria majalis has one of the loveliest fragrances in the garden, produced by small, waxy bells that appear in early summer. Surprisingly robust, it forms dense ground cover, even in sites with very limited light.

Lily turf

Liriope muscari is a tough perennial that copes even in the darkest and driest of conditions. Its purple blooms are a valuable asset in autumn, rising above its evergreen, strap-like leaves.

Pheasant grass

A versatile grass with bronze-green foliage, Anemanthele lessoniana flowers from June to September, turning shades of copper and gold in the autumn. It self-seeds freely to create more plants.

Pyracantha ‘Soleil d’Or’

The zesty berries of evergreen shrub Pyracantha ‘Soleil d’Or’ almost glow during autumn in a shady spot. It can also be trained against a north-facing wall.

Skimmia japonica subsp. reevesiana

The vivid berries of Skimmia japonica subsp. reevesiana ride out winter intact, perking up a gloomy spot.

Snowdrops

Snowdrops (Galanthus) has no issues with a shady spot and does particularly well under the canopy of a deciduous tree.

Thalictrums

Meadow rue (Thalictrum) are gorgeous, airy perennials, producing clusters of starry blooms. Some species, such as Thalictrum aquilegifolium (pictured) can grow to over a metre tall, while others, like Thalictrum ichangense will stay around 20cm in height.

Viburnum tinus

The shiny, evergreen foliage of Viburnum tinus sets off the white flowers, which appear from April to December. Trim away the lower leaves to reveal the shrub’s stems.

Wood anemone

Native wood anemones, Anemone nemorosa, create carpets of spring flowers beneath trees. The blooms are often flushed with pink.

Geranium macrorrhizum

A beautiful geranium bearing delicate, pale flowers for months on end. Cultivars to grow include ‘Spessart’ and ‘Ingwersen’s Variety’.

Dryopteris

Many species of Dryopteris can be grown in areas of dry shade, including Dryopteris wallichiana (pictured). If you’re after more ferns for dry shade, take a look at this video guide on how to grow ferns in dry shade.

Epimediums

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Epimediums are great low-maintenance perennials that thrive in dry soil, and associate well with plants like hellebores and spring bulbs. Best grown in an acid soil.

Planting in shade

To give plants in dry shade the best chance, it’s a good idea to spend a bit of time improving the soil before planting. Incorporate plenty of organic matter such as leaf-mould or garden compost, to make the soil more moisture-retentive.

Xeriscape Shade Plants – Plants For Dry Shade

When creating a garden, sometimes you don’t have as much sunny space as you would like, especially if you have large trees on your property. You want to keep them for the cooling shade in the summer, but you still want a garden. What options do you have? Many would be surprised to discover the variety of xeriscape shade plants that are available. Dry shade plants come in a wide variety and can combine to make a wonderful garden.

Plants for Dry Shade

When selecting plants for dry shade, decide how much space you have, both on the ground and vertically. There are ground cover plants, as well as taller flowering and non-flowering plants. Using a variety of these xeriscape shade plants can lead to a beautiful garden. Some ground cover plants include:

  • Bishop’s cap
  • Lily-of-the-valley
  • Vinca minor vines

Other dry shade plants that add color with either wonderful flowers or interesting colored leaves are:

  • Snowdrops
  • Daffodils
  • Bluebells
  • Spotted dead nettles
  • Lungwort

Some of these plants, like the daffodil, actually bloom before the trees are in full leaf, which can extend the time frame in which your garden can be enjoyed.

Shrubs for Dry Shade

There are quite a few shrubs for dry shade that make an a great addition to your xeriscape shade plants. Shrubs for dry shade garden areas make wonderful border plants. Some good choices for shade shrubs include the following:

  • Black jetbead
  • Gray dogwood
  • Witch hazel
  • Wild hydrangea
  • Honeysuckles

Perennials for Dry Shade

Perennials for dry shade are also a good choice in xeriscape shade plants. Perennials are nice as many of them require little maintenance.

  • Ferns are a wonderful dry shade plant in and come in a wide variety. A Christmas fern also gives a nice green touch to a garden year round.
  • English ivy is a lovely plant; however, it can take over any tree it is planted near.
  • Japanese pachysandra is also a good choice.

After you have decided on your plants for dry shade, it is only a matter of time before you have a beautiful xeriscape. Dry shade plants make for a fairly low maintenance garden which can be enjoyed almost year round if you plan properly.

Colorado State University

Shade, whether cast by trees, buildings or structures, presents a different environment than a typical Colorado landscape. Often homeowners believe plants won’t grow in these areas. However, many shade-loving plants will thrive there and can create a shady haven to visit often.

Most shade plants are grown for their varying forms and color. Foliage plants that have stripes or speckles, such as lungwort, hosta and dead nettle, tend to grow well in the shade and provide a striking interplay between light and dark. The key to a successful shade garden is to combine and contrast the forms, textures and colors of the leaves.

Some shade-tolerant perennials especially well suited for Colorado’s semi-arid environment are lady’s mantle, sweet woodruff and coralbells, and shrubs like mahonia, golden currant and thimbleberry. For more moist conditions, plant astilbe, Japanese anemone, foxglove and ferns.

For more information, see the following Colorado State University Extension fact sheet(s).

  • Rock Garden Plants
  • Xeriscaping: Ground Cover Plants
  • Ground Cover Plants
  • Herbaceous Perennials
  • Ground Covers for Mountain Communities

Tell us what you think!

Do you have a question? Try Ask an Expert!

Maybe you’ve heard of xeriscaping. It’s a type of desert-style landscaping, right?

Actually, I’m here to tell you that it’s way more!

Perennial, drought-tolerant yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and salvia (Salvia officinalis) make good garden companions.

By definition, xeriscaping is landscaping geared to dry climates where little irrigation is available. It involves the cultivation of “xerophytes,” or plants that require very little water, like cacti and succulents.

However, today’s interpretation of the concept is much broader, and may be applied to all climate zones.

How can this be?

Because xeriscaping isn’t just about growing plants where there isn’t much water.

And it’s not “zeroscaping,” a derisive reference to some landscapes where the concept was unsuccessfully implemented, or areas where zero landscaping has been implemented.

Instead, it’s about growing the right plants in the right places, and grouping plants with similar moisture requirements, to minimize maintenance and conserve water.

What Do We Mean by the Right Plants?

Natives and drought-tolerant non-natives are the best plants for xeriscapes.

Drought-tolerant perennials black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) and bee balm (Monarda didyma).

Planting native plants is a great way to decrease water consumption, save money, reduce maintenance, and save time.

Because they are suited to a particular environment, you can give them a healthy start with watering and feeding, and then virtually forget them.

Another benefit of natives is that they attract local pollinating insects, birds, and other animals that are genetically wired to seek them out for food and shelter.

I recently wrote about native blue wildflowers. Two of my favorites are bluehead gilia (Gilia capitata) and mealy cup sage (Salvia farinacea) They both grow in full sun and require very little moisture.

The sage is especially nice at the back of a bed, as it is a bright violet blue, and over two feet tall. The gilia is a lighter shade, and about a foot tall. If you’re looking for a pop of color, blue is a striking choice.

If you’re planting non-native varieties, begin by selecting those that have been cultivated to thrive in your climate zone, then fine-tune your choices to those that can withstand water deprivation.

Once established, these plants will rarely require watering.

Lily turf (Liriope muscari) is a non-native, drought-tolerant clumping ground cover that is used extensively in my area as a border plant.

I never need to water mine, and it shares space with a Knock Out® Rose shrub that also requires little water.

When we xeriscape, we group plants by their watering needs. That way, if we do have to water, we can give exactly what each plant requires.

Grouping Plants with Similar Moisture Requirements

So far, we’ve discussed plants that can thrive with little water. However, this is not the end of the story.

Shade-Lovers Unite

Even in lush areas, where the loam is dark, and rich with moisture, we can practice landscaping with an eye to water conservation and low maintenance.

Hosta and fern line a shaded path.

Take, for example, woodland gardening with perennials.

Do you have an area on your property that’s very shady, where the soil seems to stay damp?

I have a stretch of mature trees that shelter several layers of flora below them, including rhododendron, ferns, hostas, and creeping vinca.

I help to keep the area moist by providing a generous layer of organic matter made of mulched leaves, and never have to water this area of my property.

Xerophytes, Take a Bow

This “microclimate” stands in stark contrast to another, in which I have clay-like soil that cracks when it’s parched, and is home to a little rock garden of hardy creeping stonecrop (Sedum spurium) and hens and chicks (Sempervivium).

Hens and chicks (Sempervivium) growing in a rock garden.

These moisture-retaining succulents are self-sufficient, and I let them spread to their hearts’ content.

And if traditional desert-style xeriscapinng suits your climate, I suggest a variety of xerophytes, like aloe vera, agave, echeveria, euphorbia, spineless prickly pear (Opuntia ellisiana), and yucca or flowering srhubs such as turpentine bush.

Kitchen Companions

If you’re growing herbs, look for low-water plants like rosemary, mint, lavender, sage, thyme, oregano, and lovage (Levisticum officinale).

Group them, so that in the event of a drought, you can conveniently refresh the whole gang with a handy watering can.

A Layer at a Time

If you’re landscaping on a grand scale, consider drought-tolerant trees and shrubs like conifers, oak, maple, elm, pine, hickory, redbud, winter berry, forsythia, lilac, serviceberry, and quince.

Choose native varieties, or those cultivated for your climate zone.

The Eastern redbud, drought-tolerant gem of spring gardens.

These will provide canopy and mid-level layers of drought-tolerant plants that will thrive with minimal intervention.

Also at mid-level are ornamental grasses like sedge, pampas, fountain, and needle, which will add texture and movement to a garden array.

At the lower level, perennials such as false indigo, butterfly weed, pinks, and dead nettle are classic low-moisture varieties.

And annuals like dusty miller, moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora), cosmos, zinnias, marigolds, petunias, and sunflowers have been favorites of mine over the years.

A Note on Lawns

For many home gardeners, the highest maintenance plant in the yard is the lawn.

If you’d like to reduce the time you spend mowing, fertilizing, and watering, you might like to replace turf grass with native ground covering plants that are self-sufficient, once established.

Alternatively, consider mowing higher (3 inches or more) to allow your lawn to make deeper roots and retain more water. This will save money and reduce storm-water runoff.

Minimal Maintenance and Water Consumption

Not all xeriscape plants are completely self-sufficient when it comes to maintenance and watering. Remember, we said that plants need to be nurtured with watering and feeding when first planted.

As for maintenance, some flowering plants may be improved by pruning leggy stems to retain shape, or deadheading to promote blossoming.

Be sure to read plant literature to determine the extent of care to expect with the plants you choose. Low-maintenance varieties will save you time in the garden.

Regarding watering, there will be times when there is a drought so severe that you will want to give your plants a much-appreciated drink. But when you do, don’t drag out the hose.

Instead, use a watering can and aim the spout at the soil level where the roots are, and not at the plant itself.

Watering leaves and flowers is inefficient, and in direct sunlight with extreme heat, may burn the plants.

If you select plants that require occasional watering, consider installing a drip irrigation system to water efficiently at the soil level. This is more economical than a sprinkler or handheld garden hose.

I recently visited a unique garden that features native species and has an intricate rain watering system. It’s the High Line, a public park in Manhattan that provides a refreshing escape from the bustling city below.

Taking It to the Max

If xeriscaping is all about native plantings and water conservation, the High Line in Manhattan is an amazing example on a grand scale.

This park was once a freight line for the meat-packing district.

For years, the defunct rail system was yet another vestige of urban blight. Today, it is a sustainable “green roof” garden trail, and a model for environmentally responsible urban planning across the globe.

What an inspiration!

A New Garden Attitude

From Manhattan to our own backyards, xeriscaping makes a positive environmental impact, by creating habitat with native plants, and conserving water with native and cultivated drought-tolerant species.

Are you ready to enter a new relationship with your outdoor space, and save time and money at the same time?
To briefly recap, here’s what to do:

  • Select natives, drought-tolerant varieties, and true xerophytes
  • Plan to plant in groupings with similar water requirements
  • Design a layered arrangement to allow plants to shelter one another and preserve moisture
  • Prepare to apply organic compost or leaf mulch to help with moisture retention

Your xeriscape is sure to flourish!

And when it does, you can stretch out on your favorite lounge chair and enjoy the view.

Let us know how your gardening is progressing in the comments section below.

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Photo credit: . First published January 5th, 2016. Updated May 20th, 2017.

About Nan Schiller

Nan Schiller is a writer with deep roots in the soil of southeastern Pennsylvania. Her background includes landscape and floral design, a BS in business from Villanova University, and a Certificate of Merit in floral design from Longwood Gardens. An advocate of organic gardening with native plants, she’s always got dirt under her nails and freckles on her nose. With wit and hopefully some wisdom, she shares what she’s learned and is always ready to dig into a new project!

1. Alchemilla mollis.

Recommended Plants For The Dry Shade Garden

Dry shade has to be the most challenging planting situation in any garden. Whether it’s in the needle-laced ground beneath a pine tree, or the dusty soil in the rain-shadow of an over-hanging building, it is hard to imagine what would grow there from choice.

Even weed seeds wither at the very prospect. So what can you encourage to grow there, with a little help at the outset?

Gardening in shade is often considered both difficult and undesirable. However all at once the sun’s rays are considered harmful and a shady retreat from the midday glare seems more restful and relaxing. So a garden already full of trees is a blessing. MyGardenSchool’s latest online course ‘Gardening in Shade’ will take you through the steps of preparing the site, and designing the area and creating a ‘mood’, and finally finishing it off and outlining what maintenance it requires. You will be taken through different planting solutions for different aspects of shade, from woodland gardens through to a north facing walls and everything in between.

So now to share what I consider the ten best plants for shade. Firstly I have to say you must forget about what you would like, forget about showy flowers and grow to love the more modest, green survivors. It’s better to grow something that works, rather than struggling with something that does not.

It may be common, it may seed freely, but it’s a survivor. I always get impatient with gardeners that moan about lady’s mantle.

How we hate anything that thrives in spite of everything. Alchemilla is a good looking plant that is almost evergreen with a foam of green flowers that is one of the delights of the summer garden. It copes with drought, copes with shade. If all else fails, try it.

2. Brunnera macrophylla.

Heart shaped leaves, gently cupped on stout stems, and a cloud of tiny forget-me-not flowers in spring.

There are pretty foliage forms, such as ‘Jack Frost’, but the species is just as lovely. It works well as ground cover and is ideal with spring-flowering bulbs which will also grow here.

3. Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae.

The wood spurge really does need shade, and you will have to help it with regular watering to get it started. Short upright stems carry whorled dark green leaves.

The stems are topped with lime green flowers in spring. This one can be sulky in some situations and rampant in others.

4. Galium odoratum.

Woodruff, isn’t evergreen; it dies down to the ground in winter. However, it does produce a fantastic carpet of the brightest green, sprinkled with tiny white flowers in spring and lasts through summer.

The fine stems and whorls of narrow leaves are aromatic and can be used to transform a jug of cheap white wine into something special. What more do you want from a shady spot?

5. Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Bevans’.

We tend to think of geraniums as hot, dry and sunny, but several are good in shade. Big root geranium is one of the best and forms a carpet of rhizomes and prettily cut leaves.

Attractive pink flowers and foliage that colours in autumn makes this a really good choice for ground cover in dry shade.

6. Lamium maculatum ‘White Nancy’.

The deadnettles are good for ground cover, and this one creates the most silvery carpet of them all. The leaves are almost reflective and the white flowers shine out from a shady spot. It hates damp conditions, so it almost loves dry shade.

7. Vinca minor.

The lesser periwinkle is the one with fine creeping stems and small evergreen leaves. There are many varieties to choose from, although I must admit I like the blue-flowered ones best.

Vinca minor ‘Aureovariegata’ is bright and cheerful with soft gold and green leaves and sapphire blooms. Periwinkles are survivors and are really useful for underplanting.

8. Mahonia aquifolium ‘Apollo’.

Probably the showiest subject I’m going to recommend here. Low growing to 60cm (2ft) it has holly-like foliage on upright stems.

The clusters of bright yellow spring flowers make this the showiest variety of Oregon grape. The foliage often flushes purple in winter.

9. Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’.

This is supposed to be the most drought tolerant of the epimediums with pretty leaves on slender stems and delicate little yellow flowers. However it is deciduous and dies down to the ground in winter.

I grow Epimedium rubrum. Not for the flowers but for the evergreen leaves which seem to thrive under my pine tree. In situations that get some sun they flush red in winter. Mine stay green!

10. Tellima grandiflora

The common name fringe cups makes this plant sound almost attractive. It may be a bit dull green and boring, but its delicate stems of fringed green-yellow flowers are almost charming.

Green maple-like leaves, similar to those of heucheras on low, loose clumps. Good with ferns and epimediums.

So those are my top ten recommendations. Not exactly a riot of colour, but cool, green and sophisticated. With a very good chance of even more than survival. Give them a go.

Other good plants for dry shade

Mahonia japonica

Ruscus aculeatus

Liriope muscari

Erigeron karvinskianus

Tiarella cordifolia

Viburnum davidii

Hedera helix vars.

Cyclamen hederefolium

Berberis x stenophylla

Top tips:

Prepare the ground well and add plenty of organic matter when planting. Water plants thoroughly before and after planting and regularly through the first season.

Plant in fall when the weather is cooler and the soil is moist. New plants have all winter to get established.

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