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Perfect Plants for Dry Shade

Perfect Plants for Dry Shade

Coral bells, ghost fern, and ajuga can thrive in drier shade conditions.
coral bells, ghost fern, and ajuga in a dry shade garden

Coral bells, ghost fern, and ajuga can thrive in drier shade conditions.

Above photo by Richard Shiell, plant photos by Doreen Wynja

Dry shade. You know it when you see it. That dark, dry, often barren space in the shade of large trees, under eaves, or on the lee (sheltered-from-the-wind) side of houses. Gardens in arid, drought-prone regions will also have dry shade conditions in nearly any location that has some amount of shade during the day. Not only are the plants that grow in these conditions often already stressed from not having much light, but they also have to compete with other large plants for soil moisture. It’s one of the most difficult conditions in which to garden.

But, take heart! There are plenty of plants that thrive there. Here are our favorite perennials, groundcovers, ferns, and shrubs for dry shade, plus a few tips for gardening in dry shade. 

Tips for Gardening in Dry Shade

  • Just because a perennial plant is tolerant of dry shade doesn’t mean that it will grow forever without adequate moisture. Consider setting up drip irrigation system in your driest garden beds.
  • A good rule of thumb is that plants with smaller, thicker foliage can survive the longest in dry shade conditions.
  • Provide supplemental water in the first year to establish plants. After that, provide water to the plants’ root zones as needed, especially in drought or very dry conditions.

Tips for Planting Under Trees

  • If your plants are very intolerant of wet feet (such as California oak trees, for example), it’s best not to plant under them. Consult with a local independent garden center for advice.
  • When planting under an established tree, avoid planting closer than one to two feet from the trunk.
  • Digging individual holes rather than prepping the entire site at once can help minimize damage to surface roots.
  • Introduce plants to established trees’ root zones over several growing seasons.
  • Avoid adding additional soil over the tree’s roots. Even an inch or two can have an adverse effect on long-term tree health. Adding mulch is good, but remember to pull it back from the trunk of trees by at least 6 inches.
  • If growing evergreen plants, choose types that can tolerate winter sun after the leaves drop, and be aware that plants that have super-delicate leaves could be damaged by leaf blowers in the fall. 

Best Plants for Dry Shade Conditions (Zones 4-11)

We're including our favorite plants that look beautiful in dry shade below; the list includes ferns, blooming perennials, groundcovers, and shrubs that you can grow confidently in a variety of shady growing conditions. The featured plants vary in light requirements (from partial sun to full shade), water needs (not all are truly drought-tolerant plants and may need additional irrigation in truly dry conditions), and growing zones, so there's something for everyone here!

Click on the plant to get more information about care, companion plants, and other tips. Looking for more options? Filter plants by Dry Shade under the "Landscape Use" filter, or visit your local garden center for advice on what might work well in your particular conditions. 

Perennials for Dry Shade

Zones 3-9

Jack Frost
Brunnera

Brilliant silver leaves with contrasting green veins are distinctive and eye-catching in shaded beds and woodland gardens. Clusters of tiny blue flowers bloom in the spring. Use en masse to create a shimmering groundcover or use individually as a garden accent. Full to partial shade. Up to 12" tall, 24" wide; blooms reach 18" tall. Zones 3-8. 

Thriller
Lady's Mantle

Vivid golden yellow flowers held on stems in open, airy sprays above the scalloped, shiny, gray-green leaves. Its creeping habit and form is valuable for edging a border or along flagstone paths. Partial sun. Up to 2' tall and wide. Zones 3-9. 

Ivory Prince
Hellebore

Deep-pink buds open to bright-white flowers that face up and outward from the plant, unlike many hellebores. Virtually problem-free, this delightful cool-season bloomer graces any lightly to deeply shaded beds and native gardens. Full to partial shade. Up to 12" tall, spreading wider. Zones 4-9.

Zones 7-11

Little Becca™
Flax Lily

Luxuriant green leaves form a dense, small stature clump with a versatile, tough-as-nails constitution. Spires of small blue flowers in spring are followed by blue ornamental berries. Heat, drought, and humidity tolerant. Filtered to full sun. Up to 18" tall and wide; blooms reach 36" tall. Zones 7-11.

Madison
Star Jasmine

A more cold-tolerant form of the popular climbing or spreading star jasmine. Lustrous green leaves are highlighted by clusters of fragrant creamy white flowers reminiscent of orange blossoms. Beautiful evergreen for trellis, arbor, or fence if given support. Full shade to full sun. Up to 12" tall with support, 1' tall as a groundcover. Zones 7-10.

Speck-tacular
Cast Iron Plant

Glossy green foliage heavily speckled with creamy yellow spots provides excellent color and texture for a shaded garden. The long, flat, broad leaves grow stiffly upright from a dense clump and arches as rise above the base. As tough as the name suggests, cast iron plants adapt to heat, aridity and even dry shade. Full shade. Up to 2' tall, forming a 4' wide clump. Zones 9-10. 

Groundcovers for Dry Shade

Zones 4-9

Caitlin's
Giant Ajuga

An excellent groundcover that forms a dense, carpet-like mat of lush foliage. Large green leaves have purple-bronze hues. Deep-blue flower spikes bloom from spring to summer. Filtered shade to partial sun. Up to 6" tall, 24" wide. Flowers reach up to 10" tall.  Zones 3-9. 

Purple Dragon
Dead Nettle

Silvery white leaves with green edges form a lush groundcover that is topped by charming deep purple flowers in summer. Brightens shady areas, and tolerates dry shade conditions when established. Up to 12" tall, 24" wide. Full shade to partial shade. Zones 4-9. 

Bowles' Common
Periwinkle

One of the best fuss-free groundcovers for shade, displaying large, violet-blue, pinwheel-shaped flowers against glossy dark green leaves. Sun tolerant in cool northern zones. In hot summer areas, plant in dappled to deep shade. Full shade to full sun. Up to 6" tall, spreading indefinitely. Zones 4-10. 

Zones 7-11

Emerald Goddess®
Lilyturf

A superior selection with foliage that remains dark green throughout winter, has high resistance to crown rot, and has good cold and drought tolerance. Flowers are a more intense purple, a more uniform size, and longer-lasting.  Partial sun. Forms clumps up to 24" tall, 30" wide. Zones 5-11.

Jurassic™ Brontosaurus
Tongue Fern

Growing on rocks under extreme drought conditions, this curiously beautiful evergreen species was collected in Hunan Province by plantsman Dan Hinkley. It is best cultivated on steep embankments in draining soils, on rotting stumps or logs, or as a container plant in partially shaded sites on a terrace. Will make for a splendid specimen over time. Partial shade to partial sun. Up to 1' tall and wide, spreading wider over time. Zones 8-11.

Dwarf
Mondo Grass

This dwarf variety, only half the size of other types of mondo grass, creates a lush, evergreen groundcover of dense, dark green, grass-like clumps. Excellent as an edging plant or tucked into rocks for a pleasing contrast. Striking in mass plantings in the landscape.  Filtered sun. Forms clumps up to 6" tall and wide. Zones 6-11.

Ferns that Tolerate Dry Shade

Zones 4-9

Western
Sword Fern

One of the most robust and reliable native male ferns. Offers superb texture with glossy, leathery, toothed, dark green foliage. Vigorous evergreen clumps are formed by many long fronds. Keeps up appearances even in warm, arid climates, though plants will be more compact. Full shade to partial sun. Up to 6' tall and wide. Zones 5-9.

Ghost
Fern

A vigorous and easy-to-grow fern with a neat, formal, upright mound of rigid, silver-green fronds with deep-purple midribs. Thrives in moist, shady settings, though more tolerant of brief dry spells than most ferns of its type. Full to partial shade. Up to 3' tall and wide. Zones 4-9.

Photo by Richard Shiell

Brilliance
Autumn Fern

This handsome coppery red selection is brighter red and significantly more dramatic than others in the species. Leaves mature to deeply cut, dark green. Easy to grow and adaptable to drier soils in cool, shaded locations. Spreads by underground stems. Full to partial shade. Up to 24" tall, 18" wide. Zones 4-9. 

Shrubs for Dry Shade

Zones 4-9

Korean Spice
Viburnum

So much to love about this old-fashioned shrub from spicy-scented blooms in spring and berries and colorful foliage in fall. Once established, thrives with little supplemental water. Useful, compact size that’s ideal for foundations or along a shady wall. Partial to full sun. Up to 8' tall with age. Zones 4–8.

Creeping
Oregon Grape

A low-growing, sprawling North American native shrub that thrives in a variety of conditions, including dry shade. Sprays of bright yellow flowers emerge and spring and are followed by blue-black fruit in late summer. Great as a groundcover under trees or other tough spots. Partial shade to partial sun. Up to 2' tall, 4' wide. Zones 5-9.

Cranberry
Cotoneaster

A great low hedge or groundcover with finely textured foliage. Small, pink blooms in spring are followed by ornamental red berries.  Full to partial sun. Up to 2' tall, 6' wide. Zones 5-10.

Zones 7-10

Fragrant
Sweet Box

Yes, it’s a pretty, tidy little shrub with shiny leaves, but this one’s all about the powerful and exotic fragrance. We promise you will smell it before you even see it. Nice for containers in shady spots. Can't find this specific type? No worries; just about any Sweet Box (Sarcococca sp.) will do well in dry shade conditions. Full shade. Up to 5' tall and wide. Zones 7–9.

Camouflage® Variegated
Japanese Aralia

Each leaf of this showy shrub possesses an exquisite melding of yellow, lime, and green, providing an illuminating effect in a variety of shady situations. Prized for its unique, highly textural foliage, it often blooms from fall to winter with showy panicles of white flower clusters. Full shade to partial sun. Up to 8' tall and wide. Zones 7-10.

Charity
Mahonia

So underused in the landscape and that’s a shame because these make dramatic, but totally fuss-free, focal points. Whorls of frond-like leaves, sprays of soft-yellow flowers in winter, and summer-into-fall berries. Evergreen, too. Full shade to partial sun. Zone. 7- 9

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