8 plants for dry and shady gardens

Stephen Westcott-Gratton

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Hellebores grow well in dry, shady gardens. (Photo by Joanne Young)
Hellebores grow well in dry, shady gardens. (Photo by Joanne Young)
Hellebores grow well in dry, shady gardens. (Photo by Joanne Young)

Dry and shady gardens: a double whammy

Most gardeners would agree that gardening in full shade presents certain difficulties, and I dare say that all would agree that gardening in dry, compacted soil is an even greater challenge; but combine the two, and you have a serious gardening hardship.

Dry shade is almost always the result of mature trees with roots that run close to the soil surface, taking up water before it has a chance to reach other plants. While non-native maples tend to lead the pack in this respect, dry shade is a fact of life at the base of most large trees. Worse still, your natural inclination to add more soil and raise the grade won’t work because vigorous feeder roots quickly invade and out-compete new understory transplants. Also, raising the grade above tree roots more than four inches (10 cm) may compromise the tree.

In my own garden, I have to contend with several areas of hardcore, dry shade. To deal with it, every autumn I loosen the existing topsoil with a garden fork, and add a six-inch (15-cm) layer of shredded leaves to improve the soil’s tilth and texture. I then top the layer of shredded leaves with a one-inch (2.5-cm) layer of compost or composted manure for additional nutrients.

Some shade lovers, such as Siberian bugloss and bigroot geranium, are naturally hard-wired to cope with dry conditions, while others (‘Ice Dance’ sedge, for instance) would, given their druthers, prefer much more moisture — thereby enabling them to launch a large-scale botanical incursion; but within the strictures of “dry shade,” they behave like perfect gents.

When installing perennials in these demanding conditions, add plenty of composted manure to the planting holes. It’s easier to plant in individual holes, rather than trying to dig an entire bed at once, and smaller plants get off to a stronger start than larger ones because they adapt to coexisting with tree roots more easily. Digging into soil filled with tree roots means it’s inevitable a few of the roots will be cut, but avoid cutting those more than two inches (5 cm) in diameter — doing so may damage the tree. Water at least once a week while plants become established. (Small plants need less water to get established, too.) During periods of prolonged drought, even mature clumps may need supplementary irrigation.

Most perennials that are able to tolerate dry shade bloom from early spring to midsummer, so mixing and mingling foliage types will ensure visual interest is sustained even when plants aren’t in flower.

8 great perennials for dry and shady gardens

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense)

This native groundcover bears downy green leaves that conceal distinctive burgundy to brown spring flowers borne at ground level. Taking several years to establish, mature patches can be divided in early spring or late autumn. Deer resistant and hardy to Zone 3, wild ginger grows four inches (10 cm) tall with an indefinite spread.

‘Looking Glass’ Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla ‘Looking Glass’)

This is a naturally occurring sport of B. m. ‘Jack Frost’, and a sizeable clump of ‘Looking Glass’ brunnera can lighten up the darkest corner of your garden. Blue, forget-me-not-like flowers appear above shimmering silver leaves in late spring. Growing 12 to 16 inches (30 to 40 cm) tall and wide, ‘Looking Glass’ is hardy to Zone 3 and is both deer and rabbit resistant.

‘Ice Dance’ sedge (Carex ‘Ice Dance’)

This bright, variegated Japanese sedge is too rambunctious for the average herbaceous border, but dry shade will keep it within bounds. Deer resistant and hardy to Zone 5, it’s essentially evergreen, although some trimming may be required in spring. Growing 10 inches (25 cm) tall by 18 inches (45 cm) wide, it spreads by underground stolons (runners); mature clumps can be divided in spring.

Red barrenwort (Epimedium x rubrum)

The leaves of red barrenwort, a cross between the European E. alpinum and the Asian E. grandiflorum, emerge in spring with a conspicuous red tinge that gradually turns green and finally takes on a reddish bronze hue in autumn. Cut stems back to the ground in late winter to better appreciate its red-and-yellow-striped flowers in spring. Growing 12 inches (30 cm) tall by 18 inches (45 cm) wide and hardy to Zone 4, red barrenwort is deer and rabbit resistant.

‘Bevan’s Variety’ bigroot hardy geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Bevan’s Variety’)

Masses of deep magenta-pink flowers are produced in early summer and held above aromatic, downy green foliage that turns cranberry red in autumn. Native to Europe, bigroot geraniums grow 12 inches (30 cm) tall by 18 inches (45 cm) wide, and form a dense mat capable of choking out most weeds. Deer and rabbit resistant and hardy to Zone 3, plants can be divided in early spring or fall.

Hellebore (Helleborus x hybridus cvs.)

Probably due to the price of new cultivars, gardeners tend to treat hellebores with kid gloves, apparently forgetting what tough old customers they actually are. Once established, hellebores self-seed to form large colonies that are particularly well suited to growing in dry shade. Hardy to Zone 4 and growing 16 inches (40 cm) tall and wide, hellebores are deer and rabbit resistant.

Variegated Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum x hybridum ‘Striatum’, syn. P. multiflorum ‘Variegatum’)

A marvellously architectural plant, variegated Solomon’s seal has graceful arching stems with green leaves edged and streaked with white, and dangling, white, bell-shaped flowers in late spring. Growing 24 inches (60 cm) tall by 18 inches (45 cm) wide and hardy to Zone 3, it takes a few years to establish, and then spreads slowly but steadily by underground rhizomes; deer and rabbit resistant.

‘Sissinghurst White’ lungwort (Pulmonaria ‘Sissinghurst White’)

Another terrific plant for lighting up dark corners, ‘Sissinghurst White’ has deep green leaves spotted with silver and bears clusters of pristine white bells in mid-spring. It grows 10 inches (25 cm) tall by 18 inches (45 cm) wide and spreads slowly via creeping roots; self-seeds modestly. Hardy to Zone 3, its deer- and rabbit-resistant leaves can be cut back hard if they begin to look tatty by midsummer; mature clumps can be divided in autumn.

Lily of the valley is an excellent groundcover for dry shade, but it can get out of hand in more favourable conditions. (Photo by Walters Gardens, Inc.)
Lily of the valley is an excellent groundcover for dry shade, but it can get out of hand in more favourable conditions. (Photo by Walters Gardens, Inc.)

8 great groundcovers for dry shade

Given plenty of moisture, these tough-as-old-boots groundcovers can easily become invasive, but grown in dry shade, they will be far less unruly. Plants will require supplementary watering for one year while they become established.

[Common and botanical name / Hardiness zone / Dimensions (height x width)]

Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) Zone 2, 6 x 12 in. (15 x 30 cm) Considered invasive in some jurisdictions.

Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) Zone 3, 4 x 12 in. (10 x 30 cm) Considered invasive in some jurisdictions.

Spotted deadnettle (Lamium maculatum cvs.) Zone 3, 6 x 12 in. (15 x 30 cm)

False Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum) [syn. Smilacina racemosa] Zone 3, 24 x 24 in. (60 x 60 cm)

Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) Zone 2, 36 x 36 in. (1.2 x 1.2 m)

Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis) Zone 4, 8 x 12 in. (20 x 30 cm)

Lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor) Zone 3, 4 x 24 in. (10 x 60 cm) Considered invasive in some jurisdictions.

Labrador violet (Viola riviniana [Purpurea Group], syn. V. labradorica) Zone 3, 4 x 6 in. (10 x 15 cm)

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9 thoughts on “8 plants for dry and shady gardens”

  1. Thanks Stephen, for your article on Dry Shade plants.
    My Siberian Bugloss seem to be very happy in my Zone 6a garden (Cobourg) in sandy soil amended with my own compost. They proliferate every year.
    My Asarum are also happy in Sandy amended soil. I have planted a Helleborus and await to see if it lives through the winter. My Pulmonaria did so much better this year for some unknown reason. Sweet Woodruff do well anywhere it seems.
    I am happy to find plants that take dry shade and are within 80 feet of the Black Walnut tree next to our fence line.

  2. Too bad you and the GARDENER could not join together as one magazine for Gardeners. Yours was the best and most informative magazine on the market. Think this is really great that you do this newsletter. I have even found some of my daylilies will bloom in the wooded area of our back yard, I also have hepatica in white , light mauve and pink, they are a natural wildflower if anyone is walking in woods, keep your eye open, they transplanted very good, they are very tiny. We have also transplanted some trilliums, lost some due to the extra dry dry weather. Thanks for the newsletter, look, forward to it.

  3. Hi Judy,
    Thank you for your comments. Your sister just got in touch with me via my Facebook page, and it turns out that we live just six blocks away from one another, and have said “hello” while walking our dogs!
    I didn’t include either hostas or ferns in the plant suggestions because they are the usual “go to” plants for shade–whether dry or moist. And because we’re a national publication, I was reticent to recommend Ajuga cultivars because in some areas they are horribly invasive–much like lily of the valley can be, although in the latter’s case it’s almost circumboreal, so I let it slip in. Also because my mother included it in her wedding bouquet, and the flowers are so wonderfully fragrant in a vase.
    Perhaps we’ll meet when you next come to Ethel Park for a visit!
    Thank you again for your kind comments, Stephen

  4. We are long time subscribers to Canadian Gardener and with the introduction of Garden Solutions, have stumbled onto your articles, and that you live in Beaverton where my family had a cottage and my sister still has a home. We loved Hartmeyers Store and those amazing sunsets!
    I love the variety you have included in this shade plant article and plan to try some that are new to me…..I’d like to add that our deer devour the Variegated Solomon’s Seal each spring/summer, both in The Belmont Lake area and at home in Dundas. Also, you did not mention hosta or ajuga, both of which I’ve had great luck with in shaded, dry areas.

  5. Another ground cover that grows well in the shade is pachysandra. It is MUCH easier to control than lily of the valley and usually trims easily to look tidy.

  6. Love the suggestions and have one to add. Have found Lazula ( a rush) at the base of a tree in fairly deep shade. It hasn’t spread much but is holding its own for 5 years. Adding some hairy wood rush to the area to see if it too will do well.
    Also have found baneberry (native plant) works as well as long as there are no children around.

  7. Thank you for the very useful list you have generously shared with us. Lists of plants for dry spots and lists for shady spots are common. Those for both are not just because it is so challenging. I will have to use it carefully though as I live in the very dry west. But at least it is a place to start. I’ll find out what Ponderosa pine thinks of it and maybe I will have to settle for some other things adapted to near desert conditions. Worth a try.

  8. Hi Stephen, my name is Jack Bennett, and I live in Devon, UK. I’ve just stumbled upon your blog and I really love it. I can’t wait for next spring – I’m itching to try all this out. 🙂 Keep up the good work!


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