10 Great Plants For Dry Shade

By Andy McIndoe

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 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.

1. Alchemilla mollis.

Alchemilla mollis (1024x683)
Alchemilla mollis

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.

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.

Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae
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.

Gallium odoratum
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’.

Geranium macrorrhizum 'Bevans Variety'
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’.

Lamium 'White Nancy' (1024x683)
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.

Vinca minor 'Aureovariegata' (1024x683)
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’.

Mahonia aquifoium 'Apollo'
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’.

Epimedium rubrum (1024x683)
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

Tellima grandiflora
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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