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Best Plants For a Dry Shade Garden

Preparing For Planting Shade Garden Plants in Dry Soil

Choosing plants for your shade garden involves more than choosing what might look good. Choosing plants that are a good fit for your soil and light conditions is also essential. Having dry shade areas is common if tall trees and large shrubs shade your yard. These plants can absorb the most available rainwater and leave little for smaller plants. Some gardeners are also finding that changing weather patterns and climate change means more periods of drought in the growing season. 

Dry Shade Gardens can be Challenging

Dry shade is challenging because many shade plants in temperate areas require good moisture to thrive. Drought-tolerant plants have usually adapted to bright sunny conditions over time. But some plants perform very well in a dry shade situation. On the other hand, plants that have adapted to shade conditions don’t tend to have good water-absorbing properties. This presents a difficult paradox for the gardener planting a dry shade bed. But fortunately, there are some excellent options for plants to be put in these areas. 

Soil Matters

One thing to consider is whether the soil has good drainage. Well-draining soil doesn’t just mean it won’t retain too much moisture; it can also absorb and hold needed moisture. Clay soils tend to either stay moist or resist absorbing moisture. Adding some compost can help soil drainage and give clay soil a more nutritious composition. It’s possible to have the opposite problem: thin and sandy soil that won’t retain moisture. This can also be helped by adding some compost (including peat moss, composted manure, used coffee grounds, or untreated wood ash). 

The following list of shade plants contains some good choices for dry shade areas. 

Hosta The versatile hosta (also known as plantain lily) comes in many shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. It loves shade but also does fine in the sun. Some varieties have their best coloration in the shade. Hostas are good at conserving water. In a dry spring season, a hosta conserving water and growing slowly can grow several inches in one day when heavy rain finally arrives. Hostas are usually relaxed about soil but increase in size each year, so give them room. Divide them every 3-4 years (in the fall) and give the new plantings some compost to help them get established. Varieties to try: ‘Blue Angel’ (large rounded blue-green leaves and sizeable pale lavender flowers on short stems), ‘Guacamole’ (two-toned green leaves with a pointed shape, medium size), ‘Krossa Regal’ (an upright vase-like shape with pale silvery blue-green leaves), ‘Royal Standard’ (sturdy bright green leaves and profuse white flowers on tall stems), ‘Frances Williams’ (huge blue-green variegated leaves with a puckered surface to the leaves and white flowers).

Lady’s Mantle, The round leaves with gently scalloped edges are known for holding drops of rain or dew. These hardy shade plants also feature chartreuse green flowers that grow in tiny clusters in mid-spring. Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis) holds its  

form and color throughout three seasons and goes dormant in winter. The flowers are long-lasting for flower arrangements. 

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) These familiar flowers are famous for their delicate scent, which has inspired many famous perfumes. They are also available in variations, with variegated foliage or pink flowers (Convallaria rosea). The firm green leaves make a good ground cover when the spring flowers are done. They can be left as is or mowed. The leaves fade to brown by autumn or sometimes earlier in a parched summer. They can be easily mowed or trimmed with a weed trimmer. 

Coral Bells (Heuchera) These dependable perennials are now available with foliage in a rainbow of colors. They have a delicate spray of tiny flowers in late spring that grows on tall thin stems 18-20 inches above the foliage clump. Depending on the cultivar, the leaves have rounded scalloped edges or grape-leaf shapes, smooth or serrated. The foliage colors include green, silver, purple, red, orange, and gold. Many of the more colorful heucheras have unremarkable flowers. Still, some older heirlooms have showy pink, white, or red flowers, and newer hybrids are successfully bred with colorful flowers. Some varieties to try to include ‘Sweet Tea’ (gold and orange leaves with red veining), ‘Georgia Peach’ (red and pale orange foliage), ‘Dale’s Strain’ (large two-toned leaves of silver and green), and ‘Delta Dawn’ (chartreuse green leaves with red veining). Some heuchera put out new growth segments that form roots. These can be easily separated from the main plant for division. 

Yellow Archangel (Lamium galeobdolon) Although most lamium (dead-nettles) has average water needs, this variety thrives in dry to medium soil. The pale green leaves have silvery accents and are very showy. The lemon-yellow flowers light up a shady area for weeks. This plant spreads freely and can be slightly invasive, so plant it away from flower beds as a ground cover. If the trailing stems get leggy, trim them back.

Hardy Ferns: Most ferns are adaptable and grow well in a dry shade bed. They are also quite pest-resistant and are not bothered by diseases. One great choice is the beautiful Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum) with delicate pale green leaves tinted with silver and purple. The Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) is another colorful choice, with its bright green leaves and central fronds that take on a deep burgundy-brown color in the fall. 

Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) This tidy perennial groundcover is non-invasive and has small roots and serrated leaves. It looks excellent meandering among other plants in a shade bed. Sweet woodruff has fragrant leaves and flowers traditionally used to make May wine for spring harvest festival celebrations. It is easily divided and spreads at a medium rate in the garden. 

Red Barrenwort (Epimedium x rubrum) This shade-loving perennial forms thickly matted roots that resist weeds and fill in shady spots. Its common name, ‘barrenwort,’ refers to how its thick roots won’t allow invasive plants to overtake it. The heart-shaped leaves are delicate, and the tiny reddish-pink flowers appear in spring. It does very well in low moisture shade beds. It is somewhat slow to spread but will eventually provide plenty of ground cover. To divide this plant, use a sharp-edged flat shovel to cut through the matted root sections. 

Best Shade Perennials

Trilliums -- Trillium grandiflorum This plant also called the wood lily, is native to the eastern part of North America. It thrives best in hardiness zones 4 to 8. As its common name suggests, its natural habitat is moist woods.

Trilliums are easy to grow in rich, fertile soil that's full of organic matter but well-drained. It needs regular but medium watering and should be mulched in the fall. It grows from 1 to 1.5 feet tall with a .75-foot to 1-foot spread. Trillium plants grow relatively quickly from rhizomes but are challenging to grow from seed. Over time, it will spread and form a beautiful ground cover.

The plant gets its formal name because the leaves, sepals, and petals come in threes. In the spring, three elliptic, oval, or diamond-shaped green leaves that are usually from 3 to 4 inches long appear on a stem that grows up from the ground. In turn, a single flower appears from April to June on top of the leaves. The flowers have three oval white petals with wavy edges and three narrow sepals below. As the flower ages, it grows from white to pink. The flower has six stamens with yellow anthers. In the fall, they're replaced by capsules that resemble berries.

Virginia Blue Bells -- Mertensia virginica The beautiful Virginia bluebell grows best in hardiness zones 3 to 8. It produces its trademark bell-shaped, purplish-blue flowers from March to April. It needs medium watering and can tolerate rabbits and being planted near black walnut. Black walnut often kills off the plants that are placed beneath it.

Virginia bluebells prefer soil that's rich and moist but well-drained since its natural habitat is moist woods and floodplains. It forms erect clumps filled with groups of drooping, 1-inch-long flowers that arrive from March to April. Even the flower buds are attractive, for they are a tender pink, and the color is retained by the flower for a while after it opens. The oval leaves of the plant are smooth and bluish-green, and they die back in the middle of summer, especially if the plant isn't watered.

Virginia bluebells are excellent in rock gardens and woodland or wildflower gardens. It's also good for herbaceous borders but needs to be planted with other plants since it goes dormant at the height of summer. That it has no serious pests or disease problems makes this flower even more attractive.

Columbine plants -- Aquilegia canadensis Columbine is just right for that place that is so shady that very few other plants will grow. On the other hand, it does well in full sun. This plant thrives in hardiness zones 3 to 8. It has a mature size of 2 to 3 feet and a stretch of 1 to 1.5 feet. The nodding spurred flowers, whose colors range from light pink and yellow to scarlet and yellow, arrive in April to May. Their spurs hold nectar and attract hummingbirds.

Columbine plants need medium watering and are good plants that allow them to naturalize in the garden. The plant self-seeds easily, especially if it's deadheaded after the blooms fade. Even the foliage, which is made of 4 to 6-inch long compound leaves divided into pale green, three-lobed leaflets, is attractive. The fruit is a beaked, dry pod that splits open. Columbine tolerates deer, rabbits, and drought, and though it prefers average, well-drained soil, it can tolerate dry soil.