I have a love/hate relationship with dry shade. Love for the leaf textures that make the space interesting, hate for the time it’s taken me to discover what works in this most challenging of garden situations. I’ve killed a lot of stuff in my search for plants that can tough it out without much coddling. No fancy irrigation systems here. Just me and a hose.
Fifteen years ago, the southeast corner of our backyard was a soupy mess after every rainfall and consistently damp throughout the rest of the growing season. The lots in our neighborhood are arranged on slopes and each home has a sump pump that empties into the closest sewer which happens to be in our backyard. After living with the situation for five years (I was busy chasing toddlers), I decided to plant trees that could help us mitigate the excess moisture in our back corner. In 2009, I planted a river birch and two pussy willows.
My plan worked so well that after 10 years, this once sopping sunnier sight has presented another challenge/learning opportunity. What to plant in ridiculously dry shade? Unlike gardening in sunnier locations where flowers are a dime a dozen, dry shade forces you to consider leaf shapes, textures and colorations. That’s where it gets interesting. And after much trial and error, here’s what works for me…
What’s not to love about the silver splashes on these pulmonaria? Now that they’re established, they’re reseeding (politely) throughout the garden. I do provide some supplemental water for these guys as they seem to peter out when drought hits. But they’re so worth it. Hardy to zone 2.
The beautiful rose and blue flowers of Trevi Fountain pulmonaria emerge around the same time as the muscari in my garden.
The definition of tough should feature a photo of a hellebore. Large leathery leaves remain evergreen throughout winter and give way to unique downward nodding flowers in early spring. I’ve added one hellebore every year to various shady spots throughout my garden. Now that I’ve been bitten, I simply can’t have enough. Hardy to zone 5.
Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum)
This lacy little plant has a way of weaving all the parts together in a very polite sort of way. In any other circumstance, sweet woodruff will run rampant, but dry shade forces him to mind his manners. I love tucking pieces between other plants as the juxtaposition of large leaved plants next to this diminutive little one brings out the best in everyone. Hardy to zone 5.
Like hellebore, bergenia is relatively evergreen. The large glossy leaves of Winterglow turn various shades of red and purple when temperatures drop and remain so throughout the winter. A low grower, it works great at the front of the border where the fuschia flowers can be admired. Hardy to zone 3.
Variegated Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum)
Graceful and elegantly arching stems reach approximately 18 inches and spread slowly by rhizomes that will eventually form colonies. Tiny white bell shaped flowers dangle beneath the leaves beginning in mid-spring through early summer. Come autumn, the foliage becomes a gorgeous golden yellow. Hardy to zone 4.
A far cry from it’s greener days, brunnera is sporting some pretty interesting silvered foliage. The heart shaped, veined leaves add another element of texture and a source of light in an otherwise shaded space. Tiny blue springtime flowers, reminiscent of forget-me-knots (a close relative), add to the appeal of this delicate looking but incredibly tough plant. Hardy to zone 3.
Surprisingly, there are certain hostas, particularly those that are green or blue, that can stand up to dry shade. I’ve had great luck with Stained Glass hosta, which receives brighter shade in another area of my garden, as well as some supplemental watering. Hardy to zone 3.
Carpet Bugle (Ajuga)
If you’re raising your eyebrows and questioning my judgement, I don’t blame you! In full sun, ajuga is a thug. Different story in dry shade though, and I have Burgundy Glow scattered along the edges of beds and stepping stones in very dark places. As the name implies, it forms a lovely low-growing carpet of variegated foliage with sweet blue flower spikes in the spring. Hardy to zone 3.
This plant is a wonderful groundcover and incredibly easy to grow. I can’t say I’m a fan of the odor that rubs off its leaves and onto my clothes, but it’s a small price to pay for a workhorse of a plant. Not only does it offer great weed suppression, but the deep pink flowers throughout the summer make it even more appealing. Hardy to zone 4.
Dead Nettle (Lamium)
Toothy leaves and silvered centers make dead nettle a perfect front-of-the-border groundcover. It has a reputation as a bit of a thug but that hasn’t been my experience. It’s a piece of cake to rip out if it should impinge on another plant. I’ve also grown Hermann’s Pride’ but was less impressed with its performance. Hardy to zone 4.
And sometimes we get plants that reseed in the most inhospitable places…
…like this sweet little columbine that found a home on the north side of our fence tucked into the cement footing of one of the gate posts. No sun and completely dry. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
Always the bookworm, I found Planting the Dry Shade Garden by Graham Rice incredibly useful and continue to refer to it as the garden evolves.
What plants work for you in dry shade?