Best Plants for Dry Shade

What to Grow in Shady Areas With Dry Soil

A picture of Patriot hosta shows its white margin. Grow it in partial shade to partial sun.
Patriot is one of the variegated types of hosta. David Beaulieu

If you have an area on your property with dry shade and wish to grow plants there, you may quickly come to think of such an area as being a problem for you. Indeed, in shady areas with dry soil, you face two problems. These spots in the yard are lacking in two things that many plants need in large quantities: water and sunlight.

The following is a list of perennials, biennials and bulbs for dry shade, all of which can tolerate a lack of water and sunlight.

Two areas with a lack of water and sunlight are:

  1. Those under trees.
  2. Those beneath the eaves of north-facing walls.

Lack of sunlight is obvious at once when you think about such areas, but you may not as easily recognize the equally challenging lack of water there. In areas under trees, the tree roots suck up much of the available water. And house eaves block large amounts of rain from falling on the patch of ground immediately under them.

Note that "tolerating" dry shade is not the same as "thriving" in it. Most of the plants for dry shade listed below will grow better if supplied with average amounts of moisture. Before planting dry-shade areas, you can improve your chances by mixing organic matter (for example, compost) into the soil, thereby increasing the soil's water-retention. Sandy soils are like sieves and are notorious for quickly losing whatever water may come their way. Mixing compost into such soil is rather like adding pieces of sponge to it.

Examples of Plants for Dry Shade

1. Hosta

Hosta can present a choice that is quite distinct from some of the other selections of plants for dry shade on this list, having quite a bit of mass. Even a type of average size stands a foot high or taller, with a slightly greater spread. Some of the bigger types, such as 'Big Daddy,' get much bigger (2 feet high by 3 feet wide).

Hostas form a leafy garden dense enough to choke out weeds. If planted in rows, they are impressive enough to serve as borders. This plant group offers many different looks, including variegated leaves (as in the case of 'Patriot' hosta, for example). 

2. Lilyturf

Lilyturf (Liriope spicata) also has a feature that distinguishes it from the other plants for dry shade on the list. For it looks like a grass (one of its common names is "border grass"), even though it is actually a member of the lily family. But Liriope also has a spiky flower, ranging in color from white to lavender. In autumn it bears a dark berry. 

3. Foxglove

Foxglove, like the next entry (daylilies), is distinguished by its showy floral display. It is also the tallest of the plants for dry shade discussed here. But do not grow foxglove around small children: It is quite poisonous. It tolerates light shade (dappled is best), but it can also be grown in full sun in the North. 

4. Stella de Oro Daylily

While "Stella de Oro" truly is a "daylily," in the sense that its individual flowers last only a day, don't be fooled into thinking that you won't get much of a show out of this perennial. Another bloom will be along shortly to replace yesterday's departed beauty.

In fact, its ability to re-bloom over a long period makes Stella de Oro daylily perhaps the most popular of the daylilies. Its popularity is also due to its ability to adapt to a wide range of planting zones and conditions, including dry shade. 

The next five selections for perennials for dry shade are quite different from the selections above. All have two qualities in common: They are short and, to varying degrees, considered invasive. Out of these plants, only English ivy and bugleweed are such vigorous growers that their invasiveness poses a serious problem to almost any landscape. For the other three, consult with local experts to determine whether they are highly invasive in your area.

5. English Ivy Plants

English ivy vines may produce plain-looking, greenish-white flowers in the fall, but these perennials for dry shade are grown mainly for their leaves.

A popular plant for many years, a growing number of people now choose not to grow English ivy, due to its negative impact on forests in some regions (when it escapes from your garden). If you do choose to grow English ivy, don't plant it near your trees. The vines climb up tree trunks and may eventually cover the whole tree, drastically reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches the leaves of the host tree. 

6. Bugleweed

Bugleweed is not as hated as English ivy in North America for its invasive behavior, but growing it is still not recommended. This ground cover spreads by sending out runners. That is a wonderful trait if you want to grow something that will fill in a bare area, but it is a terrible trait of a plant that will be growing side by side with other plants. You will be forever pulling up the shoots produced by all of those runners if you grow this invasive anywhere near a flower bed.

The next three perennials for dry shade are somewhat safer choices, although they can still be quite invasive, depending on growing conditions and on where you live (it's all relative, right?). They are also all deer-resistant, to boot.

7.Japanese Pachysandra

Pachysandra terminalis produces white blooms in spring but, like English ivy, is grown primarily for its robust green foliage. This ground cover is commonly called "Japanese spurge," but do not confuse it with purple wood spurge.

8. Vinca Minor Vines

But what if you want more than greenery from a short ground coverVinca minor may provide the answer for you, with the adorable blue flowers it yields in spring. 

9. Spotted Dead Nettles

Or perhaps you are content with nice foliage, only you'd prefer its color be something other than green? Well, these perennials for dry shade provide an interesting silvery foliage. Deadnettle bears fairly showy flowers, as well.

The next two entries on the list of perennials for dry shade are spring-flowering bulbs.

10. Snowdrops

These early-blooming bulb plants are as impatient for spring to come as you are.

Sometimes, they can be seen pushing up through a stubborn layer of snow. 

11. Siberian Squill

The bulb, Siberian squill is also called "scilla," because its Latin name is Scilla siberica. If the white blooms of snowdrops aren't what you want after looking at the color, white all winter long, then the blue of these perennials for dry shade may be more to your liking. Scilla does need a good deal of water during its growing season, which is spring. But considering the large amount of moisture present in many regions during spring, this usually isn't a problem. 

12. Foamflower

Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) is a wild plant. If you hike the woods of eastern North America, you have probably come across it, although it is not an especially showy specimen. Plant developers have paired it with coral bells (Heuchera) to produce foamy bells (Heucherella). Along with some of the other North American native perennials for shade, it is truly one of your better choices if your priority is to grow plants that you can put in the ground and forget about. Being adapted to your region, native plants are very capable of taking care of themselves.

13. Lenten Rose

Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) is not an actual rose. That is just a nickname, due to the look of its flower buds, which do resemble rose buds. Even the "Lenten" part of its name can be deceiving. In warm climates, it may bloom at around the time of Lent on the Christian calendar. But in the colder regions of the United States and Canada, for example, it will not bloom until much later.