General gardening topics

Plants for dry shade to brighten up that barren, shady part of the garden

Last updated on January 22nd, 2020

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Plants for dry shade

Parts of the garden that are either shaded or dry areas can be challenging on there own, but put the two together and it can seem like nothing will grow there. These areas are often under tree canopies where the roots of trees take up most of the moisture in the ground and stop the sunlight reaching beneath the tree foliage. Conditions under large conifers can be more of a challenge as they are generally evergreen and cast shade all year round. The situation is even made worse as the needles of the conifers drop and make the soil more acidic.

However, despite the shade and the poor moisture and acidic soil levels near to conifers there are a range of plants that will naturally thrive in these conditions as it is what their natural enviroment is like.

Preparation before planting plants in dry shade

The soil can be greatly improved before planting to help add essential nutrients to the soil as well as also adding some moisture to the soil. The idea is to provide a better growing condition whilst the plants are young and establishing, after this many plants will naturally grow without any real care.

Preparation is key to giving plants a good start

Add a few inches of mulch and a quality well-rotted garden compost to the soil and dig it in to help improve the quality of the soil and improve the soil moisture. This is not a permanent solution but it will help young plants to get established once they are planted. The trick is to water newly planted plants for at least the first growing season until the plants are more established. Plant new plants in the autumn whilst the ground is still warm, this will mean the plants have time to start establishing themselves and will receive some light in spring before the trees come into full leaf.

Our top pick plants to grow in dry shade

Bulbs for dry shade

Bluebells, snowdrops and narcissi (daffodils) are ideal for growing in shadier, drier parts of the garden and will happily grow under the canopy of trees as this is their natural enviroment as they are often found growing in woodland areas. These will provide spring colour when everything else looks bare and can be planted around tree trunks to form beautiful displays.

Snowdrops under trees flowering in early spring

Snowdrops at Bank Hall, Bretheton – Image credit:

Perennials for dry shade

There are a few perennials that will thrive in these conditions and provide a show of colour in spring and summer.

Bergenia – These perennials are actually evergreen, rhizomatous plants and produce large round leathery leaves with pink flowers in spring. The flowers are beautiful and look like small clusters of bells on tall stems. These are clump forming and will reach around 50cm tall by a 50cm spread. Will grow in most soils including acidic soil so are worth a try near conifers

Geranium endressii – These ground cover perennials also known as ‘Endres’s crane’s bill’ which are sometimes evergreen, it produces star shapes flowers and has palmate-type green foliage. They grow to around 45cm tall and will grow in most soil types, they are great ground spreading plants known for their tolerance to dry soil.

Lily-of-the-valley – Convallaria majalis naturally grows in dense woodland areas so is well suited to the most shaded parts of the garden. It has long, dark green ovate foliage and produces small highly fragrant bell-shaped white flowers in spring followed by red berries in summer. Low growing, only reaching around 1ft (30cm) tall.

Hardy Cyclamen – are usually available in Autumn which is the perfect time to get them planted. They produce stunning flowers in autumn and into the spring and are full hardy even flowering at the coldest times of the year. These tuberous perennials look fantastic grown among some spring flowering bulbs. Height and spread: 10-15cm.

cyclemen perennial for dry shade.

Cyclemen, provides autumn and winter colour

Shrubs for dry shade

There are a number of shrubs that will provide colour, some of which are evergreen and have the added benefit of providing all year round colour.

Ilex aquifolium – Holly as you probably know it as, naturally grows in woodland areas under the canopies of tall trees and makes an excellent medium sized shrub for all year round colour. They produce white flowers followed by red berries in autumn and winter.

Viburnum davidii – This small evergreen shrub has distinctive large leathery veined leaves, and produces white flowers in summer followed by metallic purple berries in autumn. They grow to around 1 metre tall with a spread of around 1 metre.

Viburnum davidii ideal for growing in dry shady areas of the garden

Viburnum davidii – source:

Lonicera pileata – This evergreen ground spreading shrub is ideal for shade and has small green leaves and the new stems are often red. Small white tubular flowers are produced in late spring followed by purple berries. Only grows to around 50cm tall with a good spread of 150cm.

Gaultheria procumbens – Is a true dwarf shrub which is often planted in tubs but is ideal for planting a dry shady areas. It only grows to around 15cm tall but will keep spreading and spreading for as long as you allow. It has small leathery leaves and produces white flowers followed by masses of scarlet red flowers.

Other shrubs that are suitable are:

  • Hypericum calycinum (rose of Sharon)
  • Mahonia aquifolium (Winter flowering, yellow flowers)
  • Sarcococca hookeriana (Evergreen shrub with smaller white flowers)
  • Vinca minor (ground spreading with small star shaped flowers)
  • Sambucus nigra (Dark green leaves, can be cut back hard)
  • Skimmia Japonica (Red buds in winter which open up into white flowers in spring)
  • Viburnum tinus (Evergreen shrub)

Ferns for dry shade

Some ferns are evergreen while other die back for the winter and can be cut back in autumn to soil level.

Polystichum setiferum – Also known as ‘soft shield fern’ they grow to around 1 metre tall and have soft fronds of lance-shaped, sword-shaped leaves that are mid-green in colour. Known for the ability to thrive in very dense shade.

Dryopteris felix-mas – Also known as a ‘male fern’, this is one of the deciduous varieties of fern and produces long lance-shaped fronds in spring that can reach 1 metre in height.  Also known for the ability to grow in dense shade as they do in their natural enviroment under woodland tree canopies.

Dryopteris filix mas ideal for dry sady areas of the garden

Polypodium vulgare – Native to Britain this fern is at home in dry soils in partially shaded areas and produces fronds of ladder shaped foliage. Only grows to around 30cm tall but has a spread of around 100cm.

Blechnum spicant – Also named ‘hard fern’ this attractive evergreen fern has dark green narrow fronds and will thrive in dense shade. Grows to around 30cm tall by the same spread.

Climbers for dry shade

Climbing plants can be excellent plants to use in dry areas that are shaded as they can be used to add colour and texture to walls and fences or use to climb up tree or through shrubs.

Lonicera periclymenum – Honeysuckle are deciduous climbers that produce trumpet-shaped flowers in summer that last into the autumn. They twine around other plants and structures making them ideal for growing up trees as they are also suited to shadier areas of the garden. Vigorous and an easy to grow climber it is also ideal for growing up fences and walls.

lonicera periclymemum fast growing deciduous climber for shadier areas of the garden

Image Credit:

Clematis montana – There are many varieties of montana clematis to choose from including the pink flowering and very popular ‘Rubens’ to the white flowering ‘Grandiflora’. They flower around May and are excellent for growing on fences, up walls and through trees and shrubs.

Remember the key with all plants is to prepare the ground by adding organic matter to improve the soil and water through the growing season until they are established especially during drier periods in summer.

Once established the plants usually provide good ground cover which keep the ground cool and helps the soil retain moisture.

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1 Comment

  1. Joan Airey

    Useful article. I am looking for a low growing evergreen shrub with flowers to go in a dark area under a canopy. There appear to be two suitable contenders here, which I will now look into. Thanks.

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