Garden Challenges: Dry Shade

An often challenging garden area is dry shade, be it under trees, against a wall or even a shaded banking. The ground is often shallow, lacking in nutrients and water and of course lacking in sunlight especially if North or East facing. Often it is not possible to dig in organic matter due to wall foundations or tree roots so in some cases plants have to cope with shade, poor soil and shallow root space.  But there are plants that will grow in these conditions and indeed will thrive, providing colour and ground cover all year round.

This is a shady banking at the nursery, under trees and very dry unless it rains heavily

The same banking from the other direction

Before planting consider removing some of the lower branches of trees to heighten the canopy and let in some light. Also dig in as much organic matter as you can to enrich and add moisture to the soil. This will give the plants the best chance to thrive.

After the hard work  comes the fun part: choosing plants that will brighten up your shady area. The space you have dictates the size of plants you choose and how many. I have put together a list of plants that will grow in dry shade, under trees, walls or on shady bankings. As always I have suggested  tough plants that will cope with our Scottish garden conditions and which are available in the nursery.

Epimedium 'Pink Elf'

The Quirky bird recommends the Genus Epimedium, one of the best perennials for shade and one of my favourite plants. Not only do they have lovely little flowers in spring, quite often the new spring foliage is colourful and they have great autumn colour, so a good all round plant. They aren't invasive but form good ground cover over time. Inter-planted with small bulbs they provide year round interest.

Epimedium grandiflorum nanum

Epimedium 'Lilafee'

Epimedium pinnatum ssp. Colchicum

Other plants that will tolerate dry shade and give you colour include Valerian officinalis, a tall perennial with pink scented flowers. It can seed around but I think that's a good thing if you have a tricky garden area. The seedlings are easily pulled out if not wanted. Valerian is a herb that has medicinal uses.

Valerian officinalis

Foxgloves also do well in dry shady places, again often seeding around

Brunnera are another great Genus for shady areas and will tolerate dry shade. They mainly have vivid blue flowers and are often referred to as perennial Forget-me-Nots. As well as B macrophylla there are numerous striking cultivars with veined and marbled leaves. Most commonly found are B. 'Jack Frost', B. 'Emerald Mist' and 'Blaukuppel'. They will flower over many weeks and are well worth growing in the garden. 

Brunnera 'Jack Frost'

As well as perennials some grasses will cope with dry shade. Deschampsia and it's culivars will do well. Clump forming with arching flowers stems they are hardy and occur naturally in woodland and meadows. They look lovely when the sun catches the fine flowers in dappled shade. Luzula sylvatica, a native and known as "Woodrush", is a lower growing grass with broad strap like leaves. It is great for ground cover or holding a banking together. Brown flowers appear from May to late June.

Deschampsia cespitosa

There are a small selection of ferns that will grow in this situation. Dryopteris and Polypodium species and cultivars will give all year round leaf form. I like Polypodiums or Polypody, especially the more interesting leaved forms. They are a native and you quite often see them growing up trees, clinging to the branches with their roots or on walls. They are evergreen, low growing and hardy, forming carpets of ground cover. Drypoteris affinis is partially evergreen and D. felix-mas which is deciduous, both will do well in dry shade. Both are hardy and do well in exposed gardens. 

Polypodium vulgare

Alchemilla mollis
Anemone japonica
Anemone nemerosa
Aster divaricatus
Dicentra bachanal
Dicentra spectabilis
Euphorbia amgdaloides var Robbiae
Geranium canabridgensis vars
Geranium phaeum vars
Geranium nodosum
Geranium machorhyzum vars
Iris foetidissima
Lamium maculatum vars
Lunaria annua

Luzula nivea
luzula sylvatica

Polypodium vulgare


Mahonia aquifolium

Find us on Facebook:

All contents  and photographs ©  Rona, unauthorised reproduction & use of these images is strictly forbidden


  1. A lovely selection of flowers - I've not come across epimediums before. They're very pretty. The polypdiums look good too.
    Cathy x

    1. Hi Cathy, thanks for commenting, if you have a shady corner, Epimediums are worth trying :)

  2. Some great ideas here. Part of my allotment is so shady and dry that I have given up with veggies so now I am going to try some flowers that will look pretty and attract the bees :) thank you x

    1. Hi Fran, thanks, let me know how you get on , its always interesting to see how people turn these awkward bits of land into something nice :) x


Post a comment