Plants for dry shade: the best varieties & growing advice

Val Bourne

Shady and dry areas of the garden can often be very bare. Read our guide to what can successfully grow in dry shade.

A shady and dry area of a garden is the worst position in the world for plants. The fact that it's shady means that most of the flowering plants you can use will flower in the first half of the year when gardens are generally brighter due to the bare branches of deciduous trees.

Get better soil in dry, shaded garden areas

Improve the soil by adding organic matter like well-rotted compost, or soil conditioner, or a good compost like John Innes number 3. Work it into the ground with a fork and water the area well afterwards.

Plant options for dry, shaded garden areas

When buying plants always opt for smaller, younger plants grown in a loam-based compost and not peat (which dries out). Ask the nurseryman about his growing medium. Plant them in September, giving plants a chance to settle in well before the next growing season.

Growing ivy and ferns in dry, shaded garden areas

Plant a foliage backbone of ivies (Hedera helix) and hardy ferns. Add spring-flowering periwinkles and Mediterranean epimediums including E. perralderianum for its glossy leaves and yellow flowers. These will give you a green tapestry into which you can plant snowdrops and shorter narcissi. This may sound rather boring but luckily ferns and ivies are very diverse and the leaves and foliage colour vary hugely.

Ivies for shade

Brighter, golden ivies only colour up in good light, so you will have to stick to greens and variegated varieties when planting inhade. Good groundcover forms include the high-gloss slightly ruched leaves of 'Ivalace', a plant that spreads moderately. Smaller more intricate forms include 'Anita', the tiny Spetchley, the lobed 'Duckfoot' and the arrowhead shaped 'Goldstern'.

Ferns for dry spaces

The most handsome ferns for dry conditions are conveniently called dryopteris and these handsome, upright ferns will, in time, make bold statements.

The King fern (Dryopteris affinis cristata) has leaves with cresting on the ends and there are also fine forms of the Male fern (Dryopteris filix mas).

Both are robust ferns that unfurl in April from curled crosiers and both retain foliage well. Cut them back in late December to reveal their brown knuckles and, if snowdrops are planted close by, the chestnut-brown knuckles will set them off wonderfully well.

Other excellent ferns for dry shade include:

Asplenium scolopendrium
Polypodium australe
Polypodium vulgare
Polystichum setiferum

Flowers for dry, shaded garden areas


Periwinkles are more exciting than they sound and they colonise the ground by runners. One of the earliest to flower is V. difformis, a tall periwinkle with ice-blue round flowers. It can flower before Christmas sometimes, but is always early. There are also variegated forms with blue flowers – Vinca major 'Variegata' as well as a number of named smaller forms of V. minor.

'La Grave' is a very good blue form with green leaves and there is a double form called 'Azurea Flore Pleno' and some single white and purple-flowered forms and some variegated forms.

These smaller vincas can be more invasive than the large ones as they cover the ground very densely. Good epimediums include E. x perralchicum, an epimedium with large yellow flowers and heart-shaped green leaves.

Spring bulbs

You are limited by the fact that this area is shady, but snowdrops and narcissi are tolerant about shade.

The ordinary single snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, is accommodating and an excellent partner with ferns. You could also try the green-leaved G. woronowii, which pops up in deep shade.

Early-flowering strong narcissi are also an option and I recommend 'W.P. Milner' because the willowy lemon-yellow flowers are very similar to our wild daffodil.

Seeding dry, shaded garden areas

The two most useful seeds are those of aquilegia and honesty (Lunaria annua) and these are best collected and sprinkled straight onto the ground as soon as they are ripe (usually in July). Both are tap-rooted plants that I have succeeded with in dry places.

You must start from seed so that the young seedlings have the chance to grow into the ground at their own pace. Within three years you will have a swathe of colour.

Seek out paler forms of aquilegia like 'Munstead White' (now known as A. vulgaris 'Nivea') and A. chrysantha 'Yellow Queen' rather than the fashionable dark ones like 'Magpie' and 'Ruby Port'. Dark flowers are usually lost in shade.

Hardy geraniums

Finally try some early-flowering hardy geraniums, principally forms of Geranium phaeum and G. macrorrhizum. Again go for paler forms that light up shade - like G. phaeum 'Alba' and the a soft apple-blossom pink G.macrorrhizum 'Ingwersen's Variety'. The equally illuminating white catch fly, Silene fimbriata, might also go well and this is a May performer too. I’d also try to introduce Bowles' Golden Grass (Mileum effusum 'Aureum') It has perennial golden leaves and it produces a beaded awn in spring. It also self seeds well and should pop up to lighten the darkness.

Nurturing young plants in dry, shaded garden areas

The trick is to look after your plants in their first spring and summer because plants take much longer to get going in dry shade than in other places. But once established, they survive it well. So water them in dry spells during their first year so that they get their deep roots down.

Mulch afterwards if necessary. Once a green carpet of foliage is established the ground will stay moister because the ground will stay cool.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.