Growing plants in a dry, shady garden

Gardeners need to be selective choosing plants for a shady garden. When the soil is dry in a shady garden, the landscape design selection process becomes a little more challenging. Following are some plants that can grow in shade and can tolerate dry conditions in the landscape design.

Ornamental Grass

A lawn will not thrive in shady and dry conditions. Ornamental grass grows in clumps, may have variegated leaves (like green with creamy white veins), usually produces blooms, and is a good alternative to lawn grass to add a green carpet to the garden landscape. Unlike lawn grass, ornamental grass does not need to be mowed.

Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) grows in the central and eastern United States in USDA zones 4 through 8. Bottlebrush Grass is a perennial (meaning it will return each year) that grows 2 to 5 feet tall. It produces 12-inch long green blades of grass and a bloom reminiscent of a bottle brush with wide-set bristles.

Crinkled Hairgrass (Deschampsia flexuosa) grows 1 to 3 feet tall and produces a large, feathery like plum. Crinkled Hairgrass is a perennial, hardy in USDA zones 4 through 9.


Ferns are a popular and almost expected sight in shade gardens. There are several varieties of ferns that can withstand dry shade.

Eastern Hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) is a perennial that can reach 2 to 3 feet in height. Its triangular shaped leaves (fronds) can be up to 5 inches wide at the base. Eastern Hay-scent fern is cold hardy in USDA zones 3 through 8.

Interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana) can reach a height of 2 to 4 feet and is cold hardy in USDA zones 3 through 8.

Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), reaching 2 to 3 feet in height, gets its name from being used in Christmas decorations and floral arrangements. The fern remains green all winter and is cold hardy to USDA zones 3 through 8.


A dry, shady garden can still have flowers that bloom.

3 to 4 Feet Tall. Heart-leaf Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) grows 1 to 4 feet tall and produces 1/2 inch blooms from summer into fall. Foxglove Beard-tongue (Penstemon digitalis) grows 2 to 4 feet tall and produces 1 inch white to slightly purple blooms from spring into summer. Golden Ragwort (Senecio aureus), a member of the aster family, grows up to 3 feet tall and produces yellow daisy-like blooms in the spring.

1 to 2 Feet Tall. Wild Blue or Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) grows up to 20 inches tall and produces lavender-blue blooms. Merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora), a member of the lily family, grow up to 24 inches tall and produce yellow blooms. Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) grows 12 to 18 inches tall and produces white blooms in the spring.


Pinxterbloom Azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides) is a deciduous shrub (loses its leaves in the winter). The spring blooms may be white or pale pink flowers, about 1 inch across, and carry a light scent. Pinxterbloom Azalea is cold hardy as far north as USDA zone 4. The shrub reaches 6 to 8 feet in height.

Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) is a deciduous shrub reaching 4 to 8 feet tall and wide that is hardy to USDA zone 5 and can tolerate dry conditions. In the summer, Oakleaf Hydrangea produces white, cone-shaped blooms as much as 10 inch long.

Mulch Heavily

Apply 3 to 6 inches of mulch around the plants to help hold in moisture. Keep the mulch about 2 inches from the stem of the plants. Wood chips look good and work well, but leaves, preferably some that have been around for a year so they are starting to decompose, can work too and leaves are free.