Dry Shade Doesn’t Have to Ruin the Party

Fine Gardening - Issue 193

True, dry shade might be the hardest set of conditions to find plants for. A great many interesting options do exist—including some plants you might be familiar with but just didn’t know were candidates for the dreaded dry shade. Here are a few of my favorites.

See more about designing with dry shade in Dry Shade Done Simply


Golden lamium
Photo: Juliette Wade/

‘Jack Frost’ brunnera
Photo: Steve Aitken

Golden lamium

(Lamium maculatum ‘Aureum’)

Zones: 3–9

Size: 6 to 8 inches tall and 18 to 24 inches wide

Native range: Europe, Asia, Africa

This is one of the great “mixer plants.” The sweet pointed leaves sport yellow variegation, with the stems spreading gently along the ground. The snapdragon-like flowers appear in late spring and continue to bloom through frost.

‘Jack Frost’ brunnera

(Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’)

Zones: 3–8

Size: 12 to 18 inches tall and wide

Native range: Europe, Asia

This is truly an amazing plant. It continues to give and give, with starry blue forget-me-not flowers in spring and brilliantly silver variegated leaves that really shine in the deepest shade. In spots with mild winters, it can be evergreen.

‘Big Blue’ lily turf
Photo: courtesy of

'Ann Folkard’ geranium
Photo: Jenny Lilly/

‘Big Blue’ lily turf

(Liriope ‘Big Blue’)

Zones: 5–10

Size: 14 inches tall and wide

Native range: Asia

This grassy perennial is good for retaining soil at the edge of plantings or mixing into lower ground covers. Spikes of blue flowers with a fine texture will finish with berries on the stems in fall.

‘Ann Folkard’ geranium

(Geranium ‘Ann Folkard’)

Zones: 5–8

Size: 12 to 18 inches tall and 24 inches wide

Native range: Europe

The beautiful yellow-green leaves of this plant look like jagged maple leaves spread out along red stems. It crawls amid other plants without killing them. Brilliant purple-red flowers with heavy veining appear throughout summer and into fall.

Taiwan mondo grass
Photo: Brandi Spade

Autumn fern
Photo: Michelle Gervais

Taiwan mondo grass

(Ophiopogon formosanum)

Zones: 7–9

Size: 4 to 6 inches tall and 2 to 3 feet wide

Native range: Asia

A gentle unassuming mondo grass that grows happily without much attention, this is a slow spreader. In spring it blooms like crazy, with spikes of white flowers coming up through the foliage. Small blue berries appear in fall and are eaten by many overwintering birds.

Autumn fern

(Dryopteris erythrosora)

Zones: 5–8

Size: 18 to 24 inches tall and wide

Native range: Eastern Asia

This fabulous fern has such amazing color that from a distance it looks like sweeps of astilbe (Astilbe spp. and cvs., Zones 4–9). The upright fronds start out copper-colored before turning to brilliant yellow-gold. Pores on the back of the fronds are bright red, adding another dimension of color. It’s evergreen in most zones.

Black scallop bugleweed
Photo: Jennifer Benner

Crimson Fans mukdenia

Black Scallop bugleweed

(Ajuga reptans ’Binblasca’)

Zones: 4–9

Size: 3 to 6 inches tall and 24 inches wide

Native range: Europe, Asia, Africa

Bugleweed has a bad rap. Sometimes it escapes and goes where it isn’t wanted. However, the bigger scale of this variety gives it great structure and makes it easier to control. The large runners can be easily pulled out to keep it in check. Pollinators love its fragrant purple-blue flowers.

Crimson Fans mukdenia

(Mukdenia rossii ‘Karasuba’)

Zones: 4–8

Size: 8 to 10 inches tall and 18 inches wide

Native range: China, Korea

I think this plant is most beautiful when sited on the edges of pathways. It would be more vigorous with more water, but it still grows well with considerably less moisture (a layer of mulch is a good idea). The leaves are colorful year-round and impossibly shiny.


Susan Calhoun is the owner of Plantswoman Design in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

View Comments


  1. tee3 05/29/2020

    It would be more helpful if some native plants were added to this article for those of us who don’t want to plant so many non natives.

  2. arboretum 05/29/2020

    In addition to your excellent featured picks, others that i have had luck with:
    #1 most valuable plant in the world of dry shade:
    *****Persicaria Lance Corporal.Keeps its maroon chevron may through november [ before winter freezes here in z.5 boston]. Even grows in 1/2 inch of soil on macadam.
    -- all lamiums
    --painted fern
    --allegheny pachysandra
    -- holly, self- maintained as a groundcover in deep dry shade
    thx so much for your terrific feature

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