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South Central Gardening: Solutions for Dry Shade

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While dry shade can be a challenge in the South Central region of Texas and Oklahoma, many plants can stand up to the test.

Nandina
Kerria Japonica

By Susan Albert

One of the toughest places in the yard to landscape is dry shade. Whether it’s shaded by trees, an overhead structure, or just too far to drag the hose, dry shade can seem impossible to fulfill. Fortunately, shade-tolerant plants exist that actually prefer or can withstand drought.

In my yard the worst spot to keep plants alive is a garden bed on the east side of the house. Not only is it under the eaves, but a nearby tree shades the area. A close-in sidewalk keeps me from spacing plants out from under the eaves. Hardly any rain gets through, and it’s not convenient to hand-water.

After trying a succession of shade plants, the only shrub that has survived is the old-fashioned nandina (Nandina domestica). While it generally prefers a sunny area, I have found it flourishes in the shady areas of my yard, including the north side of the house that a neighbor’s massive oak tree shades. It still blooms and produces red berries for the winter.

Here are more specimens suitable for light shade with little to no supplemental watering:

  • Japanese kerria (Kerria japonica) is a drought-tolerant shrub that prefers shade to part shade. Single or double yellow blooms cover it in spring. USDA hardiness Zones 4–9.
Very Dwarf Crapemyrtle
  • Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is one of the most versatile evergreens in the South Central region, tolerating sun or shade as well as heat and drought. USDA hardiness Zones 7–11. In my Zone 6b, my yaupon froze to the ground one harsh winter but came back from the roots.
  • While crapemyrtles (Lagerstroemia) bloom best in sunny locations, they can tolerate part shade. I have a very dwarf variety that gets little sun or supplemental watering and blooms every summer. USDA hardiness Zones 7–9.
Glossy Abelia
  • Glossy abelia (Abelia x grandiflora), an evergreen summer-flowering shrub, does fine in part shade (some newer varieties with variegated foliage need more sun), and it can withstand low water. USDA hardiness Zones 6–9.
Sweet Autumn Clematis
  • Variegated aralia (Eleutherococcus sieboldianus ‘Variegatus’), a deciduous low-maintenance shrub, prefers part shade to shade and tolerates poor soils and dry conditions. Its white and light-green foliage brightens shady areas. USDA hardiness Zones 5–8.
  • Flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa) brings an early spring show of pink, red, orange, or white blooms. It can tolerate a wide range of conditions, including part shade and dry soil. I have one in a woodland situation, with no supplemental watering in summer. USDA Zones 4–8.
  • Perennial groundcovers, such as variegated Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum,’ Zones 4–8), liriope (Liriope muscari, Zones 5–10), and vinca (Vinca minor, zones 4-9) do fine in shady locations with low water.
  • The perennial Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) grows in sun or shade, but the south Texas native prefers some shade, according to the Aggie Horticulture website, and tolerates some drought. Its red, pink, or white blooms attract hummingbirds and butterflies. USDA hardiness Zones 7b–11.
  • Columbines (Aquilegia) are colorful, woodland plants, preferring light shade. Once established they are drought tolerant. Hardy in Zones 3–9, they readily self-sow, which is important since they are short-lived perennials.
  • Sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) is a tough vine that can get out of hand. If you remember to cut off the seed heads, you can control it. Very easy to grow, it seems to thrive on neglect. It’s one of the few clematis vines that can take considerable shade and low water. USDA Zones 5–9.
Four O’Clocks
  • The prolific four o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) are great for dry, lightly shaded areas. In extreme drought it needs watering, however. The hummingbird magnet starts blooming late in the day, or earlier if it’s cloudy. It reseeds easily, so once planted you always have it. It’s hardy in USDA Zones 9–11.
Dry Creek Bed

Another option, particularly in a large area, is to create a “dry creek bed” with various colored stones mimicking land and water, as pictured below at the home of Lois Bass of Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Her “creek” also doubles as a cover for a French drain.

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