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Desert Gardening: Plants for Dry Shade

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Lowe’s desert gardening expert shares some of the top plant picks for shade in Southwest gardens.

orange-stripe aloe

By Scott Calhoun

When you think about it, almost all shade in Southwestern garden is dry shade. Come early summer, all the soil becomes dry. So all of the plants we use have to be able to handle some dry shade.

Also the quality of the shade is different here. We don’t typically have a lot of broadleaf trees that cast dense shadows. What we have are many ferny trees that let dappled light through their canopies to plants below. So what plants should you grow below these desert trees?

Aloes work perfectly beneath many ferny desert trees. They grow in the winter, and need sun when many of our trees are deciduous. In summer they appreciate some shade and come through the hot months better under a tree than in the open, especially wide-leaf species such as the Aloe striata (pictured above). Wide, green leaves are a clue that the plant might want more shade than most.

yellow columbine

Columbine and Coral-bells
These two perennial flowers are more associated with mountains than deserts, but both have native varieties that can thrive with less light and a little extra water. The golden columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha) pictured grows in desert canyons and flourishes in gardens with shady exposures. Coral-bells (Heuchera sanguinea) is native to the Southwest and does well in similar situations.


Rosette Succulents

Tuberose and Tuberose hybrids
Other succulents thrive in shade, including tuberose plants, which also are known by their genus name, Manfreda. Interesting hybrids include ‘Macho Mocha’, with purple spots; and ‘Espresso’ (pictured), with cream-color stripes. All do well in dry shade, and make good container plants in shady exposures as well.

‘Tangerine Beauty’ crossvine climbing a trellis

Vines for Shade
As the photo illustrates, some vines can grow on trellises on shady walls. ‘Tangerine Beauty’ crossvine is one of my favorite evergreens for part shade. It sports orange/red flowers in spring.

Carion plant potted

Unusual-looking (and Smelling) Succulents
Potted plants, such as this carrion plant, have flowers that smell like rotten meat! But the stems and flowers are unusual enough to include in a shade garden. They thrive below tree canopies and are always conversation starters at garden parties.

What gets people talking in your shady garden spaces?

See more by this author.