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Southeast Gardening: Planting in Dry Shade

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Even the most experienced gardeners sometimes draw a blank when dealing with dry shade. Here’s what Lowe’s Southeast garden expert recommends.

Japanese aucuba

By Glenn DiNella

If shade and low water restrict your planting area, there are plants that can accept that challenge. Many plants can handle dry soils. But if you try to interpose sun lovers, such as juniper, daylilies, butterfly bush, and crape myrtle, often they develop spindly foliage, as well as problems with mildew and pests.

path and pine straw

This family of four faced a forlorn, shady path to their side door every time they made the frequent trek from car to kitchen. Along with the planting areas on either side being very narrow (about 2 feet wide on one side and 3 feet on the other side), other challenges loomed.

The northern side of the home gets shade all day. There is no underground irrigation system, so the soil stays pretty dry. The other challenge simply was selecting plants sporting various colors, textures, and sizes to create visual interest.

path, pine straw and plants

Of course everyone likes low-maintenance plants. Other than a light pruning once a year, or cleaning out dead foliage or seed stalks, there is little work to be done on the following plants that relish dry shade. One-stop shopping at our local Lowe’s provided all the plants we needed to succeed. 

I must add the disclaimer that -- like all plants -- even the following drought-tolerant plants need regular irrigation as they get established their first year. But these toughies tend to be very low maintenance after that. Here’s a closer look:

bleeding heart

Bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) is an old Southern garden favorite that produces delicate, fernlike foliage, and showy pink, pendulous flowers in spring. We used just one of these as a specimen perennial, placing it beside the back steps. The plant usually goes dormant in the heat of summer but resurfaces in spring.


Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) comes in various colors and leaf sizes, but all are low-growing groundcovers (about 3 inches tall), with spikes of bluish-purple blooms. Typically leaves are mottled shades of purple, green, rose, and sometimes a bit of silver or cream. Ajuga spreads slowly to form a mat of attractive foliage. To encourage it or other groundcovers to spread faster, loosen the soil around them.


Ferns are naturals when it comes to shade. In this bed we used holly fern, southern shield fern, and autumn fern. We even tossed in two Boston ferns the homeowner wanted out of her living room because it shed leaves.

variegated hosta

Hosta is another wise choice for shade. There are hundreds of varieties -- it’s as if Mother Nature wanted to brag about how many shades of green she could create. Foliage can be plain green, waxy blue, or variegated with white or yellow. Stalks of flowers in late spring range from white to purple. A few cultivars have lightly scented flowers.

Japanese aucuba

Japanese aucuba (Aucuba japonica), also called Japanese laurel, is a rounded evergreen shrub, with small reddish-purple flowers in spring. But the speckled yellow foliage captures most hearts. It’s a great way to lighten up a shady spot.

Other possibilities for dry shade:

  • Japanese andromeda (Pieris japonica) -- Beautiful, slow-growing woody shrub with tiny, bell-shape flowers of white, pink, or nearly red in spring. Cultivars can range from 1 to 7 feet tall.
  • Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) -- Twining vine with fragrant yellow tubular spring flowers. Blooms best in sun but tolerates shade.
  • Cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) -- As the common name indicates, this plant is tough. Long, slender, dark-green foliage. Some cultivars have variegated streaks.
  • Drooping leucothoe (Leucothoe fontanesiana) -- Also called fetterbush, it’s a low-growing shrub that can reach 8–10 feet tall. Arching branches with leathery leaves. ‘Rainbow’ is a cultivar popular for its leaves streaked green, yellow, and pink.
  • Glossy privet (Ligustrum lucidum) -- Shrub or small tree with thick green leaves. A good alternative to the common privet (Ligustrum vulgare).
  • Lenten rose (Hellebores orientalis) -- Groundcover with beautiful winter flowers in shades of purple, rose, chartreuse, and white.
  • Monkey grass (Liriope spp.) -- A common groundcover or edging. Popular because it’s hard to kill. Again, consider variegated types to brighten a shady area.
  • Spotted deadnettle (Lamium maculatum) -- Running groundcover with silvery foliage, and pink flowers in late spring.

See all Southeast Gardening Articles.