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The Garden Decoder: What Is ‘Dry Shade’?

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The Garden Decoder: What Is ‘Dry Shade’?

April 14, 2023

As if gardening in the shade weren’t challenging enough, add the element of dryness to the mix and you’ll face a gardener’s ultimate design challenge. If you have one of these areas in your yard (and chances are, you do), don’t just throw in the towel yet. It is possible to grow thriving plants there. Read on to learn some strategies.

What does “dry shade” mean?

Technically, dry shade is a spot in your garden that receives only a few hours of light, dappled light, or no direct sunlight at all. Plus, the soil stays dry because either rain is rare or thirsty roots from established trees enthusiastically compete for water. Normally you think of a shady area as soggy and boggy, but in the case of dry shade, it’s the exact opposite.

Where would I find dry shade in my garden?

Low mounds of Heuchera under the shade of a tree. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista, from Gardening \10\1: Coral Bells.
Above: Low mounds of Heuchera under the shade of a tree. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista, from Gardening 101: Coral Bells.

More times than not, dry shade occurs on covered patios and balconies, under dense large tree canopies, and close to house foundations where eaves protrude.  Dry shade also occurs in drought afflicted areas. Look for dimly lit and barren spaces—and you probably have dry shade.

What are the challenges of dry shade?

Above: Western sword fern grows beside a trail in Tilden Park near Berkeley, California. Photograph by John Rusk via Flickr, from Gardening 101: Western Sword Ferns.

Not surprisingly, lack of sunlight and adequate water. You can’t increase light, unless you trim back trees, but you can bring drip irrigation to these areas to pamper smaller plants a bit. In the case of plants under trees, though, remember that you’ll also end up watering the tree, which will encourage the tree roots to grow and overtake smaller plant roots. Consider watering your those plants faithfully for the first season, then taper off.

What plants tolerate dry shade?

One of my favorite plants for dry shade: Oxalis oregana redwood sorrel. Full shade, part shade, and dappled sun are all ideal light conditions for this plant. Photograph by Stephanie Falzone via Flickr, from Gardening \10\1: Redwood Sorrel.
Above: One of my favorite plants for dry shade: Oxalis oregana redwood sorrel. Full shade, part shade, and dappled sun are all ideal light conditions for this plant. Photograph by Stephanie Falzone via Flickr, from Gardening 101: Redwood Sorrel.

Of course you always have to consider your climate and microclimate before adding any plant to your garden, meaning determining how hot and cold your garden gets and what type of light exposure it has, and then researching to see whether your proposed plant can survive and thrive in your garden. It’s also helpful if you look for plants that have these three adaptations: 1) tolerates root competition; 2) tolerates low light; 3) tolerates dry soil. So with that said, here are some of my favorite dry shade plants:

Hellebore, Sarcococca, Cast Iron plant, Ajuga, Daphne, MahoniaPachysandra, Clivia, Cyrtomium falcatum, Heuchera maxima, Iris douglasiana ‘Canyon Snow’, Oxalis oregana, Vaccinium ovatum, Sedum palmeri, Agave attenuata, Sedum morganianum, Sanseveria trifasciata, Aeonium haworthii ‘Kiwi’ , Beaucarnea recurvata, Lomandra ‘Breeze’

Any other dry shade planting tips?

For the health of California oak trees who dislike added irrigation, I never recommend planting directly under these sentient branched beings. Also, for established trees, I recommend planting no closer than 2 feet from the trunk/base of the tree and don’t prep the entire area, only dig individual holes to reduce damaging surface roots.

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