So many gardeners asked me about plants to solve the problem of what to grow in dry shade, at the same time as I moved to a garden with extensive dry and shady areas, that I ended up writing a whole book about just this one problem: Planting The Dry Shade Garden.
The challenges for plants, of course, are lack of light and lack of moisture. Evergreens make the most of whatever light is available all the year round and because they can grow in mild winter spells they can make the most of winter rains. Digging some compost into the soil before planting, and installing a soaker hose to get plants through dry spells will really help plants get established and thrive. But as always, choosing the right plants in the first place is key.
Some choice plants for dry shade
See my selection of Award of Garden Merit winning evergreen shrubs which have proved successful in dry and shady situations.
Numbers at the end of each entry refer to the plant's height and hardiness rating.
Spots or not
Writing back in 1914, in the first part of his monumental four volume encyclopedia Trees And Shrubs Hardy in The British Isles, W. J. Bean says, of Aucuba japonica:
“Even under a beech, lime or horse chestnut, where grass will not grow, it maintains a cheerful aspect. This means, of course, that it can not only manage without direct sunlight, but can fight its way against the roots of its big neighbours.”
Which is another way of saying how good it is in dry shade. Spotted female forms such as ‘Crotonifolia’ bring red berries and colourful foliage while ‘Rozannie’ has no spots but is compact and fruits prolifically. 1-1.5m (3-5ft) H5.
Small but impenetrable
If what you need is a small evergreen that develops an impenetrable twiggy mass of spiny growth – perhaps to deter next door’s corgi from invading your garden or to prevent the postman cutting a corner - then Berberis × stenophylla ‘Corallina Compacta’ is the shrub for you. The small green leaves are sharply spined at the tip and in April masses of tightly packed clusters of orange-yellow flowers line the branches followed by blue-black berries. Wear gloves when planting. 40cm (16in). H5.
All shapes and sizes
Box is a favourite for hedging and topiary, often planted in full sun where it can suffer in dry soils and hot summers. In dry shade, however, it thrives once established and a quick look at the AGM winning varieties reveals an unexpected variation in form. The variegated Buxus sempervirens ‘Elegantissima’ (1.2m) makes an attractive rounded bush, with pretty cream margins to the leaves; ‘Graham Blandy’ (1.6m) is slender and upright while B. microphylla ‘Faulkner’ (60cm) develops broad and spreading growth with leaves in a bright fresh green. H5.
The poet’s laurel
This compact, almost bamboo-like shrub has the distinction of its branches lasting longer when cut that those of any other shrub. I found that as one selection of accompanying flowers were removed to the compost heap, followed by another, the dark shining foliage of Danae racemosa, carried on stout green stems, looked as good as when it was first cut. And after hot summers small red berries develop towards the tips of the shoots. The name “poet’s laurel” refers to the crowns of interwoven branches of D. racemosa, as well as bay (Laurus nobilis), worn by respected members of ancient Greek society, especially poets and winners at the Olympics. 60cm (2ft). H5.
Essential ivy hybrid
Crossing our familiar native ivy with an exotic, bold fatsia with its large dramatic foliage – and then adding variegation – gives us × Fatshedera lizei ‘Annemieke’, and it’s quite something. In spite of not having aerial roots to help it climb and without the fatsia strength to support itself, it makes bold ground cover and tied in to a shady fence makes a striking specimen. The soft glow of the golden green central leaf colouring is so much more restful than the colouring of plants with more flamboyant variegation. 1m (3ft). H3.
Have you tried the jelly?
One of the best berries for jelly that there is, the fruits of the Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) taste very sharp and a little bitter when you eat them straight from the bush. But they make a very tasty deep purple-black jelly. The plants will do well in this most inhospitable garden situation and are less susceptible to the mildew that often troubles plants grown in the sun. ‘Apollo’ is the variety to go for as each cluster has more deep golden yellow spring flowers than the straight species and so many more berries to follow. Low growing, it spreads well. 60cm. H5.
Still useful after all these centuries
With foliage so resilient that in the eighteenth century butchers used it to scour their blocks, butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus) is extraordinarily resilient. This uncommon native of southern England makes slowly spreading clusters of upright stems, clad in rich dark green foliage. Its undistinguished flowers are followed by long lasting bright red berries in late summer and autumn. Plants are usually male or female but ‘John Redmond’ (pictured) is hermaphrodite and produces berries with no male plant nearby. 40cm. H5.
Sarcococca, sometimes known as the Christmas box, is one of our finest fragrant winter shrubs but is much less well known than, say, the fragrant winter viburnums, because its flowers are less flamboyant and tend to be hidden amongst the leaves. Sarcococca ruscifolia var. chinensis ‘Dragon Gate’ flowers dependably at Christmas, and its leaves are narrower than those of the usual form so the flowers are less hidden. Also, to my eye, they’re a purer white, less cream, than other forms. Discovered by Roy Lancaster near the Dragon Gate Grotto and Dianchi Lake, above the Chinese city of Kunmin in Yunnan province. 60cm. H5.
Well, which do you prefer? Bright gold in sun, with a noticeable tendency to scorch, or a little less brilliant in shade but no sun damage? Taxus baccata ‘Standishii’ is one of the finest golden-leaved conifers with eye-catching foliage which keeps its colour all year-round. Slow growing, tightly compact and very upright in growth its makes a striking specimen carrying distinctive dark red fruits – and that red flesh is the only part of the whole tree that’s not poisonous. 1m (3ft). H5.