Those dry, shaded spots in your yard don't have to be barren. Rely on these easy-care perennials to add color and interest to shady areas.

By BH&G Garden Editors
Updated March 02, 2020
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A shady spot can be challenging to work with in your garden, especially if it tends to stay dry. Most common shade plants are native to moist woodland conditions, so they need a lot of additional watering during a drought. But if you pick the right plants and give them a little help in the beginning, you can create a thriving perennial garden, even in a tricky spot. Most of the varieties listed here mix and match well together, and they can tolerate dry soil once they are established. To help get your plants off to the best start possible, keep them well-watered throughout the first year. After that, they will likely do fine with whatever rainwater they get.

John Reed Forsman

1
Hosta

One of the most tried-and-true shade plants, hostas are low-maintenance with hundreds of varieties to choose from. Because hosta foliage is so diverse in size, shape, and color, mixing and matching hostas in a shade garden is easy to do. Smaller varieties can also form a pretty garden border or fill in space around the base of a tree.

When hostas get too large, they're also easy to divide with a shovel or even your hands. Dividing can provide multiple new plants to fill in the rest of your shade garden or to share with friends and neighbors.

Light: Shade, part sun, or full sun.

Water: Plant in well-drained soil.

Size: Up to 3 feet tall and 8 feet wide.

Zones: 3-9

Buy It: Bareroot Hosta Mix, $19.84, Walmart

David McDonald

2
Lungwort

Another shade-loving plant that tolerates dry soil is lungwort. The plant gets its name from its lung-shape structure. Lungwort has tough leaves, ranging from spotted to solid colors, and can grow different-textured leaves from one root!

One feature northern zone gardeners will love about lungwort is that it tolerates the cold. In the spring, lungwort will bloom bright blue, pink, white, and purple flowers, and will continue to bloom into the winter. Not only that, but when used as a groundcover, lungwort discourages weeds, too.

Light: Shade, part sun, or full sun.

Water: Plant in well-drained soil.

Size: Up to 12 inches tall.

Zones: 2-8

Buy It: Pulmonaria 'Dark Vader,' $17.00, Plant Delights Nursery

Peter Krumhardt

3
Bleeding Heart

If you're aiming for a cottage garden vibe in the shade, start with bleeding heart. This plant gets its name from its heart-shape blooms, which each have a single petal that looks like a drop dangling from the bottom.

Bleeding heart's short-lived blooms are unique among perennials. It'll bloom beautifully in the spring and "play dead" once summer comes. No need to worry, it's just sleeping and will come back next year. But since it only blooms in spring, it's best to plant bleeding heart with other colorful plants that can take the stage later in the year.

Light: Shade or part sun.

Water: Plant in well-drained soil.

Size: Up to 3 feet tall.

Zones: 3-9

Buy It: Old-Fashioned Bleeding Heart, $9.98, The Home Depot

Samantha Hedum

4
Coralbells

This perennial grows flowers, but coralbells' foliage is what really stands out. Varieties like ‘Marvelous Marble’ grow beautiful, multicolored leaves with a marble-looking surface. Other varieties have leaves that almost look spray-painted while some have deep vein colors.

Coralbells are extremely easy to grow. They're native to rocky cliff settings where water drains easily, so they'll tolerate dry shade spots well. Coralbells are also favorites of hummingbirds, so by growing them, your yard could become a beautiful foliage-filled sanctuary for hummingbirds to visit.

Light: Shade, part sun, or full sun.

Water: Plant in well-drained soil.

Size: Up to 3 feet tall.

Zones: 3-9

Buy It: Forever Red Coralbells, $19.99, Walmart

Lynn Karlin

5
Hardy Ferns

We love ferns because they're simple to grow. There are plenty of varieties of native ferns, so finding one that thrives in your zone shouldn't be an issue. The Japanese painted fern has beautiful silver and burgundy leaves, while the autumn fern will have a beautiful fall display with golden red color.

Taking care of outdoor ferns is incredibly easy: Simply plant in well-drained soil and add organic matter such as compost. Ferns are virtually pest-free, so you don't have to worry about unwanted critters around this plant in your shade garden, except for the occasional slug.

Light: Shade or part sun.

Water: Plant in well-drained soil.

Size: Dependent on variety (Japanese painted fern can grow up to 3 feet tall).

Zones: Dependent on variety (Japanese painted fern is hardy in Zones 4-9).

Buy It: Japanese Painted Fern, $19.99, Spring Hill Nurseries

Marty Baldwin

6
Ajuga

This perennial has pretty flowers, but ajuga also has fantastically colorful foliage that looks beautiful in spring, summer, and fall. In the early spring, you'll find spikes of cobalt-blue flowers pop up like lighthouses over a sea of leaves.

You should be able to find many varieties of ajuga available at your local garden center. Some varieties like ‘Burgundy Glow’ grow so densely that its silvery-green leaves marked with pink, burgundy, and white can almost smother weeds. 'Black Scallop (‘Binblasca’) features large purple leaves that have a unique shine to them; Chocolate Chip (‘Valfredda’) has small, narrow green leaves heavily flushed burgundy purple.

Light: Shade, part sun, or full sun (for the best foliage color, plant in a spot that gets at least a few hours of sun every day).

Water: Plant in well-drained, moist soil, but can also tolerate drought and dry soil.

Size: Under 6 inches tall.

Zones: 4-10

Buy It: Burgundy Glow Ajuga, $6.74, American Meadows

Denny Schrock

7
Bigroot Geranium

One of the very best perennials for dry shade, bigroot geranium has deeply lobed leaves that look like snowflakes. The foliage is a bit fuzzy, making it somewhat deer and rabbit resistant, and in autumn, it turns beautiful shades of reddish-orange.

You can usually find a few different varieties available: ‘Ingwersen's Variety’ shows off pale pink blooms, and ‘Variegatum’ has magenta flowers over white-streaked leaves. Over time, bigroot geranium will slowly spread to form a dense carpet of foliage over the ground.

Light: Shade, part sun, or full sun.

Water: Plant in well-drained soil that's rich in organic matter.

Size: Up to 18 inches tall.

Zones: 3-8

Buy It: Ingwersen's Variety Bigroot Geranium, $11.95, Bluestone Perennials

Peter Krumhardt

8
Cushion Spurge

Though cushion spurge is often grown in full sun, it does tolerate shade, especially in hot-summer areas. Like bigroot geranium, it's usually avoided by deer and rabbits.

In spring, cushion spurge bursts into bloom, producing tiny chartreuse flowers surrounded by showy bracts (much like its relative, the poinsettia, offers showy pink, red, or white bracts around the little flowers). Once it's finished blooming, count on the mound of gray-green foliage to stay attractive through autumn, when it often turns a reddish color.

Light: Shade, part sun, or full sun.

Water: Plant in well-drained soil (cushion spurge usually performs better in consistently dry soil).

Size: Up to 3 feet tall.

Zones: 3-10

Buy It: Cushion Spurge, $14.95, Bluestone Perennials

Robert Cardillo

9
Hellebore

Sometimes also called Christmas or Lenten rose because of its early bloom season, hellebore is one of the toughest shade-loving plants around. With thick, almost leathery leaves, it's easy to see why. Hellebores are evergreen perennials in mild-winter climates; in the coldest places they grow, the foliage usually dies back during the winter. Because all parts of this plant are highly poisonous, it's very resistant to deer and rabbits.

Hellebore flowers appear in shades of white, cream, yellow, green, red, and purple, and the blooms can be single or double. Hellebore is a fantastic companion for spring-blooming bulbs, such as daffodils.

Light: Shade, part sun, or full sun.

Water: Plant in well-drained soil that's rich in organic matter (hellebore performs best in moist soil but can easily tolerate dry soil).

Size: Up to 3 feet tall.

Zones: 4-9

Buy It: Helleborus Fire and Ice, $18.95, Bluestone Perennials

Ian Adams

10
Foamflower

Native to North America, foamflower uses runners to spread quickly to form a fairly dense mat of foliage. In spring, it produces little frothy wands of white or pink flowers that are a wonderful accent to spring-blooming bulbs like daffodils.

There are some fun varieties available, like ‘Running Tapestry’, which features a purple blotch in the center of the leaves, and ‘Susquehanna’, which has lobed leaves heavily marked in dark purple.

Light: Shade or part sun.

Water: Plant in well-drained soil rich in organic matter. Foamflowers will tolerate dry soil, but will spread more slowly and can develop brown, crispy edges.

Size: Up to 12 inches tall.

Zones: 3-9

Buy It: Foamflower, $4.99, Native Wildflowers Nursery

Hetherington & Associates

11
Lilyturf

At first glance, it's easy to mistake lilyturf for an ornamental grass because of its rich green, glossy, grass-shape foliage. However, it's actually a member of the lily family and more closely related to hostas. Like hostas, it's ultra-tough, deer- and rabbit-resistant, and looks good through spring, summer, and fall (as well as winter in the South, where it's an evergreen).

There are a handful of varieties of lilyturf available; some, such as ‘Silver Dragon’, offer white-edged leaves. In late summer, the plants produce clusters of small lavender-purple blooms that may turn into small black fruits.

Light: Shade, part sun, or full sun.

Water: Plant in well-drained soil; can tolerate dry or consistently moist soil.

Size: Up to 12 inches tall.

Zones: 5-10

Buy It: Variegated Lilyturf, $16.91, The Home Depot

Janet Loughrey

12
Deadnettle

Another top groundcover for dry shade, deadnettle (also called lamium) has attractive foliage that's often marked with silver. It blooms on and off throughout the summer, producing clusters of lavender, pink, or white flowers.

Deadnettle varieties that have gorgeous foliage offer the most bang in the garden: ‘White Nancy’ has mostly silver leaves edged in green and white flowers,  ‘Cosmopolitan’ shows off silver leaves and pink flowers, and Golden Anniversary (‘Dellam’) bears green leaves streaked in silver and edged in gold.

Deadnettle can spread quickly to form a dense groundcover. It thrives in moist, shaded spots but can handle dry soil well. If the soil stays too dry for extended periods, leaves may develop brown edges. If this happens, you can cut the plant back and it will sprout fresh new foliage.

Light: Shade or part sun.

Water: Plant in well-drained soil.

Size: Up to 3 feet tall.

Zones: 4-8

Buy It: White Nancy Deadnettle, $7.99, High Country Gardens

Start to design your shade garden with these plants as a base, and you shouldn't have any problem filling up the bed. Once you master these plants, you can use that confidence to experiment with new varieties in your shade garden.

Comments (4)

Anonymous
July 28, 2018
I’m writing in response to the invasiveness of lamium and ajuga: both are easily managed. Lamium runners can be removed with a short-tined rake; if you moisten the ground slightly, established plants can be easily pulled up by the roots. Ajuga is also easily removed; I frequently enjoy free plants by simply digging in with my hori-hori. An added plus is that both are deer resistant, although I’ve found them to be deer proof in my garden.
Anonymous
May 11, 2018
I went through the registration process here so I can tell you that lamium (dead nettle) is extremely invasive! My neighbor planted some and it has encroached on most of my front yard. Watch out! Ajuga is suspect too. Authors should warn you about this.
Anonymous
May 2, 2018
Thanks for the info. I came out some good ideas.
Anonymous
April 20, 2018
This really helped me to know what to do in my yard. So informative.