How To Plant Up A Dry Shady Area Of The Garden

How To Plant Up A Dry Shady Area Of The Garden

Problem of what to plant in an area with no light, water or nutrients?

Dry, shady areas are really quite problematic as they suffer from lack of light, water and nutrients, all the things that plants need to survive; but there are solutions to most of these areas. Some plants, such as camellias need the shade to prevent the sun from burning those delicate petals, particularly if they have been frosted the previous evening. These areas can be underneath either deciduous or coniferous trees, besides a hedge, especially an evergreen one, or at the base of a north facing wall; the only real problem is underneath the conifers, as there are plenty of plants which will quite happily thrive in the other areas.

Underneath conifers is a real problem as there is almost permanent gloom, no moisture and certainly no nutrients. The carpet of shed needles which are almost always present also makes the soil very acidic. Unfortunately about the only plant you can give a go is the Common Ivy (Hedera helix); the ferns are also worth a try, provided you give them some organic matter, such as well-rotted farmyard manure, good quality peat-free compost or home-made leaf mould. If possible try removing some of the lower branches of the conifers to raise the canopy and let in more light. When planting amongst tree roots make sure you don’t damage them, if possible use small plants that will make the least disturbance and they will establish fairly quickly. Make sure anything you plant under conifers is well watered for the first year until they can establish a substantial root system.

A deciduous woodland also creates dry shade but is much easier to under-plant; just think about all those spring plants and bulbs that make such a welcome splash of colour. Generally with deciduous trees once the leaves unfurl and the canopy closes over then it is too dark for plants to flourish so if you also plant ferns then you will have some interest in summer. Why not try and incorporate some running water and a seating area into your woodland planting as there is nothing like the soothing coolness of a damp, shady spot on a hot summer’s day. Be careful when you plant that you don’t damage the tree roots. After planting water well and mulch with organic matter to conserve that moisture. Keep the plants well watered in the first year.

Perennials underneath deciduous trees

A north facing wall or fence is also quite often a dry, shady spot and if the house is a new build then there is usually just a thin layer of soil over a lot of builder’s rubble. The first thing to do is enrich the soil with a lot of organic matter; this will add some nutrients and also conserve any moisture. The base of the wall is often in the rain-shadow and may not receive any moisture so you will have to make sure that you keep the plants well-watered. If the wall is open stonework hostas may not be a good idea, as these walls are havens for slugs and snails who can decimate a patch of hostas overnight.

Clematis montana is a good choice for covering a rather boring evergreen hedge as they put on a lot of growth in just one season. Hydrangea petiolaris makes a great cover for a boring wall and doesn’t need any support, once established it will thrive without any further intervention. Make sure not to plant any climbers too close to the hedge or wall and lean the cane inwards to help the plants reach the support and go where you want them to go.

The list below gives you plenty of choice; not all the plants are suitable for all the areas so it may have to be a case of trial and error.  

Trees and shrubs

  • Amelanchier lamarckii  (Snowy Mespilus; shrub/small tree)
  • Aucuba
  • Berberis x lologensis ‘Apricot Queen’  (evergreen)
  • Betula  (Birch)
  • Buxus sempervirens  (Box; evergreen)
  • Camellia japonica  (evergreen)
  • Camellia 'Leonard Messel'
  • Cornus canadensis  (Creeping Dogwood; ground cover)
  • Cotinus ‘Flame’  (Smoke Bush)
  • Cotoneaster  (evergreen)
  • Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ (evergreen;fragrant)
  • Elaeagnus x ebbingei ‘Limelight’  (evergreen)
  • Euonymus fortunei  (evergreen)                                          
  • Fatsia japonica  (evergreen)                                                
  • Forsythia x intermedia ‘Lynwood Variety’ 
  • Fuchsia magellanica var. molinae
  • Garrya elliptica  (evergreen)
  • Hippophae rhamnoides  (Common Sea Buckthorn)
  • Hypericum  (St John’s Wort; evergreen)
  • Ilex aquifolium  (Holly; evergreen)
  • Juniperus x pfitzeriana  (prostrate; evergreen)
  • Kerria japonica
  • Lonicera fragrantissima  (Sweet Honeysuckle; fragrant)
  • Lonicera nitida  (evergreen)
  • Mahonia  (evergreen; sometimes fragrant)
  • Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Variegatus’  (evergreen)
  • Philadelphus ‘Innocence’ 
  • Pieris ‘Forest Flame’ 
  • Pittosporum tenuifolium  (evergreen)
  • Prunus laurocerasus  (evergreen)
  • Rhododendron (evergreen)
  • Rosa 'Gertrude Jekyll'  (shrub or small climber; scented)

Rosa Gertrude Jekyll

Rosa 'Gertrude Jekyll'

  • Rosa 'Teasing Georgia'  (scented)
  • Ribes odoratum (Flowering Currant; fragrant)
  • Santolina chamaecyparissus (Cotton Lavender)
  • Sarcococca  (evergreen; fragrant)
  • Skimmia
  • Symphoricarpos  (Snowberry)
  • Taxus baccata & cultivars  (Yew; evergreen)
  • Viburnum rhytidophyllum  (evergreen)
  • Viburnum tinus ‘Eve Price’  (evergreen)
  • Vinca  (evergreen; ground cover)
  • Waldsteinia ternate  (semi-evergreen; groundcover)
  • Weigela ‘Florida Variegata’ 


  • Acanthus spinosus (Spiny Bear’s Breeches)                
  • Ajuga reptans & cultivars  (Bugle; ground cover)                
  • Alchemilla mollis  (Lady’s-mantle)        
  • Anemone nemorosa (Wood Anemone)                    
  • Aquilegia  vulgaris (Columbine or Granny’s Bonnet)        
  • Arum italicum  (Lords-and-ladies)
  • Astrantia major                               
  • Bergenia cordifolia (Elephant’s Ears)                    
  • Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’  (Siberian Bugloss)
  • Convallaria majalis  (Lily of the Valley; scented)                                                        
  • Dicentra formosa  (Bleeding Heart)                  
  • Digitalis  (Foxglove)

Digitalis and Aquilegia

Digitalis and Aquilegia   

  • Epimedium x rubrum  (Red Barrenwort)                    
  • Erythronium dens-canis  (Dog’s-tooth Violet)
  • Galium odoratum  (Sweet Woodruff)
  • Geranium himalayense
  • Geranium macrorrhizum
  • Geranium nodosum
  • Helleborus foetidus
  • Heuchera
  • Heucherella
  • Hosta

Hosta Iced Lemon

Hosta 'Iced Lemon'

  • Iris foetidissima
  • Lamium
  • Lathyrus vernus
  • Liriope muscari  (Lilyturf)
  • Melissa officinalis ‘Aurea’  (Balm)
  • Pachysandra terminalis  (evergreen groundcover)
  • Polygonatum odoratum (Solomon’s Seal)
  • Primula japonica
  • Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’ 
  • Ruscus  (evergreen)
  • Saxifrage umbrosa  (London Pride)
  • Teucrium polium
  • Thalictrum
  • Tiarella
  • Tolmiea menziesii
  • Viola odorata  (Sweet Violet; scented)


  • Lunaria annua  (Honesty)
  • Meconopsis cambrica  (Welsh Poppy)

Meconopsis cambrica Welsh Poppy

Meconopsis cambrica


  • Asplenium scolopendrium (Hart’s Tongue Fern; evergreen)
  • Dryopteris felix-mas  (Male Fern; evergreen or deciduous)
  • Matteuccia struthiopteris  (Ostrich Fern)
  • Polypodium vulgare  (evergreen)
  • Polystichum setiferum  (Soft Shield Fern)


  • Clematis montana
  • Hedera helix  (Common Ivy; perennial evergreen climber or ground cover)
  • Hydrangea anomala petiolaris

Hydrangea anomala petiolaris at Sizergh Castle, Cumbria

Hydrangea anomala petiolaris at Sizergh Castle, Cumbria

  • Lonicera periclymenum ‘Graham Thomas’  (fragrant)
  • Pathenocissus henryana  (Chinese Virginia Creeper)
  • Rosa 'Alberic Berbier'  (scented)
  • Rosa 'Maigold'  (scented)
  • Rosa 'Mme. Alfred Carriere'  (scented)
  • Rosa 'New Dawn'  (scented)
  • Rosa 'Souvenir du Dr Jamain'  (scented)
  • Rosa 'Veilchenblau'  (scented)
  • Rosa 'Zepherine Drouhin'  (thornless; scented)
  • Vitis coignetiae 
  • Wisteria floribunda ‘Multijuga’  (Japanese Wisteria)

Bulbs and corms

  • Colchicum autumnale  (Meadow Saffron)
  • Cyclamen hederifolium
  • Hyacinthoides non-scripta  (English Bluebell)


  • Calamagrostis x acutifolia ‘Karl Foerster’ 
  • Cortaderia selloana  (Pampas Grass)
  • Deschampsia cespitosa  (Tufted Hair Grass)
  • Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’

For more information, hints and tips on coping with problem areas just get in touch with our gardening team in the Outdoor Plant department here in store.

Profile Image Angela Slater

Angela Slater

Daughter of a farmer and market gardener so have always had a connection with the outdoors, whether it was keeping animals or producing fruit, vegetables and cut flowers. Along with my work at Hayes Garden World I also have a smallholding, mainly breeding rare breed pigs. I gained an HND and BSc in Conservation and Environmental Land Management, as a result I am an ardent environmentalist and have a keen interest in environmentally friendly gardening. In my time at Hayes I worked for several years in the Outdoor Plant and Houseplant areas.