Winners and Losers in the Battle of Dry Shade

My back garden raised bed has been something of a permanent work in progress. I was in my Raised Bed Period when I created it. Somewhere, I really can’t remember where, I had read about the virtues of raised beds. Over the next couple of years I created four of them in the garden.

Back garden raised bed last July.
Back garden raised bed last July.

Anyway, the conditions in this raised bed must have been more difficult than I realized, because many plants didn’t last more than a season or two. As a result, I have always been trying to get something to fill open spaces here or there.

Peach leaf bellflower
Peach leaf bellflower: didn’t cut it.

The raised bed is in part sun/dappled shade. It’s just a few feet from a silver maple (Acer saccharinum). The silver maple has greedy feeder roots which have not been shy about pushing into the raised bed. At the same time, this bed receives supplemental watering very rarely.

In the hope that you can benefit from my misadventures, I provide below a list of the plants that did not make it in this bed, as well as those that have succeeded and others for whom the jury is still out.


Ladybells. Whatever.

First, the ones that didn’t make it. I can only assume that it was the dryness and root competition that did them in.

  • Peach leaf bellflower (Campanula persicifolia). Hasn’t lasted more than a season or two.
  • Snowdrop windflower (Anemone sylvestris). Completely disappeared within three years.
  • Ladybells (Adenophera lilifolia). I like the flowers, but the plant overall is kind of weedy and had thin stems that would lean all over. It lasted several years, and there are still a few stems, but it is not a major presence in this bed.
Yellow foxglove
Yellow foxglove
  • Yellow foxglove (Digitalis ambigua). I really thought yellow foxglove would be well-adapted to this site, but most of the plants have been shortlived. There are still a couple hanging on.
  • Silky wild rye (Elymus villosus). It should be named silky wild rabbit food. Feh. Same thing for Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra).


Amsonia 'Blue Ice'
Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’: success story

Now for the success stories.

  • Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’. ‘Blue Ice’ feels absolutely at home in this raised bed. Every plant has established itself and set about growing into its own large clump. I cut back the foliage when the flowers are done and  the new growth comes up yellow.
Short's Aster
Short’s Aster
  • Short’s Aster (Symphyotrichum shortii). The rabbits chew, but do not demolish. Clouds of little blue flowers in fall on shrubby plants.
  • Purple milkweed (Asclepias purpureum).  The one Asclepias that tolerates shade. I’ve learned that it doesn’t like to be crowded by other tall plants, so you have to give it some space.
  • Brown eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba). A profusion of flowers smaller than most Rudbeckias. Short lived but it self-sows determinedly so it is always popping up somewhere.
Purple Milkweed
Purple Milkweed: don’t crowd it

The jury is out.

Since last year I have been adding plants at every opportunity. Along the west side of the bed I have put dwarf goatsbeard (Dioicus aethusifolius) and yellow corydalis (Corydalis lutea). On the shadier east side I planted Lenten rose (Helleborus x hybridus).

Indian pink
Indian pink, planted at the end of the bed furthest from the silver maple, gets more moisture.

I’ve also got Indian pinks (Spigelia marilandica), and an Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii). Oh, and for drama and height, one spikenard (Arelia racemosa).

Dwarf goatsbeard
Dwarf goatsbeard

Sounds overcrowded, you say? Probably. But some stuff won’t make it, and I can always transplant. Experimenting with different plants under different conditions is half the fun of gardening.



44 Comments on “Winners and Losers in the Battle of Dry Shade

  1. I would agree! It is the fun of gardening! I like the list you have up there and find it very useful to many areas of my back garden which has similar conditions. Beautiful photos Jason and that purple milkweed is one that I need to get!! A wonderful week to you!

  2. I have loads of dry shade and am amazed you have purple milkweed in the shade! Here are a few dry shade suggestions: hellebore, Bowman’s Root (gillenia trifoliata), hosta (not too dry), snowberry ‘Blades of Sun’ (subshrub), euphorbia corollata, ‘Autumn Charm’ sedum, iris tectorum, columbine, ‘Serenade’ anemones, salvia koyamea, bigroot geraniums, Northern Sea Oats, solidago caesia, kalimeris, polygonatum (Solomon’s Seal), scutellaria incana (Hoary skullcap), heart leaf asters (eurybia divarcata), dwarf deschampsia, diervilla (subshrub), heuchera, epimediums, pulmonaria, golden alexanders, and ‘Deam’s rudbeckia.

    I just added Short’s asters to my garden this spring, along with the scutellaria and both have been big winners. ‘Hyperion’ daylilies might do well there, too. They’re an old cultivar that is tough as nails. I have every plant listed in this comment thriving in my garden, along with spigellia – my favorite!

    • I have Solidago caesia growing in some other beds, I like it but I am looking for something a little more compact. I never heard of ‘Blades of Sun’, that sounds interesting. I would also love to try ‘Bowman’s Root’, do you know any mail order places that sell it?

      • Lazy S’s Farm Nursery has Bowman’s Root as well as some cool, short solidago’s.There’s a dwarf one called Little Lemon I have my eye on.

  3. Precisely – it’s just one ongoing experiment in my garden! My first thought for shade was Epimediums, but they are a bit boring after they have finished flowering. I recently saw a photo of a Salvia glutinosa – for dry shady spots, flowers late in the season and gets to about a metre high. The flowers are lemony yellow and would look lovely near your asters! I’ll be trying it in my border under an evergreen next year.

    • I just looked up Salvia glutinosa, which sounds very interesting. Unfortunately it is hardy only to USDA zone 7, I am in zone 5. Oh, well. I’m warming to Epimediums, may give those a try.

  4. Helpful post, dry shade can be the most difficult situation can I add to your list Acanthus mollis or spinosa, may even be evergreen for you and is wonderfully dramatic.

  5. Jason, lovely bunch of plants in these. Why do you think some plants don’t survive? The raised bed doesn’t look TOO high in the photo, so high that the first would do it?!

  6. I’m here to sing my same old song…you need to consider colored foliage for a few open pockets. Is ‘Ascot Rainbow’ euphorbia hardy for you?

    • Nope, hardy to zone 7 and I am in 5. I TRIED to get some colorful foliage with Hakonechloa but that turned out to be very expensive rabbit chow. I could try some annuals, maybe some caladiums.

  7. We have tried so many of the same plants. I love Amsonia. That and perennial salvias were the only plants that held up in the drought we had a few summers ago. Salvia ‘reference’ and ‘May nights’ are the most reliable for me and bloom all summer although they probably had a little more sun.

  8. I have a couple of dry shade areas. I do have a goatsbeard that has flourished there but I am looking to add more natives especially. Of course hostas flourish in dry shade and epimediums. I will have to try amsonia there too.

  9. I see Donna had suggested Epimediums, that was going to be a suggestion of mine.
    Thankfully I don’t have many areas of dry shade to cater for but do grow the dwarf goatsbeard, it’s a wee beauty but in my garden it gets shade but also a fair bit of moisture. Wishing all your new additions well Jason!

  10. You just gave me a great idea of raising beds around my walkway in my woodland garden. Thanks! Yours look great btw.

  11. It certainly doesn’t look overcrowded to me! I love the goatsbeard, how cute is that!
    I struggle to get anything to grow in dry shade, only christmas box is happy in the really dry bits!xxx

  12. I have a similar situation in my lasagna garden, up under big trees getting a combination of dappled and deep shade, with one corner getting a half day of sun. I find myself wondering whether all that lovely organic soil I created up there drains TOO well! Heucheras and astilbe seem to be doing well up there, along with Turtlehead and a hellebore. The lamium is doing very well in front, with interesting light green leaves that show up well in the shade, and pretty little purple flowers. One Heuchera I particularly like is ‘Paris.’ It’s bloomed heavily this year with deep pink flowers that I can easily see from the kitchen window, about a hundred feet away.

    I’ve thought about Amsonia for that space; now your review leads me to believe I definitely should try it!

    • Your lasagna garden sounds lovely. I would think it is not too dry if turtlehead is doing well there – I thought they like a lot of moisture.

  13. I also thing the dwarf goatsbeard will make it. Mine does not get any sun shide at all and is happy.

  14. Hmmm. Amsonia for part shade, I never thought of that and have a potful of homeless seedlings that will appreciate this post!
    I like your ‘raised bed phase’ all great artists go through these things!

  15. a work in progress, with great lessons learned. I had a garden bed that suffered from hungry feeder roots from nearby trees too, and I appreciate that you’ve shared your lessons with what grows and what doesn’t.

    Your garden looks lovely, by the way!

  16. A good portion of my garden is dry shade, and I agree it can be challenging! I’ve tried Foxglove several times, too, and while it looks great for one season, it doesn’t seem to seed very well in the shade. Since it’s a biennial, that limits it. I’m glad to hear Amsonia has been successful for you. Maybe I’ll try it!

  17. Interesting to read about your experimentations. I don’t have much area that could be called dry shade, but I find your post encouraging. I have had so many plans that just didn’t pan out but we keep trying.

  18. Hi Jason, I don’t really have any experience with dry shade but you should get in touch with Tammy at Casa Mariposa, She battles dry shade and usually wins (though she would argue), she’ll have a lot of advice and names of plants that will or wont work that you could try in your bed.

  19. Hmm. I’m going to be looking for that purple milkweed. I hadn’t heard of it before, and it turns out that it’s native in Maine.

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