Dry shade is notoriously difficult to garden in. The lack of sunlight and moisture makes for harsh conditions for most plants. Dry shade typically occurs under aggressively feeding and shedding trees such as maples, pines, and spruces. You will also find dry shade along foundations. Dry shade can occur in any soil type, but most often we see dry soils occurring in sand and gravel-type topsoil. Dry clay soils are also a problem. You can absolutely plant your dry shade areas with a little extra care and the proper plant selection.
Many people attempt to grow lawns in dry shade. Grass mixes do often include grasses that grow well in shade, but grass still needs consistent moisture and nutrition (especially nitrogen) to grow and thrive. Instead of trying to grow typical lawn grasses in dry shade, try an alternative. Our dwarf mondo grass is an absolute gem in these tough areas. Drought tolerant and never reaching above 6 inches in height, this grass is ideal under trees. Because of its limited height, you can ignore it with the mower.
You can also forget trying to attempt a lawn in these areas and create a garden bed filled with plants instead. Some of our favorite plant choices for those dry shady spots include Rozanne Geranium, Heuchera such as ‘Caramel’ and ‘Southern Comfort’, hostas like ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ and dogwoods like ‘Arctic Fire’. Fill in open spots in the spring with annuals like impatiens, coleus, and torenia (wishbone flower) that also thrive in shade and can deal with dry spells.
For areas under trees where the tree saps the soil of its moisture and nutrition, you may have to add to the soil consistently to keep plants looking beautiful. Mulching is one way to keep the soil condition under trees viable. Mulch breaks down into the soil, improving its structure, adding nutrition, and retaining much needed moisture in dry areas. The kinds of mulch you choose in these areas will absolutely matter. You need to opt for mulch materials that readily break down into the soil. Large particle, colored bark mulches are a poor choice. They break down too slow, and in an area that will need the constant supply of nutrients, bark mulch just won’t help. Instead, try using more natural mulch alternatives such as spent grass clippings, fall leaves (you can pre-chop them if you wish as they look nicer chopped but it’s not necessary), and pine needles. This is often a job that’s as simple as raking what ends up on the lawn right into the garden beds in the fall. This is of course, after the children are finished bouncing in the piles. You can also add direct irrigation to these dry areas by ways of soaker hoses and drip lines, as these move water directly into the ground and often work better than overhead watering- but really, any water in dry shade will be much appreciated by the plants and animals that live there.
We hope this helps you gain some confidence when approaching your dry shade trouble spots. If all else fails, a bench seat with pots of shade loving annuals, or a hammock works well in these areas too.