Dry soil and low light—two gardening ills, and often, they plague one problematic spot. An Indianapolis pro prescribes solutions.
lilly house stone pathway trees shaded trail lush landsaping
At the former home of J.K. Lilly (brother of pharmaceutical magnate Eli Lilly), horticulturist Irvin Etienne had to find a remedy for landscaping under thirsty trees.
| Credit: Irvin Etienne

Irvin Etienne curates 26 acres of lush landscape at the Lilly House, a historic spread north of downtown Indianapolis. With so much ground to tend, he encounters all types of conditions—including a troublesome patch of dry shade under a sugar maple grove. "Even though some perennials may be promoted as shade plants," he says, "you have to learn from experience how much shade they will tolerate. I can't tell you how many plants I've killed in that area." He recommends leaning on tough perennials that can survive both shade from a tree's canopy and drought brought on by its water-guzzling roots.

The Best Shade Plants for Midwest Gardens

"Shade may be good for humans, but it can be limiting for plants," says Irvin Etienne, especially if conditions are dry. He recommends these durable—and striking—varieties.

siberian bugloss forget-me-nots silver heart
Credit: Irvin Etienne

Siberian Bugloss

Also known as perennial forget-me-nots, Brunnera is prized for its silvery, heart-shape leaves and clouds of tiny blue flowers that arrive mid-spring. Look for rugged 'Silver Heart' (pictured) or classic 'Jack Frost'.

solomon's seal variegatum perennial detail
Credit: Jay Wilde

Solomon's Seal

This resilient perennial's arching stems and teardrop flowers add grace around tree trunks. The plants produce colonies and gradually spread.Try 'Variegatum' with two-tone leaves (pictured), red-stemmed 'Ruby Slippers' or dwarf Solomon's seal.

japanese painted fern pictum fronds
Credit: Teresa Woodard

Japanese Painted Fern

These colorful ferns feature gray fronds offset with purple-red veins and stems. They grow in low mounds and spread by rhizomes to form dense colonies. Consider variety pictum (pictured), silver-purple 'Burgundy Lace' or extra-large 'Godzilla'.

barrenwort pretty in pink bishop's hat blooms
Credit: Courtesy of Walters Gardens


A little fighter, barrenwort charms with dainty "bishop's hat" blooms in spring and heart-shape leaves that bronze up in fall. Choose 'Pretty in Pink' (pictured) or yellow 'Sulphureum'. Boost growth with compost and regular watering the first season.

Expert Advice for Landscaping in Shade

Keep these tips in mind to help plants grow and thrive in low-light spots.

Help Them Hydrate

In the first year, deeply water perennials (1 inch each week) to help establish them. Mulch around plants to conserve water and hold back competing weeds.

Work with Trees

Create planting pockets around tree roots and amend those pockets with compost. Take care not to bury tree roots, which will harm them. Selectively remove lower tree limbs to bring more light to a shady spot.

Accent a Shady Bed (Or Hide Bare Gaps) with Containers of Shade-Loving Plants

Try mixing tropical houseplants with perennial coral bells, or plant a pot of shade-loving annuals like begonia 'Canary Wing'. "The advantage of dropping in containers is it is easier to water," says Etienne.

Pay Attention

Plants in trickier locations simply need more TLC, so watch for struggling plants. Take care to water during dry spells and weed regularly to let in air and light. Deadhead perennials such as coral bells to tidy them up.

Want to take your love of shade gardening on the road? Plan a visit to the Lilly House grounds, known today as The Garden at Newfields. They were landscaped in the 1920s by the Olmsted Brothers firm.(Their father famously designed Central Park.) The gardens are part of a campus that also includes the Indianapolis Museum of Art.