Shade garden plants in a flowerbed in the trunk circle

How to plan, plant, and grow a fabulous garden that lightens up the shadows.

Is shade a constant problem in your garden? Do you find yourself dealing with wimpy foliage, absent flowers, slug damage beyond belief, and lots and lots of bare soil? Well, it needn’t be that way. If you apply the proper techniques and use the right plants, your shade garden can become your showcase garden; a garden that not only looks attractive in all seasons but also is easy to maintain.

Shade gardening actually requires less effort than gardening in the sun.
Gardening in the shade actually requires less effort than gardening in the sun. Photo by James Keon

Shade gardening success is determined more by attitude than anything else. Don’t moan over what you can’t grow, learn to rejoice over what you can grow. You’ll discover there are hundreds of beautiful plants that require nothing more than a shady spot in the garden. You’ll also find that plants growing in shade need less watering, less fertilizer, and less overall care than plants grown in the sun. With proper planning and just a little bit of effort, you don’t need to care for most of the season and let your shade garden nearly take care of itself.

I hope you enjoy reading about growing a beautiful shade garden as much as I have enjoyed writing about it.

The Advantages Of Shade

I know of many “shade-stricken” gardeners who probably can’t think of a single advantage of the shade. Once you stop bemoaning the woes of a situation where you can’t grow hybrid tea roses and learn to accept that shade may not necessarily always be your enemy, you’ll have to admit that there are many advantages to shade from a gardener’s point of view:

  • The foliage doesn’t burn in the shade as it can in full sun.
  • Flower colors are more intense when the sun doesn’t beat down on them.
  • Flowers often last considerably longer in shade than in the sun.
  • Plants need less watering in the shade because evaporation is reduced. They’ll often come through drought situations in flying colors, while sun-grown plants burn to a crisp. When they do wilt during the day, they often recover on their own at night.
  • Plants need less fertilizer in the shade because they grow more slowly.
  • Weeds are considerably less of a problem in shade than in the sun—most “weed” species are full-sun plants.
  • Shade plants need less routine maintenance.
  • In woodland settings, dead leaves provide excellent winter protection against cold, and plants that are just barely hardy will often thrive.
  • A wide range of interesting plants will grow in the shade.
  • Certain garden styles look best in shady settings, such as Oriental gardens.
Who says you can't have a water garden in the shade! Shade water gardens are so beautiful and require much less maintenance than water gardens in full sun.
Who says you can’t have a water garden in the shade! Shade water gardens are so beautiful and require much less maintenance than water gardens in full sun. Photo by James Keon

Shade Loving Plants

Don’t worry if it occurs to you that your garden might be on the shady side. Shade isn’t nearly as harmful a condition as some people would have you believe. You can garden in the shade—it’s actually fairly easy to do. It’s even easier, in many ways than gardening in the sun. In fact, there is nothing involved in shade gardening that the average gardener, even the rankest beginner, can’t deal with. I have written up a list of shade-loving plants below.

Foliage Plants for Shade

Foliage plants that are not only very beautiful but also grow in shade are:

Hosta: Hostas are mounded perennials with broad, often variegated leaves and upright stalks of bell-shaped flowers, usually in shades of lavender and white. They are ubiquitous shade plants—it’s hard to imagine a shade garden without them. And for good reason: hostas are attractive, simple to grow, long-lived, and really do put up with shade.

Coral Bells: If you’re looking for stunning garden colors, why not consider coral bells? Coral bells not only have many beautiful flowers, but also bright foliage coloration.

Ferns: Of course! Probably no other type of plant is as well known for its shade tolerance as the fern. It is always the plant gardeners seem to turn to when they feel they have so much shade they can’t grow anything else. And indeed, shade suits ferns like a hand fits a glove. Most thrive in the darkest corners of the landscape, even in spots under huge conifers or on the north side of buildings that have never seen a ray of direct sun. Ferns will grow in caves—well, at least just inside the mouth of caves, and that’s about as dark as any plant can take. So, if all else fails, you can always resort to ferns.

Variegated plants, with their foliage striped or spotted with white, cream, yellow or even pink, add bounteous color to even the shadiest corners.
Variegated plants, with their foliage striped or spotted with white, cream, yellow, or even pink, add bounteous color to even the shadiest corners. Photo by James Keon

Caladium: Not many plants can beat the ever-popular caladium when it comes to colorful foliage. Indeed, how not to fall instantly in pleasure with such bright colors? The arrow-to heart-shaped leaves are awash in translucent whites, pinks, and reds, some with barely any green at all.

Coleus: This plant has certainly come a long way! Grandma’s colorful-leaved but somewhat ungainly houseplant—all height with no lower leaves—has morphed into one of the most beautiful of all shade plants. New dwarf cultivars not as quick to burst into unwanted bloom are now filling shady garden beds and borders around the world—and what a show! The foliage colors are so spectacular you can truly say, “With leaves this beautiful, who needs flowers?” and mean it. The insignificant spikes of tiny lavender to white flowers are usually just pinched off: The leaves carry the entire show.

Japanese Forest Grass: The dense, arching stems of this grass form a beautiful mound, creating an appearance quite unlike that of any other true grass, although a look at its thin, narrow leaves does reveal its true affinities. It is the variegated forms that are the most popular: They shine like a flower in shady areas and never fail to attract attention. The result is that this grass, scarcely known to gardeners as recently as the late 1990s, is quickly becoming a staple plant for the shade garden. Don’t count on it for flowers, though: The flower spikes are thin and wispy, so insignificant that many gardeners don’t even notice their Japanese forest grass is in bloom!

Flowering Plants for Shade

If colorful blooms are what you desire, there are a variety of flowers that can brighten almost any shady spot. Shade-loving flowering plants that add beautiful color to every shade garden include:

Dead nettle: Dead nettle is the truly great choice of groundcovers for shady parts of the garden: They’re fast-growing, create a complete cover, and look just as good in deep shade as in filtered light or even sun. Most also have attractive silvery foliage that is semi-evergreen and lights up dark nooks, plus all have beautiful, abundant flowers.

Foamflower: Once a minor player in landscaped woodland gardens, the handsome foamflower is beginning to create quite a reputation for itself as a stalwart and attractive plant with a long season of interest, thanks to evergreen leaves that take on beautiful reddish tints from fall through winter and a long blooming season from late spring to midsummer.

There are many beautiful flowering plants that can successfully grow, bloom, and flourish in the shade. Photo by James Keon
There are many beautiful flowering plants, like this bleeding heart, that can successfully grow, bloom, and flourish in the shade. Photo by James Keon

Lungwort: Lungwort is an early spring blooming plant with a somewhat unfortunate common name. The plant got its common name because it was used medicinally to treat lung ailments. But today, this plant is mostly known as a perennial landscape flower that can be successfully grown in shady areas.

Astilbe: Ask any gardener to name a shade perennial and he will first say hosta. His second choice, on the other hand, will almost certainly be astilbe! And why not? There are hundreds of different types, ranging from tiny edging or rock garden plants to tall, back-of-the-border giants with green or reddish-green leaves and a variety of flower colors. Typically, astilbes have deeply cut, fernlike leaves that show up early in the spring and last until frost, with feathery bouquets of tiny flowers that last for ages and which, if you leave them alone, dry on the spot, even adding winter color.

Foxglove: What would a cottage-style garden be without the skyrocketing spires of foxglove blooms? Rising from a ground-hugging rosette of beautifully textured leaves, the sturdy stems produce downward-pointing tubular flowers, often spotted with darker colors, that open bit by bit, starting from the base of the stem, then working their way upward. Foxglove is also very attractive to hummingbirds.

Cyclamen: Everyone knows the florists’ cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum), with its often huge upside-down flowers, but it is grown strictly as a houseplant. Its smaller, hardier cousins are less well known: perfect miniature replicas of the florists’ cyclamen that you can plant around a woodland area or rock garden. Curiously, you’ll find spring-, summer-, and fall-blooming species, and if you mix them correctly you can enjoy their beautiful blooms through much of the year.

Primrose: Primroses are such a staple of the spring garden, it’s hard to imagine one without them. They often bloom while there is still snow on the ground, but there are other primroses that bloom all the way through spring and into early summer, so you can keep a primrose bed going for 3 months or more, depending on your local climate.

Impatiens: Impatiens has become the most popular annual of all, surpassing even the ubiquitous petunia as a garden staple. It can be found in containers, on the ground, and indoors—it appears that the impatiens’ beauty has spread throughout the world. This popularity is certainly not surprising: In a world where mature gardens are the rule and shade is a fact of life, here is a plant that truly does bloom in the shade. Non-stop bloom even in deep shade from spring through fall and even all winter in mild climates!

Bleeding heart: Bleeding hearts have been a flower garden staple since your great-grandparents were kids—and for good reason. They are very easy to grow, bloom readily even under less-than-perfect conditions, have attractive foliage, and the flowers are just so original—they really do look like miniature hearts! And then there is attractive, deeply cut fernlike foliage.

Hellebore: Hellebores are among the earliest of all spring-flowering perennials and certainly the longest-lasting. Their cup-shaped, semi-hanging flowers can bloom as early as December in truly mild climates, but they are more likely to bloom in February, March, or April.

Pansies: Even non-gardeners recognize pansies. The broad petals form a rounded “face” with darker spots acting as eyes and a mouth, making for a particularly charming flower that has been popular for generations. The common name comes from the French pensée, or thought because the flowers were formerly used to mark book pages so you wouldn’t forget where you were, in other words, so you could “retrace your thoughts.”

Fuchsias: Fuchsias add color to beds and borders, hanging baskets, and a variety of containers. Fuchsias are also hardy enough to be used as flowering hedges.

Bulbs for Shade

Bulbs are not the first plants one thinks of when it comes to shade gardening. I know my mind immediately pictures a sunny garden chock-full of tulips when I hear the word bulbs. But then secondary images filter through: a forest floor blue with Spanish bluebells, native trilliums in the deepest shade in woods out by my uncle’s farm, and many others. Yes, you can grow bulbs in the shade—as long as you know what kind of shade, and what kinds of bulbs to choose.

Snowdrops: Due to their natural, woodland habitat, snowdrops are ideal for a partly shady or woodland style of garden. Nothing signals the beginning of spring like the bright white, sparkling snowdrop flowers peeking out from the ground.

Anemones: Another woodland garden essential, anemones will create a carpet of flowers in these dull, shady places. Beautifully delicate, they do not require much maintenance, so you can easily make an impact with minimal effort.

Tuberous Begonias: This is probably the best known and most widely planted of all the shade-tolerant bulbs and is certainly the most colorful and long-blooming. The flowers are often enormous and double or semidouble, some with fringed edges or bicolor flowers set off with contrasting margins. And the array of forms is just as charming: low and compact for borders, tall and upright for the middle of the border, or with trailing stems for hanging baskets. Even the leaves are attractive, either green or bronze, and rather like wings, with jagged edges. Plant them in masses, plant them in spots of color, or plant them in containers: No matter how you use them, they will bring cheer to every shade garden and sparkle in the landscape.

With their ability to grow in spots that get only seasonal sun, bulbs can be among the most spectacular flowers in the shade garden. Photo by James Keon
With their ability to grow in spots that get only seasonal sun, bulbs can be among the most spectacular flowers in the shade garden. Photo by James Keon

Fritillaria: Loved by bees, they’re perfect for adding height to the back of a border and also make excellent cut flowers.

Crocus: A true sign of spring, the crocus is an ideal choice for planting at the front of the border, in containers, or naturalizing on a lawn for cheerful color.

Daffodils: If you have a partially shaded area of the garden to fill, daffodils are a perfect choice. While they are not to be planted in full shade, they will be quite happy in partly shaded areas.

Muscari: No garden should be without Muscari, as they are one of the best and most loved bulbs. Ideal for planting under shrubs and trees. They’re such an easy plant to grow and give you lots back for very little effort, so they are ideal if you are new to gardening.

Winter Aconite: Among the first flowers to appear in early spring. Bright-yellow blossoms herald the new season and bring cheer to any shady spot in the garden.

Bluebells: Nothing is quite as charming as the English Bluebell, a quintessential sign of a British spring. Growing naturally in woodlands throughout Britain, it’s perfect for a shady garden where the bell-shaped blooms will make an incredible impact.

Trees & Shrubs for Shade

Here are some of the most commonly grown shade-loving trees and shrubs. There are also many other beautiful and hardy native plants from North America’s forest understory that can liven up a shady landscape and change your perception about gardening in the shade. Some of the most popular trees and shrubs for shady locations include:

Japanese maple: As the name suggests, Japanese maples originated in East Asia and are often part of traditional Japanese landscaping and garden design. Japanese maples are very commonly grown throughout the United States and you might even think that Japanese maples originated here.

Birch: Native to northern climates, birch trees are lovely additions to rural landscapes. Their narrow canopy produces dappled shade that makes it possible to grow under these trees a variety of groundcover plants.

Dogwood: Flowering dogwoods (Cornus florida) are deciduous trees native to the eastern half of the United States. These trees can enhance the beauty of your landscape all year round.

Witch hazel: Witch hazels are very popular plants throughout the United States, and are also great for shade gardens. Forming large shrubs or small trees, they come into their own in late winter and early spring, when scented, flame-colored, ribbon-like flowers appear on bare branches. Some cultivars also have good autumn leaf color, and their stems are lovely to bring indoors for a cut flower display.

Shade-loving trees and shrubs, like this, commonly grown Japanese maple, add both structure and color to any shady garden. Photo by James Keon
Shade-loving trees and shrubs, like this commonly-grown Japanese maple, add both structure and color to any shady garden. Photo by James Keon

Camellia: Camellia is easy to grow, glossy evergreens. They are ideal for containers. Their beautiful flowers come in a variety of colors, including white, pink, and red, and bloom early in the season, when there isn’t anything else blooming.

Rhododendron & Azalea: Rhododendrons and azaleas, both from the genus Rhododendron, have long been mainstays of late spring because of their spectacular clusters of showy blooms—plus, large green leaves that often stay green through winter.

Holly: Growing holly bushes in your shade garden can add structure and a splash of color in the winter and a lush, green backdrop for other flowers in the summer.

Viburnums: Looking for an evergreen, semi-evergreen or deciduous shrub that is low maintenance, deer resistant, and provides attractive foliage, abundant blooms, fall color, and winter fruit for wildlife? Viburnums are an excellent choice. With all of that going for them, it’s not hard to see why they’re one of the best-loved garden shrubs of all time.

Chaenomeles: These beautiful hardy shrubs provide an abundance of spring blossoms, followed by fragrant yellow fruits in the autumn. An early flowering delight that is ideal for any medium to large-sized garden.

Japanese Kerria: Japanese kerria is considered a small ornamental shrub. Its simple leaves are birch-like in shape and alternately arranged on the stems. The plant has a fine texture with its small leaf size (1½-to 4-inches long). Due to its ability to flower profusely from partial shade to shade, this deciduous shrub is a useful addition to a woodland landscape.

Hydrangea: This is the most unusual and attractive shrub, both in and out of bloom. It produces huge domed flower heads, up to 10 inches (25 cm) in diameter, composed of a cluster of fairly modest, highly scented, whitish fertile flowers surrounded by a ring of much larger pure white sterile ones. The glossy dark green leaves are charming as well and turn a nice golden color in some climates (elsewhere they fall green). Hydrangeas look beautiful in every shade garden!

Shade Garden Plans

Still not sure enough of your knowledge to feel at ease designing your own shade garden? Take a good look at the plans below. Each was designed with the home gardener in mind, using plants and plantings adaptable to shady parts of the average backyard. These designs were created by professional gardeners for ease of care using very adaptable plants and so can be used in a wide variety of situations.

You can use the designs as is or expand or reduce the number of plants to fit the space that is available to you. Better still, use them as inspiration, borrowing certain elements for your plan, then adding your own personal touches. The important thing, I feel, is to get personally involved in your plan. When you let someone else do all the planning, it really doesn’t feel like your garden, even if it is on your property. If you add your own grain of salt, the plan very much becomes your own, and you’ll find you feel much more at ease with it.

A Beautiful Shade Garden For Beginners

Plan of a beautiful shade garden for beginners. Illustration by John Peterson
Plan of a beautiful shade garden for beginners. Illustration by John Peterson

It’s a good idea to start slow and keep things easy when you’re new to gardening. For example, if you’re looking to fill a shady spot in your yard, this beginner shade garden plan combines a few low-maintenance, easy-to-grow plants to create a stunning display that’s nearly foolproof. Japanese maple is a focal point. The colorful flowers of astilbe and false forget-me-not keep the floral display going in the spring, while hosta and Solomon’s seal’s striking variegated leaves keep the garden looking colorful even though nothing is blooming.

Diagram. Beautiful shade garden for beginners. Illustration by John Peterson
Diagram. Beautiful shade garden for beginners. Illustration by John Peterson

Plant List:

A: 1 Japanese Maple (‘Bloodgood’) Zones 5–9

B: 9 Hosta (Hosta ‘Patriot’) Zones 3–9

C: 5 False forget-me-not (Brunnera macrophylla) Zones 4–8

D: 6 False spirea (Astilbe Chinensis ‘Visions’) Zones 4–7

E: 6 Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’) Zones 3–8

A Beautiful Side Shade Garden

Plan of a beautiful side shade garden. Illustration by John Peterson
Plan of a beautiful side shade garden. Illustration by John Peterson

A house looks stark and empty without foundation plants. A well-planned foundation planting helps to incorporate your home with the surrounding landscape, resulting in a welcoming, harmonious appearance. Instead of the common row of evergreens, this foundation garden design uses low-maintenance shrub roses, which are flanked by neat rows of perennials and backed by a beautiful clematis. Plant clematis on either side of a larger window or several smaller windows if you don’t have three windows along the front of your house as shown in the picture (make sure to provide a trellis to support the vines). By adding or removing daylilies, salvias, and shrub roses, you can shorten or lengthen this plan to suit your planting space.

Diagram. Beautiful side shade garden. Illustration by John Peterson

Plant List:

A: 6 Miniature Rose (Rosa cultivars) Zones 5-9

B: 12 Lily (Lilium ‘Lollipop’) Zones 3-8

C: 2 Indian Hawthorn (Raphiolepis indica) Zones 8-10

D: 12 Daylily (Hemerocallis ‘Stella D’Oro’) Zones 3-10

E: 10 Salvia Sylvestris (‘May Night’) Zones 4-8

F: 5 Rose (Rosa ‘Betty’ Prior) Zones 5-9

G: 2 Clematis (‘Jackmanii’) Zones 4-9

H: 1 Clematis (‘Henryi’) Zones 4-9

A Colorful Shade Garden Under a Tree

Plan of a colorful shade garden under a tree. Illustration by John Peterson
Plan of a colorful shade garden under a tree. Illustration by John Peterson

Have you ever wished you could give a bare spot beneath a tree’s canopy a makeover? Or maybe you’d like to maximize the color in every square inch of your yard, even that boring shady corner you’re stumped on. Then try this well-planned shade garden design. This garden plan features many shade perennials such as hosta, astilbe, and foamflower that offer both lush foliage and beautiful blooms. Fill in around the landscaping stones with low-growing wax begonias and a few autumn crocus to ensure constant blooms from spring to frost.

Diagram. Colorful shade garden under a tree. Illustration by John Peterson
Diagram. Colorful shade garden under a tree. Illustration by John Peterson

Plant List:

A: 1 Shade tree

B: 3 Astilbe (‘Red Sentinel’) Zones 4–8

C: 4 Hosta (‘Bressingham Blue’) Zones 3–11

D: 7 Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) Zones 3–7

E: 7 Periwinkle (Vinca minor) Zones 4-9

F: 5 Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) Zones 4–9

G: 4 Wax begonia (Begonia semperflorens cultorum) Annual

H: 5 Decorative stones

In this article, I have written some interesting and helpful information on gardening in the shade. The advantages of shade, a list of shade-loving, plants, flowers, shrubs, and trees, and three beautiful and easy-to-care shade garden plans are the several topics included in this article. I wish you to become a successful shade gardener and enjoy colorful foliage, flowers, and everything that will flourish in your shade garden!

Good luck in shade gardening!

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