Figuring out what plants will and won’t work in a shaded yard is one of the great gardening dilemmas. While you obviously can just pick flowers willy-nilly, plop them in the ground and hope for the best, experience suggests that likely won’t work. Designing a beautiful garden requires forethought and a considerable amount of botanical knowledge. Take your soil: Will it need amending to provide the proper nutrients for what you want to grow? Does it have proper drainage, or does it get boggy after a good rain? You will also need to know the growing zone you live in to best understand which perennials will thrive in your particular climate. 

For this particular article, the gardening variable we’re focusing on is sunlight. The amount of direct sun your garden receives is a major deciding factor for which types of plants will flourish there. Many novice gardeners can be frustrated by a shady area; the most colorful, showy perennials tend to require a good deal of sunlight to produce their blooms, so when they hear “shade” they think “boring.” That certainly does not need to be the case.

An Intro to Shade Gardening

For our purposes, a “shade garden” is usually underneath a canopy of trees or in the shadow of a building. Landscape designers often categorize these into three different types of shade: 

    • Partial shade (2-6 hours of shade/day) is created by artificial structures or natural features like hillsides that completely block out the sun during part of the day. East-facing areas that receive cooler morning sun are more hospitable to shade plants. West-facing sites are exposed to hot afternoon sun, which can cause foliage burn or other stress.
    • Full shade (6+ hours of shade/day) refers to an area that receives little or no direct sun. This usually occurs along the northern side of a home, in a courtyard, between tall urban buildings or in an area covered by a solid barrier such as a roof overhang or shade cloth.
    • Dappled shade is most often found underneath a tree canopy, which creates a pattern of sun and shade that moves around throughout the day. The type of tree and size of the canopy will determine the amount of shade (and requires a good deal of detective work on behalf of the gardener).

To design a gorgeous shade garden, it helps to shift your perspective just a bit. Instead of picturing a riot of colors, adjust your vision to consider all the various shades of foliage that exist. A successful shade garden will use those contrasting hues and textures to create visual interest instead of a full-color palette. What can result is a lush, verdant landscape where even a hint of white can be absolutely stunning. 

Design Tips

Plants are often categorized in garden centers by their sunlight requirements. Some plants that say they require partial/full sun will certainly grow in a shady area, but they might not perform the same way, either having stunted growth or failing to bloom. So, it is crucial to select plants that will be happy in shade, rather than trying to force a flower to live outside its ideal conditions. 

    • Create Layers

When planning a new garden, choose plants that will bloom and have foliage at different times throughout the year so there will always be some visual interest. In a shade garden, this can be difficult — but not impossible. Use a mix of trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs and annuals to create a layered tapestry that mimics a natural woodland.

Choose a few options that will stay green year-round, such as rhododendrons and conifers, so you’re not stuck looking out the window at a bare patch of ground in the middle of winter. Plant some early spring-blooming bulbs (like daffodils or tulips) or ephemerals to take advantage of the sun before trees get their foliage. (Ephemerals are small woodland plants that have evolved to bloom when trees are dormant. Once the trees begin to leaf out and develop a thick canopy, the ephemerals retreat back underground. Some examples of ephemerals are Trillium, Mertensia virginica [Virginia bluebells], Ipheoin uniflorum [spring starflower], and Dodecatheon media [shooting stars].) And finally, choose a variety of plants that peak mid- and late-summer and early fall. 

    • Focus on Foliage

Rely on plants with interesting foliage such as hostas, Japanese forest grass, Pulmonaria (spotted lungwort), and coleus for long-lasting color throughout the growing season. Then, mix it up. Play with both color and texture as well as sizes and shapes to create contrast that will draw the eye to all the unique varieties. You’d be surprised how vivid a chartreuse or gold-hued hosta can look planted next to a copse of delicate ferns. (Pro tip: Keep things simple for maximum effect. Use larger drifts of the same plants for greater visual impact and to keep the design from being too busy.) And don’t sleep on selecting plants like astilbes or hydrangeas, whose pale blooms will stand out amongst all the green.

    • Get Creative

If foliage doesn’t do it for you, brighten things up with colorful containers, statuary or water features. Reflective mirrors, glass domes, Adirondack chairs and other decorative accents can effectively lighten a dark space. 

Our Favorite Shade-Loving Plants

Not sure where to start? Here is a list of some of the tried-and-true shady standards we’ve come to rely on, with some helpful tips:

    • Hydrangeas: prefer morning sun, but tolerate afternoon sun if well-watered
    • Hostas: the darker the leaf, the less sun it needs!
    • Creeping jenny: bright and practically indestructible
    • Vinca (also called creeping myrtle): a great ground cover
    • Lily of the valley: surprisingly versatile
    • Bletillas: Chinese ground orchid, prefer morning sun
    • Bleeding hearts: delicate, but a showstopper
    • Hakonechloa: short, clump-forming grass that provides a ton of spiky visual interest
    • Foam flowers: easily burn in direct sun
    • Leopard plants: bright yellow blooms in partial shade = winning
    • Spotted dead-nettles: spread aggressively
    • Autumn anemones: flower from July to September 
    • Astilbes: bright pink, purple or white blooms brighten any shade garden
    • Ferns: a wide variety of hues and textures to choose from
    • Jacob’s ladder: foliage is darker and more intense in dense shade 
    • Bunchberries: have delicate white blooms in summer and bright red berries in fall 
    • Coral bells: deep burgundy leaves add great contrast, and bees love them
    • Columbines: hate the heat
    • Lenten roses: often the first things to come up in early spring, offering gorgeous, bell-shaped flowers and beautiful foliage

Top image: JenniferPhotographyImaging from Getty Images Signature, via Canva.com


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