Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
Gardening in the shade can be both challenging and fun. The number of shade-tolerant plants is smaller than the number of plants that need full sun. Many of the shade lovers are grown for their foliage rather than their flowers. But with careful selection of plant material and a well-thought out design, that shady corner of your yard can be a real star.
What Kind of Shade Do I Have?
Before you start planning your shade garden and purchasing plants, you need to determine what kind of shade you have and how much sunlight is available to the plants each day. Do you have full shade with only a brief period of sunlight early in the morning or late in the afternoon? Or do you have partial shade with a few hours of sunlight? Perhaps you have dappled shade created by a nearby tree with some sun present throughout the day. The amount of sun available will determine which plants you can use in your garden.
Full Shade Plants
For full shade, you might want to plant a woodland garden using native plants such as trillium, Jack in the Pulpit, Dogtooth violets, sanguinaria (Bloodroot) and Mayapples. All of these plants have interesting foliage as well as flowers. Be sure to buy them from a nursery that grows them rather than one that harvests them in the wild. Don’t collect plants from your local nature preserves. Many of our native plants are disappearing as their habitats shrink thanks to the expansion of the suburbs and now climate change.
If you prefer a more conventional planting, hostas come in an endless variety of sizes and colors. Many people have created stunning gardens using an array of hosta cultivars. Don’t try this if deer are a problem in your area! Hostas are like candy for deer. Use ferns instead. Similar to hostas, they come in a range of shapes and sizes. They don't bloom but in the spring, their fronds appear as fiddleheads, unfurling as the season progresses.
If you are looking for flowers that grow in the shade, think outside the (big)box (store). Instead of the usual impatiens and begonias try these stars of the deeply shaded garden: Lady’s Mantle with fuzzy leaves and chartreuse flowers, Leopardbane with brilliant yellow, daisy-like flowers, hellebores, lamium (purple flowers) and ligularia (yellow flowers), Lobelia whose brilliant red flowers are irresistible to hummingbirds, Forget-Me-Nots with their bright blue flowers, low-growing brightly flowering Pulmonaria, airy Foamflowers (Tiarella), Japanese Toad Lilies, and violas.
Coleus, once the backbone of Victorian borders, is making a comeback. Grown for their colorful foliage, they come in a rainbow of colors. Think that ornamental grasses only grow in the sun? Think again! Sedges can be grown in shade as can Golden Hakone Grass.
Partial Shade Plants
Semi-shady gardens which get a few hours of sunlight each day either in the morning or afternoon, offer the gardener a wider range of choices. You can create a classic cottage garden using foxgloves, columbine, bleeding hearts, pansies, dianthus, Echinacea (coneflowers), Cranesbill geraniums, primroses, Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed Susans) and heuchera (coral bells) whose most recent cultivars have foliage in various colors. Old-fashioned violets and lily of the valley add sweet scents.
You should also consider astilbe (pictured at the beginning of this article) with feathery foliage and flowers that come in several different colors, Goatsbeard, a tall back of the border plant with astilbe-like flowers, brunnera (False Forget-Me-Not), campanula, eupatorium (Joe Pye Weed), filipendula (Meadowsweet), Blackberry Lilies (which are actually a type of iris), Japanese Painted Ferns and Northern Sea Oats, for fans of ornamental grasses.
Light Shade Plants
And finally, for those gardens with light shade, you can use sun lovers that also tolerate a little shade like Siberian iris, anemones, Golden Marguerite, Baptisia, some of the Phloxes, Shasta Daisies, Switch Grass, Candytuft, Penstemon, Persicaria, Scabiosa, Veronica and old fashioned Tiger lilies.
If you wish to grow herbs, there are some that can stand a little shade. Catnip, chamomile, chervil, dill, fennel, ginger, lemon balm, licorice lovage, mint, Monarda (Bee Balm), parsley, rosemary, Stachys (betony), St. John’s Wort, tansy, tarragon and thyme to name a few.
Trees, Shrubs and Climbers for Shade
And don’t forget shrubs! Rhododendrons and azaleas which are understory plants in their natural environments, are naturals in the shade garden as are hydrangeas. All of them offer wonderful flowers.
Add a little height to your design with the lovely pink Nelly Moser clematis which will brighten your semi shady garden with flowers in June and September. If you like roses, Sombreuil (peach) and Zephirine Drouhin (pink) will happily clamber up a shady fence or trellis.
For even more height, there are trees that will grow in shady areas. Consider beeches, flowering dogwoods and redbuds.
Whether you have a shady corner or your whole yard is shady, don’t despair. You can create a beautiful landscape full of trees, shrubs and flowers that is as attractive as any sunny garden.
Questions & Answers
Question: My Irises are in full shade and won't bloom, is that the problem?
Answer: Yes, shade is definitely interfering. Iris need full sun which is a minimum of 6 to 8 hours of sunlight every day.
© 2008 Caren White
CindiSummers on April 28, 2010:
Nice hub! I agree with about hostas. Deer ate most of the ones I planted last year. This year, I sprayed them with Deer Off II, and the deer haven't come close.
In case you planted some hostas already, here's the repellent I'm using: