What to Plant in a Shade Garden

Updated on August 14, 2017
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Nicolette Goff is a watercolourist, writer, and dedicated gardener. Her books, articles and paintings reveal her love of nature.

Make a Shady Oasis

Make the best of the shady spots in your garden or yard by planting a shade garden.

You can have a lovely display of greens and colors on the north side of a house, under tree canopies or in a corner that gets little direct sunlight, in the spots you thought couldn't support plants.

Great shade gardens use varying plant heights and types, textures, and colors. Like a walk through a woodland, a planned and properly planted shade garden can be an oasis of cool, restful shade in the heat of summer.

A Pathway in the Shade

Varying shades of green and different leaf textures make this shady spot inviting.
Varying shades of green and different leaf textures make this shady spot inviting.

Many people think that shade-loving plants don't have much color except green. It's true that hostas, ferns and mosses thrive in the shade, but many other plants with colorful and interesting blooms like to grow with a cool and shaded rootbed, but their foliage in the light, or in a semi-shaded area.


White flowers and foliage seem to add a glow in a shady spot, as do varied shades of green. If you're looking for just one plant, then the hostas, with their many varieties of size, leaf shape, and color are one of the best shade plants. There are, however, many others.

Hostas - the Ultimate Shade Plant

Gold hosta adds a gleam of light to a shady corner.
Gold hosta adds a gleam of light to a shady corner.
A variety of hostas.
A variety of hostas.

Pulmonaria

Pulmonaria, commonly known as lungwort, is one of the earliest flowers in the spring, bringing shades of brilliant blue and hot pink to the garden. But it's the foliage that makes it stand out in a shady corner. Its green leaves are spotted with white, making it stand out in the shade.

Bleeding Hearts

Delicate looking Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra var.) are right at home in partial shade, with rich moist soil. There are white flowered forms which can add that touch of brightness, or the more familiar pink flowered ones. By choosing the fringed-leaf varieties, you also add a textural interest.

White blossomed bleeding heart, with its ferny foliage.
White blossomed bleeding heart, with its ferny foliage.

Go Native with Jack

Jack-in-the-Pulpit is a native wildflower that is easily grown in shade gardens. Both leaves and flower appear in early spring, and after the flower fades, the bright red berries last for much of the summer. Because it is native to woodlands, it grows best on rich and moist soil.


More Natives Gone Tame

Another native plant that has been cultivated is Heuchera. These generally do best in light shade, and do well in almost any type of soil. With its compact habit, attractive matt of colorful leaves and fine upright stems of tiny flowers, it is a great specimen plant.

Foamflower (Tiarella) is another native plant, with growth habits and appearance similar to the heuchera. It has evergreen leaves, often spotted or patterned, that take on bronze tints in fall. This plant has been hybridized, and any lovely varieties are available.

It has been crossed with heuchera, with the resulting plant known as Heucherella. One of these hybrids, Quicksilver, has silvery metalic leaves which are a rich red-purple beneath. The spikes of starry white blossoms appear in May and June, and the evergreen leaves turn a deep mahogany over winter.

Tiarella
Tiarella
Heuchera
Heuchera

Ground Cover

If you're looking for a shade-tolerant ground cover, then bugleweed (Ajuga spp)is for you. It can carpet a semi-dry area beneath trees in no time with its fast growing runners. It will also grow well in an area with good garden soil, and more light.

You'll find species with leaves in chocolate-burgundy, yellow, or green, all with spikes of electric blue flowers in the spring. If you pamper this plant the first year, it will take over and cover the area in no time.

Shrubs for Shade

Perhaps you're looking for some shade-tolerant shrubs to fill up a larger shady area of your yard. There are several you can introduce that will add seasonal color with blossoms or year-round color with foliage or bark color.

Red twig Dogwood (Cornus stononifera) will add year-round interest with tons of white blooms in spring, coppery purple fall leaves, and bright red bark giving winter color. The new twigs have brightest color, so prune out old wood periodically.

Oakleaf Hydrangea blooms in late spring, with panicles of white flowers that can be left on the shrub over the winter to add seasonal interest. It has cinnamon exfoliating bark, so even through the greenery more color is visible. Other hydrangeas also do well in partial shade.

The Japanese Aralia is a fast growing evergreen that is native to Japan and South Korea. This shrub produces large, dark green, deeply lobed leaves. From fall through winter balls of small whitish flowers are followed by clusters of small round black fruit. Although not hardy in cold areas, it can add a tropical look to a protected shady nook.

If you're looking for color in a semi-shaded spot as well as winter green, then rhododendrons or azaleas may be what you're looking for. The species and varieties available are almost infinite, with ones that bloom almost any time, with sizes from a few inches to several feet tall. These are acid loving plants, with fairly shallow root systems, so take care planting and watering. Do your research if you're choosing shrubs from this group.

Japanese Aralia - for a tropical look
Japanese Aralia - for a tropical look
Blue flowering Hydrangea, with rhododendron on the right.
Blue flowering Hydrangea, with rhododendron on the right.
Colorful Rhododendrons - evergreen interest
Colorful Rhododendrons - evergreen interest

Questions & Answers

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      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        5 years ago from USA

        This was helpful, as I've struggled for years on finding good shade-loving plants. Great photos and list.

      • mydeco profile image

        mydeco 

        7 years ago from NY

        very good post! thanks for sharing!

        I'm just going to do shade garden myself

        so it was very useful for me

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