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How to Create a Welcoming Shade Garden

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

A shady garden oasis.

A shady garden oasis.

Plan Your Own Oasis in the Shade

Is much of your yard shaded by trees or buildings? Is your terrace or patio on the north side of your home, and always a cool shady spot?

Or perhaps your only outside area is a balcony—and it faces north or east.

Make the best of the shady spots in your garden, terrace, or yard by discovering plants that can thrive in lower light conditions.

It is possible to 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. All those spots you thought couldn't support plants can become welcoming and beautiful areas on hot summer days.

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.

A pathway in the shade. Varying shades of green and different leaf textures make this shady spot inviting.

Go Beyond Green

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.


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

Pulmonaria can be planted to bring some color into your shade garden.

Pulmonaria can be planted to bring some color into your shade garden.

Bleeding Hearts

Delicate looking Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra var.) are right at home in partial shade, thriving in an area with rich, moist soil. The white-flowered forms will add that touch of brightness and light, or the more familiar pink-flowered ones will give a zap of warm color. By choosing the fringed-leaf varieties, you also add textural interest.

Bleeding Hearts are another great addition to a shade garden.

Bleeding Hearts are another great addition to a shade garden.

Red Bleeding Hearts.

Red Bleeding Hearts.

Go Native With Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Jack-in-the-Pulpit is a native wildflower that is easily grown in shade gardens. Both leaves and flowers appear in early spring. After the flower fades, spikes of green berries that turn a bright red last for much of the summer.

Because it is native to woodlands, it grows best on rich and moist soil. It's a perfect addition to a shady spot.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit makes another great addition as it is a native wildflower.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit makes another great addition as it is a native wildflower.

More Native Plants


Another native plant that has been cultivated is Heuchera. These generally do best in light shade, and they 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 many lovely varieties are available.


The foamflower has been crossed with heuchera, with the resulting plant known as Heucherella. One of these hybrids, Quicksilver, has silvery metallic leaves that 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.

Heuchera foliage comes in many colours.

Heuchera foliage comes in many colours.

Soft starry spikes of tiarella light up a shady corner.

Soft starry spikes of tiarella light up a shady corner.

Ground Covers

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.

Use bugleweed as an effective ground cover.

Use bugleweed as an effective ground cover.

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

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 the brightest color, so prune out old wood periodically.

Oakleaf Hydrangea

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.

Japanese Aralia

The Japanese Aralia (Fatsia japonica) is a fast-growing evergreen native to Japan and South Korea. This shrub has large, dark green, deeply lobed leaves, making it a showy addition to a shaded corner. From fall through winter, balls of small white flowers are followed by clusters of small, round, black berries. Although not hardy in cold areas, it can add a tropical look to a protected nook.

Rhododendrons or Azaleas

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 and 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.

Rhododendrons and Blue Squill.

Rhododendrons and Blue Squill.

Japanese Aralia.

Japanese Aralia.

Remember That Shade Gardens Are Possible

Don't despair if your gardening is limited to shady or partly shady areas. It is easy to liven up almost any spot with plants that add color, interest and greenery.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Nicolette Goff


Louise89 on August 29, 2020:

Thank you so much for the tips! I have struggled to find plants that will thrive in my shady yard, so this was very helpful.

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 04, 2013:

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

mydeco from NY on February 28, 2011:

very good post! thanks for sharing!

I'm just going to do shade garden myself

so it was very useful for me