Plants and Shrubs for Shade – Shady Gardens

garden shade - shady garden

A garden without shade is a garden without peace. So try to make garden shade for your own benefit, as well as for the plants. Do not think that choice of plants is restricted or that a shady plot can never be as pretty as one that lies in the sun. Even in deep garden shade, there are many plants that can be grown and enjoyed. Few of them ever reach the brilliance of those in the sunny border — for example only few flowering annuals do well — but all of them are plants of great character. You can be recompensed by lovely colour from bulbs in spring. Since most are perennials they may be left undisturbed, sometimes for years. Some of them, like polygonatum or Solomon’s Seal, are rhizomatic and should not be disturbed or they will disappear.

None are so co-operative as ferns which grow in the shadiest of corners. The list of hardy ferns is much longer than many laymen realise. There are fern specialists who carry a selection from those to grow in walls like the asplenium, and Onoclea sensibilis, which will not only tolerate a wet position but even a few inches of water. Generally speaking, the environment that suits ferns best is partially shady, slightly moist and cool. There are some suitable for dry spots too. Some are evergreen.

Because they need so little light, all spring flowering bulbs grow anywhere in the shade, but there are others which bloom at other times of the year also. Some of these like the schizostylis give wonderful colours in late autumn.

Most plants for shade – those that really enjoy shade – like their conditions to be moist and the soil rich. Yet we find that though plants adapt themselves surprisingly well to different types of soil in spite of their natural inclinations (no doubt the falling leaves when they grow under trees help provide a correct root hold), they are less likely to fit into a shady garden if they like sun and vice versa. There are a few that grow in sun or part shade.

Possibly what most affects plants grown in the shade of trees or buildings is the amount of drip to which they are subjected. A few, like hostas, revel in it, but others die. There are other plants, but only few, that will tolerate any situation. Where ground is water-logged, it is well worth while installing an efficient drainage system. If open soil is then placed above the drain a greater variety of plants may be grown than before.

In their natural surroundings we can see wild herbaceous, bulbous and shrubby plants alike growing close to the foot of the trunk of many types of tree; sometimes as in the case of the polypody fern, actually growing on the trunk and along some of the larger limbs. (A good nature tip for those who want to clothe a rotting stump). In some woods the ground cover is thick, for many plants grow well and increase in the humus-rich moist leaf mould. In our gardens we have to search, and experiment to find what plants get along well together.

So many shrubs grow prettily in shade. A few will tolerate dark corners but most like half shade, by which we mean not only the dappled protection of nearby trees but the coolness cast by long shadows at different times of the day.

Although we often see hydrangeas in open sunny places, the ideal position for them is in a sheltered, semi-shaded place. These do not like drips from trees. In shade their blooms are deeper hues than when they grow in the open. H. petiolaris, the climbing species, can be allowed to scramble along the ground. This is a species that will grow on a north site and like other shrubs that dwell in this position it will grow in shade.

For quick ground covers, try sprawlers, these plants for shade such as winter jasmine that are usually supported. They can be allowed to run along the ground and then trained up a tree if liked.

You can introduce colour to shady spots by training climbers — clematis in particular — but also polygonum and some roses, to climb trees or to top fences and walls. This is an effective way of getting the effect of colour from the distance.

Some trees do present a problem. For example, you will find few plants growing beneath beech trees. So avoid planting beech unless the trees can be grown as specimens on lawns; (Wood Meadow Grass, Poa rhemoralis, grows well under trees). If you have inherited a beech tree, underplant it liberally with Cyclamen neapolitanum, which will do very well. Plant the corms in early autumn. Squirrels go for them, so in the early stages cover the planted area with small mesh wire netting. The delightful little flowers will cover the ground from August to October and after them the beautifully marked leaves will make a pretty carpet. Other hardy cyclamen can be planted round the perimeter of the shade with early spring flowers.

shady garden For those who have made shrubberies, shade-loving “cover” plants are essential not only to keep down weeds but also to provide the ecological balance necessary. There are many perennials suitable, but some biennials are also good and very showy. These can be left to seed themselves. Myosotis or forget-me-not is one of the most effective, and will grow well among shrubs because it is dwarf. Honesty with purple flowers in spring and silver “moons” in winter looks lovely among taller trees. So do the foxgloves. Small spring flowers such as crocus species, chionodoxa and Scilla siberica will become naturalised and seed themselves.

The most important thing to decide before choosing plants for shade, no matter what the cause of the shade, is whether the soil is constantly moist or dry.

Where the soil is dry (not to be confused with summer hard-baked soil, which is the result of water-logging in winter) there are a few good herbaceous and shrubby ground covers that can quickly and easily become established. Some retain their leaves throughout the winter. These include anaphalis, bergenia, epimedium, saxifraga and vinca. Some others retain some foliage but are at their best from late spring onwards. These include aquilegia, especially the old-fashioned “granny bonnets”, asperula, campanula, digitalis, geranium, the herbaceous geranium or crane’s-bill (not the potted types, correctly pelargoniums), hypericum, lamium, mertensia, pachysandra, polygonum and symphytum. Most of these will do equally well, perhaps even better, in a moist place.

For moist woodland conditions the list of shrubs for shade below contains some very interesting plants. Not many are true evergreens but most have distinctive foliage which appears early in the season and persists with the very severe weather.

Shrubs for Shade

Acer (Maple)






Buxus (Box)


Chaenomeles (Japonica)


Cornus (Dogwood)






Hedera (Ivy)












Vinca (Periwinkle)

Herbaceous and Bulbous Plants for Shade







Convallaria (Lily-of-the-Valley)


Geranium (Cranesbill)













15. October 2010 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Gardening Ideas, Shady Gardens | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Plants and Shrubs for Shade – Shady Gardens


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