The Best Plants for Shade
Fantastic shady borders at Sir Harold Hillier Gardens
Many gardens have some sort of shady spot in them. Some of these are created by nature, for example where light filters through the branches of a tall tree, while other patches may be from man-made sources, such as the shadows cast from a building or wall. Shade areas can be a lovely blessing – a welcome spot for some relief on a hot day – but they also require some consideration of the plants that will thrive in them.
First, it is important to realise that all shaded areas are not created equal. There are some key distinct types:
Part shade / semi-shade – technically defined as a spot that enjoys three to six hours of sun at midsummer, these areas benefit from some sunlight for some of the day.
Dappled shade - areas created where sunlight filters through, e.g. from the branches of trees above. Often considered the best shade for gardening, as the soil remains moist.
Deep shade - where the area is subject to very heavy shade cover, for example from a permanent building shadow or from a very dense tree canopy above
Dry shade - In some spots, most notably where there are large trees nearby like Oaks and Limes sucking up the moisture, the soil in shaded areas becomes very dry. This can be more challenging to find plants for.
The exposure of your garden – i.e. whether it faces north, south, east or west – will have a significant effect on the amount of sun or shade in your garden each day and is important to consider as a fundamental of garden planning.
Success in the shade, as in any area of the garden, depends on selecting the plants that grow happily in those conditions. We have selected a number of fantastic shrubs, perennials and ground cover plants that will brighten up shady spaces.
Best Shrubs for Shade
Aucuba japonica ‘Variegata.’ Thrives in almost all light levels, including deep shade.
Shade-loving shrubs provide great structure and interest of form to shady spots. Aucuba japonica is a fantastic choice, with glossy evergreen foliage that copes well even with dry soil. Some varieties, like A. japonica ‘Variegata’ or A. japonica ‘Marmorata’ have striking variegated leaves. Euonymus fortunei varieties are another top pick, with their brightening foliage. Elaeagnus is a hardy shrub that can withstand almost anything, brightening up the darkest corners of the garden. Fatsia japonica, with its architectural leaves, is another shrub that copes with little to no direct sunlight. A good planting combination is together with other evergreens.
A water-side section of our RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2015 garden. A cool vision created by flowering dogwoods, Hostas and Fatsia japonica.
The natural habitat of a plant is always a strong sign of where it will grow successfully in your garden. Ilex varieties are woodland plants and as such grow happily in the shade. Skimmias are also naturally found in forests and woods and need semi or full shade – in fact, their leaves scorch easily in full sun.
Mahonia varieties, bringing vibrant brightness to the winter garden.
We also highly recommend Mahonia varieties. Many of these tough shrubs also add real winter interest, like Mahonia x media ‘Charity’. Sarcococca is another shrub genus with strong winter associations, with clusters of white flowers appearing from December. Sarcococcas can cope with difficult spots, including dry shade.
Camellia flowers lifting a shady spot.
A number of shade-loving shrubs also grow well on acid soils, including Camellias and Rhododendrons, as long as the soil is not too dry.
Best Ground Cover Plants for Shade
Vinca providing ground cover against a wall.
There are many plants that can create an attractive carpet in a shady spot, highlighting taller structural plants. We particularly love Cornus canadensis, aptly known as ‘creeping dogwood’, the dwarf evergreen shrub Gaultheria procumbens and Vinca varieties. Some may consider it a nuisance, but if controlled Hedera helix, better known as Common Ivy, provides attractive trailing ground cover. Pachysandra terminalis, with its glossy green leaves, is also perfect for carpeting bare areas between trees and shrubs.
Best Herbaceous Perennials for Shade
Tiarella ‘Spring Symphony’. A great perennial for shade or semi-shade.
Shady garden spots don’t have to be entirely in tones of green. There are many perennials that produce bright flowers throughout the year.
Geranium ‘Rozanne’. Flowers notoriously go on and on.
Anemones are some of the very best plants for shade, with different varieties producing flowers from early spring all the way to late November. The Geranium is also a huge genus, included varieties suitable for almost any spot in the garden.
Many shades of Astilbe.
Pulmonaria is one of the earliest plants to flower in the spring. Also flowering in spring are Epimedium varieties. Epimediums produce elegantly unusual flowers and many are tolerant of dry shade. Tiarella, meaning little tiara, produces feathery flower spikes in the spring. Astilbe varieties throw up fantastic, long spikes in summer – often a trickier colour season in the shade garden. They do not grow well in dry shade conditions, requiring moist soil. Alchemilla mollis tolerates dry shade and produces tiny yellow flowers from June into autumn. Also bringing interest to the later part of the year is Tradescentia, with distinctive three-petalled flowers.
There are also lovely modest perennials to complete the shade garden. Brunnera varieties make great ground cover and do particularly well in dappled shade. On the other hand, you may be more inclined towards garden drama. Some Hosta varieties, considered one of the best foliage plants for light shade, are extremely showy and architectural.
Top Tips for Growing in Shade
- Shady spots unsurprisingly need less water than sunny ones. But, they can often create an environment where fungal conditions thrive. When you do water, make sure to water the soil and not the leaves.
- Some shady spots are so deep that no plants will grow there. If you can thin out trees to let more light through, this will help these spots (be sure to seek professional help for any large trees).