How to Grow Plants in a Shade Garden


A shade garden provides a welcome respite from summer sun and an intimate outdoor venue to read and relax. Selecting plants to grow in a shade garden can be challenging, but once the shade garden is established, its varied textures and cool subtle colors provide a lush, enchanting oasis of greenery.

Step 1

Observe the patterns of shade in your yard at different times of day and throughout the changing seasons. Sketch three maps of the different types of shade areas in your yard--dense shade in the lee of a wall, dappled woodland shade, or light shade--one each for morning, noon and late afternoon.

Step 2

Select the locations from your map where you would like to grow a shade garden and obtain shade plants suitable for your type of shade and soil. Consider foliage texture and color when choosing shade plants; the juxtaposition of shiny and feathery leaves creates a shade garden's intrigue.

Step 3

Remove low-hanging tree branches over your shade garden area using loppers and a handsaw to enhance light and circulation. Rake the surface of the area down to bare dirt.

Step 4

Remove any turf that might be growing in the shady area with a flat-bottomed spade. Save moss to the side in slabs if you wish to return it to the soil surface around your plants.

Step 5

Dig holes suitable for your selected plants with a saw-tooth shovel. Make the holes larger than usual to ensure adequate space clear of tree roots that compete with your shade garden plants. Cut root sections out with pruners or loppers as necessary, wearing leather work gloves as you remove roots.

Step 6

Fill the holes with a mix of compost and topsoil and insert your shade garden plants to the appropriate depth for each variety. Water in your new plantings thoroughly. Return moss to the soil around the plant if desired, or top with a heavy layer of mulch.

Step 7

Water new shade garden plantings daily for two weeks, then taper off frequency. Apply liquid fish emulsion fertilizer once a week for the first month then monthly for the first growing season to help shade plant roots get established amidst the competition of tree roots.

Tips and Warnings

  • Always buy woodland wildflowers from a reputable wildflower nursery that propagates them from seed. Many woodland wildflowers are fragile or rare; some are endangered, and digging them could be illegal. Wear leather gloves when working in shade soil, especially when digging out roots. Poison ivy thrives in shady woodland environments, and the oil in the roots is especially volatile. Exercise caution in cutting tree roots; don't cut the largest roots and be sure to leave your trees with enough roots to survive.

Things You'll Need

  • Compost
  • Top soil
  • Mulch
  • Saw-tooth shovel
  • Flat-bottomed spade
  • Pruners
  • Loppers
  • Hand saw
  • Rake
  • Leather work gloves
  • Graph paper
  • Pencil
  • Water source
  • Liquid fish emulsion fertilizer


  • Shade Perennials, Iowa State University Exension
  • Gardening in the Shade, Deborah Brown, University of Minnesota Extension
  • Shade Gardens, Kathy Uncapher, Texas Cooperative Extension

Who Can Help

  • Gardening in Shade, University of Illinois Extension
Keywords: shade garden, shade plants, grow shade

About this Author

Cindy Hill has practiced law since 1987 and maintained a career in freelance writing since 1978. Hill has won numerous fiction and poetry awards and has published widely in the field of law and politics. She is an adjunct instructor of ethics and communications.