Think of the shade areas of your garden as opportunities, rather than obstacles. There are many good plants that need the protection of shade to look their best. Most will also tolerate the kinder morning sun if necessary. But the hot afternoon sun will yellow the foliage and weaken the plants. To add interest, use a variety of different sizes of evergreen shrubs in your shade garden.
Sweet box (Sarcococca) is not related to boxwood. This is a shrub that prefers full shade to look its best. It is a small 3-to-4 foot natural looking shrub. It can also be kept pruned tighter or used as a low hedge. There are two common sweet boxes. They are nearly identical except for the color of the berries. Sarcococca confusa has black berries, and Sarcococca ruscifolia has red berries. The small wavy leaves are thick, glossy and exotic looking. An even more outstanding feature is the intense perfume the flowers exude in February. The flowers are small, white, confetti-type blooms aligned along the stems. Sarcococca is hardy to USDA zone 6.
Camellias do best in shady positions. They benefit from the protection of overhead trees. This will help prevent the blooms from being ruined by heavy rain or burned by intense sun. They need acidic soil that is rich in humus and is free draining. The hardiest species is Camellia japonica. There are many different varieties. Some bloom in late winter, others late spring, depending on the climate. They come in single, semi-double and double flower types. There is a wide range of colors; the most common are variations of white, pink and red. Camellias are hardy to USDA zone 6.
The most popular form of Japanese aucuba (Aucuba japonica) seen in landscapes is the variegated form. These will have names such as "Gold Dust" or "Gold Strike." They have green leaves with gold speckles or markings. The gold coloration will stand out well in shady situations. Another species of aucuba is Aucuba serratifolia. This deep green shrub is a good back-drop for other plants. The leaves are longer and more toothed than the variegated form. Aucuba is a 5-to-10 foot shrub. These shrubs are not particular about soil type and will take average water. They have small, maroon flower clusters in the spring. If there is a male and a female plant, the female will develop red berries. Aucuba is hardy to USDA zone 6.
Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica) is well suited for shady gardens in USDA zone 7. In colder climates it will die back, but will often return from the roots. This is a versatile shrub that can be kept pruned to 5 feet or allowed to grow into a small tree. Fatsia is a tropical looking plant with large bold leaves. The blooms are balls of tiny white flowers that appear in early winter. The flowers are followed by small black berry clusters. There is also a variegated fatsia with yellow and white leaf coloration.
Rhododendrons have tough evergreen leaves. Leaf size will depend on the variety, but generally they are 4 to 8 inches long. Rhododendrons make good foliage plants in deep shade. They will flower better with some morning sun. A position at the edge of tall trees is ideal for rhododendrons. They love acid soil, so the needles falling from conifers will make a nice mulch. Rhododendrons are not drought tolerant plants and require regular summer water. There are many sizes and bloom colors. There are also rhododendrons that bloom early, mid-season and late. The hardiness zones vary with each variety.
Skimmia is a small 3-foot shrub. Full shade is best, but morning sun is okay for this shrub. Skimmia will develop clusters of small pink to white, scented flowers. Most varieties require a male and female plant for berry production. Most have red berries, but there are also white berried varieties. Skimmia japonica 'Reevesiana' is a self-fertile dwarf variety. This one only requires one plant for berries. Skimmia prefers acid soil and regular summer water. It is hardy to USDA zone 6.