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Best Plants for a Shade Garden

By Teo Spengler ; Updated February 24, 2019
Best Plants for a Shade Garden

If you've ever accused someone of throwing shade, you know what a bad rap shade has these days. But think of that shady spot on your lawn, the place you retreat to in the heat of a summer's day. Shade has its place, and, with a little effort, you can fill that place with beautiful, shade-loving plants.

Shades of Gray

Before you dive into creating a shade-plant list, check out your shade. There are many different depth of shade, from dappled sun to deep shade areas. Calculate how much sun the area gets and when, morning or afternoon.

You'll also need to take your own climate and soil type into account when planning your shade garden. For example, if you live in a dry area or your soil is clay, you'll need to factor that into your calculations.

Big, Bold Shade Plants

While finding plants for a shade garden can be challenging, you are not limited to creepers. Some shrubs prefer shade to summer swelter. Here are a few you can try:

  • Big-leafed hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) shrubs with those "mop-head" flowers grow happily in light shade;
  • Hostas (Hosta spp.) have small, delicate flowers but impressive leaves and thrive in a moist shady area;
  • Japanese maples (Acer palmatum), understory trees in the wild, offer their delicate, deeply lobed leaves all summer, then wrap up the season with fiery fall color. Try cultivars 'Emperor,' 'Okushimo', 'Orido Nishiki' or 'Aka Shigitatsu Sawa;'
  • Laceleaf Japanese maples (Acer palmatum dissectum), with frilly foliage. Two good selections: 'Inaba Shidare' or 'Viridis.'

Fillers and Frillers

The big plants work well as foundational elements of your shade garden. The next plants to pick are those that fill in the bulk of the area, mid-size "fillers and frillers" that provide texture and color. Check out these shade-garden favorites:

  • Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is an upright perennial growing to 4 feet, a shrub with aromatic leaves and lavender flowers that attract hummers;
  • Astilbe (Astilbe x arendsii) offers ferny foliage and fountaining plumes of bright flowers; 
  • New York fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis), with upright fronds up to 2 feet high growing in soft tufts;
  • Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) needs plenty of shade for its finely dissected, feathery fronds;
  • Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum), a tough native plant, dangles its ivory bell-shaped flowers from gracefully arching stems. In autumn, the birds flock to the plant's dark berry-like fruit;
  • Bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum) lights up your shade garden in spring with its bright flowers, and some cultivars offer attractive fall color as well.

Interesting Shade-Garden Accent Plants

Sometimes, the most eye-catching plants in a shady area are the small, unusual accent plants, species you rarely see cultivated. Often these are native plants that, once established in your shade garden, require minimal effort. Here are a few to tempt you.

  • Honey garlic (Nectaroscordum siculum) is a spring bulb that is a relative of the garlic you keep in the kitchen. But this garlic's graceful stems reach 4 feet, and small blossoms dangle from them like bells.
  • Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana) has spear-shaped foliage several feet tall, but also sends up stems with clusters of bright flowers in purple, blue, white or red. 
  • Toad lily (Tricyrtis spp.) are really cool, shade-loving plants despite their ugly common name. They produce gorgeous orchid-like flowers in late fall that hold on until the first frost. 
  • Old-fashioned bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) provides the shade garden with blooms in late spring and early summer, with dangling heart-shaped flowers.
  • Deadnettle (Lamium) wins fans with it silver-infused leaves all year long, but it also offers pretty pink or white flowers all summer. 
  • Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is small, but it's one tough shade plant despite its soft, valentine-shaped leaves. 
 

About the Author

 

Teo Spengler is a docent with the San Francisco Botanical Garden and a staff writer with Gardening Know How. She has written hundreds of gardening and plant articles for sites like eHow Gardening, Gardening Know How and Hunker. She holds a JD in law from U.C. Berkeley, an MA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing.