To plant successfully in shady areas, you need a tailored landscape plan. Follow the plan and make your plant selections fit the environmental conditions in your planting bed. Planning before planting is the hallmark of effective landscape design.
Full Shade vs. Partial Shade
If you're on a buying spree at the nursery, it helps to know the difference between full and partial shade. Full shade means the plant only needs three hours or less of direct sun, while partial shade equals three to six hours. Some flowering shade lovers bloom best with some sun (preferably in the morning when it's not so hot).
Choosing the Right Plants
Plant failure in landscaping is often due to a plant being situated somewhere in the yard where it doesn't belong. Don't try to force a square peg into a round hole: select shade-tolerant plants for shady areas. Many shade-loving plants typically have large leaves, a slower growth rate, and nonshowy flowers.
Also, many shade plants are acid-lovers, thriving in low pH, organically rich soil, often shaded by the cover of taller trees. Shade plants may also thrive near streams, bogs, and ponds in moist or poorly draining soil with a lot of rainfall and high humidity. A host of shade lovers are also evergreen or prefer a drier soil. They efficiently store the food they make in winter when deciduous trees are bare, and when their sun exposure increases, stretching their energy store all year long.
Observe its growth to find out if your plant is happy in the shade. A plant that is not happy in the shade or needs more sun will give you a few signs. Leaves may get pale and limp. They may have stunted growth, appearing shorter than expected, or new development may look weak or spindly. And, if the plant flowers, it may not bloom or decrease its production. Plants lacking sun are also prone to mildew and other diseases.
Deciding Shade Plant Types
A shade garden has tons of versatility. You have many options from flowers, trees and shrubs, ground covers, and ephemerals that love a shady spot. When planning landscaping for a shaded area, you also need to think about lighting up a site or providing the eye with visual interest or a focal point by playing with colors, textures, and varying plant heights.
For example, when it comes to light and color, think about "lightening up" a dark corner by adding a burst of golden yellow or a plant with eye-popping light green colored foliage like hostas, heucheras, or coleus.
Working with various heights, you'll want to plan your tallest for the back (short trees and shrubs like Japanese maple or dwarf fothergilla), the mid-range and shorter plants in the front (begonias and hostas), and ground covers like brunnera 'Jack Frost' also in the front and along the edges.
Shade plants differ in how much water they need—some are drought resistant while others must have bog-like soil to thrive. Plants that like dry shade include lily turf, hellebores, and dead nettle. Meanwhile, bee balm, blue lobelia, chokeberry shrubs thrive in the shady, moist spots. Plant species with similar watering requirements together to make watering your garden an easier chore—one you might be able to automate when away.
Popular Shade Loving Flowers and Other Plants
Hellebore: The Helleborus genus is among the earliest plants to bloom in the winter or early spring
Coral bells: The species Heuchera blooms from spring to early summer, semi-evergreen coral bells come in many shades of flowers and foliage
Astilbe: Astilbe needs moist, well-drained soil, producing plume-like flowers in pink, red, white, and lavender
Impatiens: Formerly threatened by mildew issues, new varieties are resistant to this disease; it blooms vigorously in shady conditions; growing 6 to 24 inches tall; comes in various shades of pink, rose, red, lilac, purple, orange, and white
Ground Covers and Foliage Plants
Hostas: Dozens of species and hundreds of hybrids; some types need a little sun; rich, well-drained soil
Ferns: Many live best in the shade; some have great foliage like interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana), growing 2 to 3 feet; Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) stays shorter (12 to 18 inches) and has interesting colors
Barrenroot: Barrenroot is the common name for the Epimedium genus of plants, featuring pretty flowers
Canadian Bunchberry: Subshrub that is commonly used as a ground cover for damp, shady areas; related to dogwood with white blossoms; prefers cool, moist, acidic soil
Skimmia: Small evergreen shrub that displays clusters of fragrant flowers in the summer and bright red berries; grows best in dappled light but can thrive in full shade
Spotted laurel: Also called aucuba, rounded evergreen shrub with colorful leaves that can grow up to 15 feet tall; tiny flowers usually bloom in early spring
Japanese maple: Japanese maples are popular ornamental, bushy-headed plants, ranging in size from large shrubs to small trees; they prefer some shade to protect their foliage
American beech: Understory tree with silky, oval pale green leaves that darken in summer and turn yellow-brown in autumn.
Japanese yew: Shade-tolerant evergreen tree that can live in full shade; prefers drier shade
Bleeding hearts: Bleeding heart blooms in the spring with arching stems of heart-shaped flowers. Even though they are some of the best flowers for shade, these plants will tolerate some sun in cooler climates.
Bloodroot: Bloodroot is named for the dark red sap in the leaves and stems of the plant; it produces 2-inch showy white or pink blooms from March to April
Celandine poppies: Also known as yellow wood poppies, relatively tall wildflowers can grow up to two feet with bright yellow blooms
Sample Plant Selection and Layout
Plants should be "layered," with the tallest being placed up against the backdrop of a fence or border, furthest from the viewer's eye, while the shortest plants should be closest to the viewer, with the mid-sized plants in between. Here is an example of shade-tolerant plants listed row by row: