Shade Garden Plants for Zones 4-8

Handy List of Shady Characters

Epimedium x versicolor
Bicolor barrenwort (Epimedium x versicolor var. sulphureum) does flower, but its value in shade gardens centers on its pretty, variegated foliage. David Beaulieu

If you're here to consult this list of shade garden plants for planting zones 4-8 as a beginner, a simple listing of the name, rank, and serial number of each plant may not be sufficient. For starters, you may also need reassurance that you are not doomed to settle for what I call "the dreaded D's" of shaded areas: dark, dreary, dismal, dull. The list of shady-but-colorful characters that follows should dispel any notion you may harbor that your landscaping is in any way cursed simply because a significant portion of it is not drenched in sunshine all day long.

No, shade gardens can be plenty cheerful, whether you use flowering plants or foliage plants. Before I discuss the plants with which you can populate your shady nook in style, however, there is another elemental matter to treat: what exactly constitutes a "shaded" area? And what precisely does the qualifier, "partial" mean that you find attached to the word, "shade" in literature about plants? Here's the standard cheat sheet:

  1. If a location receives anything less than six full hours of direct sunlight, then, for landscaping purposes, it is considered shady to one degree or another.
  2. If it doesn't even receive three hours of direct sunlight each day (but does get some indirect light), the area is deemed to be in "full shade."
  3. Logically enough, "partial sun" and "partial shade" refer to a location that falls in between #1 and #2 above: an area receiving 3-6 hours of sunshine (with 3-4 hours constituting "partial shade," 5-6 hours "partial sun")

    Another common term that requires some explanation is "tolerant" (or "tolerate"). A plant is said to tolerate partial shade if, while it prefers more sunlight, it can also be used in partial shade. But the "tolerant" label can be deceiving, because the plant's performance in a shade garden may fall far short of what we're used to seeing it do in full sun, its floral or foliar display being negatively impacted to an unacceptable degree.

    It's often preferable to treat such specimens as full-sun plants, even though, technically, you can grow them in shade . Also take note that some plants listed for shade gardens in, say, zones 7-8 may perform better in sun in zones 4-5.

    Plants That Grow in Full Shade

    Since the people searching most desperately for ideas for shade gardens will be planting in an area that gets less than three hours of sun each day, I'll begin by sending you to my article on full-shade plants. These are the go-to plants of the shade-garden world, the real "troopers," if you will. Here's a sampling of popular perennials from the list:

    1. Bleeding hearts
    2. Virginia bluebells
    3. Pachysandra
    4. Lenten rose

    Now that I've given you a chance to peruse some of the real stars of shade gardening, I'm going to present more choices to you in sub-lists based on plant type (annualsperennials, shrubs, etc.). I'll start with the shortest plants and then work my may up to the taller ones. When you start digging into these lists (using the links provided below), assume that the plants in question are intended for partial shade, unless otherwise noted. The bulk of the plants can be grown in USDA zones 4-8, but you'll also find the occasional specimen suited to zone 3 or to zone 9.

    Ground Covers

    The problem with classic ground covers that thrive in shaded areas is that some thrive a bit too well (i.e., they tend to be invasive). I'll restrict myself here to mentioning one safe (non-invasive) choice and one not-so-safe (potentially invasive) example:

    1. Bunchberry (safe)
    2.  Creeping myrtle (potentially invasive, although very useful in my own experience)

    Since grasses are considered a ground cover of sorts, I'll note here that one of the most shade-tolerant grasses is tall fescue grass. A grass relative, Japanese variegated sedge, is also a good shade garden plant. Finally, some people grow moss in shady areas rather than trying to fight it.

    By using this link you can access the full list of ground covers for shade.

    Annuals

    You'll be familiar with the following three plants (treated as annuals in the North) from your visits to garden centers:

    1. Impatiens
    2. Begonias
    3. Coleus

    Don't dismiss these plants simply because they're one-hit wonders in cold climates. There's a reason the examples I just cited are called "bedding plants": they're very effective for dressing up a flower bed quickly with masses of color. With a little deadheading, they can give you color all summer. Don't think of them as competing with perennials but as complementary pieces that give you more flexibility.

    Perennials

    Bookmark my list of 10 Best Perennials for Shade for a glimpse at my favorite choices (pictures and descriptions), and follow the links within that resource for more detailed information. To supplement said resource, allow me to list four more perennials here that may be of special interest to you:

    1. Stella de oro daylily
    2. Columbine meadow rue
    3. Foxglove
    4. Rodgers flower

    Foliage Plants

    The next group I'll mention is not a botanical classification but based, rather, on the outstanding characteristic of the plants in question -- namely, their extraordinary leaves. They are known as "foliage plants" because their foliage is superb enough to make them useful landscape plants, despite lacking flowers of any great beauty. They are especially useful in shaded locations, where many plants valued for their blooms in sunnier spots simply won't flower profusely when robbed of the necessary sunshine. Here are some examples suitable for shade gardens:

    1. Specific types of hosta (some can be grown as far north as zone 3 and as far south as zone 9)
    2. Foamy bells can take a little shade
    3. Barrenwort (Epimedium), an underused perennial. Grown in zones 5-9, it reaches about 1 foot in height, with a slightly greater width.
    4. Ferns, such as interrupted fern
    5. Tropical plants grown for their foliage (treated as annuals in cold climates)

    Shrubs

    Shrubs are the bones of a landscape, whether in sun or shade. Get them in place first, then build around them with your smaller plants. Consult my list of shrubs that grow in shade for some of my top picks. Other choices include:

    1. 'Nikko Blue' hydrangeas
    1. Nandina or "heavenly bamboo"
    2. Some azaleas and rhododendrons (flowering is sometimes superior with more sunlight)

    Nandina domestica is the least cold-hardy of the examples I mention here; it is suited only to zones 6-9. It can be invasive in the South.

    Vines for Shade Gardens: Limited Choices

    As with ground covers (see above), it's tricky finding suitable vines for shade gardens that are hardy in cold climates. Often, you'll pride yourself on having found a pretty vine that can stand up to sub-zero temperatures, only to wind up scratching it off of your list of possibilities, because you discover that it is an aggressive grower (or downright invasive). 

    Thus I offer my article on perennial vines for shade with the same caveat that I issued for my piece of ground covers: buyer beware! I'll mention two innocuous examples here:

    1. Boston ivy
    2. Climbing hydrangea

    Trees

    If your landscape is large enough, you may even be in search of trees for your shade garden. Here are three possibilities:

    1. Pagoda dogwood
    2. Canadian hemlock
    3. Eastern redbud 

    Special Cases, Etc. When Selecting Shade Garden Plants

    There are all kinds of special designs, preferences, and considerations to mention when discussing the subject of shade garden plants. I'll touch on a few of them to conclude this article:

    1. Some prefer to grow native perennials in their shade gardens rather than the better-known exotics. The motivations underlying this preference vary. For some, it amounts to a cause, about which they are passionate. For others, it's a matter of practicality: adapted as they are to the local conditions, natives can be a low-maintenance alternative.
    2. Not all shady areas are created equal. Shade cast by deciduous trees is different from that cast by a building: whereas the latter is permanent, the former is seasonal. That's why you can easily grow spring ephemerals such as bloodroot and spring bulbs such as snowdrops under deciduous trees. By the time the trees fully leaf out in summer, these precocious plants will have already received all the sunlight they need. Do note, however, that there are special considerations when planting under trees.
    3. One such consideration is lack of moisture. Big trees absorb an enormous amount of moisture. It can be difficult for a smaller plant to compete successfully with them for water. But some plants are tough enough even to grow under large evergreen trees. More generally, you'll want to select plants that grow in dry shade when planting where low moisture levels will be an issue.
    4. An intriguing design option for large landscapes with numerous trees or that border on forest land is the woodland garden. Such a design can be a mixture of shade gardens and sun gardens. The emphasis will be on producing a carefree, naturalistic effect, resulting in a low-maintenance landscape.

    Final Thoughts

    Remember that, all aesthetic considerations aside, you'll still have to combine plants based not only on sunlight requirements, but also on watering needs. Consult my article on what to plant where for further guidance.