Shade Garden Plants for Zones 4 to 8

Handy List of Shady Characters

Epimedium x versicolor
Bicolor barrenwort works well in shade gardens. David Beaulieu

Beginners researching shade garden plants for USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8 need reassurance that they are not doomed to settle for the dreaded D's of shaded areas: dark, dreary, dismal, dull. This list of shady-but-colorful characters 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.

Shade gardens can be plenty cheerful, whether you use flowering plants or foliage plants. Before discussing the plants with which you can populate your shady nook in style, however, let's learn what exactly constitutes a "shaded" area and, more specifically, an area "partially" shaded. Here's the standard cheat sheet:

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

Some plants listed for shade gardens in, say, zones 7 to 8 may perform better in sun in zones 4 to 5. Also remember that, all aesthetic considerations aside, you'll still have to combine plants based not only on sunlight requirements but also on watering needs.

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 3 hours of sun each day, let's begin with some 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:

Now that you have some choices for full-shade plants, let's look at selections for partial shade based on plant type (annualsperennials, shrubs, etc.). We'll start with the shortest plants and work our way up to taller ones. The bulk of the plants can be grown in USDA zones 4 to 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 (they tend to be invasive). Here's one safe (non-invasive) choice and one not-so-safe (potentially invasive) choice for gardeners in the northeastern U.S.:

  • Bunchberry, Cornus canadensis; safe (zones 2 to 7)
  • Creeping myrtle, Vinca minor; potentially invasive, although very useful (zones 4 to 8)

Since grasses are considered a ground cover of sorts, take note that one of the most shade-tolerant grasses is tall fescue grass (Festuca arundinacea). A grass relative, Carex Spark Plug (a Japanese variegated sedge), is also a good shade garden plant. Finally, some people grow moss in shady areas rather than trying to fight it.

Annuals

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

Don't dismiss these plants simply because they're one-hit wonders in cold climates. There's a reason they 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

The 12 best perennials for shade include:

Foliage Plants

The next group isn't a botanical classification but based, rather, on the outstanding characteristic of the plants in question: 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 much when robbed of the necessary sunshine. Here are some examples that can take at least a little shade:

  • Specific types of Hosta (some can be grown as far north as zone 3 and as far south as zone 9)
  • Foamy bells (Heucherella; zones 4 to 9)
  • Barrenwort (Epimedium): an underused perennial. Grown in zones 5 to 9, it reaches about 1 foot in height, with a slightly greater width.
  • Ferns, such as interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana; zones 3 to 8)
  • Tropical plants (treated as annuals in cold climates) such as bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae) and elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta)

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. Some of the best shrub picks for shade include:

Nandina domestica can be invasive in the South.

Vines for Shade Gardens: Limited Choices

As with ground covers, it's tricky finding suitable perennial 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). Two tamer examples are:

Trees

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

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, including:

  • 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.
  • 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 (Sanguinaria canadensis) and spring bulbs such as snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) under deciduous trees. By the time the trees fully leaf out in summer, these early bloomers will have already received all the sunlight they need. However, there are special considerations when planting under trees.
  • 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.
  • 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.