Beginners researching shade garden plants for U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 4 to 8 need reassurance that they are not doomed to settle for dark, dreary, dismal, and 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, you should learn the terms associated with a "shaded" area and, more specifically, an area that is "partially" shaded.
- Shady location: If a location receives anything less than six full hours of direct sunlight, then, for landscaping purposes, it is considered a shady location.
- Full shade: If it does not receive three hours of direct sunlight each day (but does get some indirect light), the area is deemed to be in "full shade."
- Partial sun or partial shade: Logically enough, "partial sun" or "partial shade" refers to a location that falls in between an area that receiving three to six hours of sunshine (three to four hours is "partial shade" and five to six hours is "partial sun").
- Shade tolerant: 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 you are used to seeing it do in full sun, its floral or foliar display may be negatively impacted to an unacceptable degree. It is 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 will 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 three hours of sun each day, you should begin looking at some full-shade plants. These are the go-to plants of the shade-garden world:
Now that you have some choices for full-shade plants, take a look at selections for partial shade based on plant type (annuals, perennials, and shrubs). Start with the shortest plants and work up to the taller ones. Most of these plants can be grown in USDA zones 4 to 8, but you will also find the occasional specimen suited to zone 3 or to zone 9.
The problem with classic ground covers that thrive in shaded areas is that some thrive a bit too well (they tend to be invasive). Take a look at one safe (non-invasive) choice and one not-so-safe (potentially invasive) choice for gardeners in the northeastern U.S.:
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.
If you have made a visit to a garden center recently, you may be familiar with these three plants (treated as annuals in the North):
Do not dismiss these plants simply because they are one-hit wonders in cold climates. There is a reason they are called bedding plants. They are very effective for dressing up a flower bed quickly with masses of color. With a little deadheading, these plants can give you color all summer. Do not think of them as competing with perennials but as complementary pieces that give you more flexibility.
The 12 best perennials for shade include:
The next group is not 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 as 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 will not flower much when robbed of the necessary sunshine. Here are some examples that can take at least a little shade:
- Hosta: Some types can be grown as far north as zone 3 and as far south as zone 9)
- Foamy bells: (Heucherella) It grows in zones 4 to 9
- Barrenwort: (Epimedium): An underused perennial, it is grown in zones 5 to 9, reaches about 1 foot in height with a slightly greater width.
- Interrupted fern: (Osmunda claytoniana) Grows in zones 3 to 8.
- Tropical plants: Treated as annuals in cold climates, these plants include bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae) and elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta)
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:
As with ground covers, it is tricky finding suitable perennial vines for shade gardens that are hardy in cold climates. Often, you will 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:
If your landscape is large enough, you may even be in search of trees for your shade garden:
Garden Design and Preferences
There are all kinds of special designs, preferences, and considerations to mention when discussing the subject of shade garden plants.
- Native vs. exotic: Some prefer to grow native perennials in their shade gardens rather than the better-known exotics. For some, it amounts to a cause for keeping things native. For others, it is a matter of practicality since the plants are naturally adapted to the local conditions, it 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 is 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. Although keep in mind, there are special considerations when planting under trees like competition for water. 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 will want to select plants that grow in dry shade when planting where low moisture levels will be an issue.
- Woodland garden design: 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.