Choosing the right plants for shady gardens

Updated: May 3, 2019

My own garden is very shady; we are surrounded by 8ft privet hedges with over 30 deciduous and evergreen trees. This plant list is a short list of my own tried and tested selections for all levels of shade.





There are many plants that will thrive in light or dappled shade; however, as you get into deep or heavy shade your choices are more limited; but there are still many plants that will light up a dark and depressing corner of the garden. The first step is to understand what level of shade you are dealing with.




On my downloadable detailed plant list pdf I’ve highlighted what levels of shade each plant can tolerate:


o Full sun: six + hours direct sun

o Light shade: open to the sky, but screened from direct sunlight

o Partial or semi-shade: Three to six hours per day of direct sun at midsummer.

o Dappled shade: reflected or diffused light through tree canopy

o Moderate shade: less than two or three hours of direct sunlight

o Deep or heavy shade: less than two hours direct sun per day. Usually under dense tree cover


(Source: RHS)



Bulbs

The best place to start when planting for shady gardens is with spring bulbs. If the shade in your garden comes from deciduous trees you have the winter and spring period when the trees are bare in which to allow light to reach the ground and provide energy to the emerging bulb foliage.


My favourites for providing a splash of colour in the dark late winter/ early spring months are Cyclamen coum (winter flowering cyclamen), Galanthus nivalis (Snowdrops) and Eranthis hyemalis (Winter aconite).




As we move into late spring the Fritillaria meleagris (Snake's head fritillaries), Erythronium Pagoda (Dog’s Tooth Violet) and Uvularia grandiflora (Merrybells) are personal favourites with their delicate, elegant nodding flowers.




Although most daffodils like as much sunshine as possible, we have had success with “Thalia” which is an elegant, pure-white variety that flowers in March/ April.


Please click here to download my full shade plant list pdf with pictures (including more bulb suggestions).


Perennials for heavy shade

There are so many fantastic perennials that thrive in shade that you need to find a way to narrow down your choices. I have always found that successful planting schemes for shade benefit when you make a choice between either a gold or silver foliage base.


For silver based foliage to reflect more light and really brighten up a dark corner Hosta halcyon plantain lily), Brunnera macrophylla 'Looking Glass' (Siberian bugloss) and Asarum splendens (Chinese wild ginger) make a fantastic combination and cope with heavy levels of shade. Hosta halcyon has the benefit of being the most slug resistant varieties of hosta out there (read my blog on managing slugs without resorting to chemicals for advice on how to grow hostas without holes!).




If you choose a golden-hued colour scheme then the grass-like Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ or Milium effusum ‘Aureum’ make a great combination with Cyrtomium fortunei ‘Clivicola’ (Japanese Holly fern) and Hosta 'First Frost'.




Fantastic, tough classic shade plants that thrive in even dry shade include Epimedium (Barrenwort), Euphorbia amygdaloides (Wood Spurge) and the “legendary thug” Galium oderata (Sweet Woodruff).




Between these tough-guys and some of fabulous coloured varieties of ivy (Hedera Helix) – particularly 'Everest' for silver tinged foliage or 'Sulphur Heart' for really strongly gold variegated foliage you can avoid depressing bare patches of earth in pretty much any area of your garden. However, as I cover in my blog on design techniques for shady gardens, you will need to invest in a watering system or really commit to watering by hand for the first season until plants get established.


Download my full recommended plant list for shady gardens for inspiration for perennials that will thrive in different levels of shade.


Ferns

Ferns are a shade-lovers delight. There are so many varieties that will thrive in a shady spot. Some of my favourites come from the wide range of Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium niponicum), these deciduous ferns come in a stunning range of colours; we have a wide range in our garden including ‘Ursula’s Red’, ‘Ghost’, ‘Burgundy Lace’ and ‘Metallicum’.


For evergreen ferns I love Asplenium scolopendrium (Harts tongue fern ) with their gorgeous, glossy, wavy leaves; they are evergreen but the previous year’s foliage tends to look tired so we cut back early spring; they will happily tolerate dry shade once established.


A simple planting combination around the base of a magnolia tree in the front garden of Eric Smith variety hellebores (Helleborus ericsmithii 'Winter Sunshine' and 'Winter Moonshine' with Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald Gaiety' and the lovely semi-evergreen fern Dryopteris affinis 'Cristata' (The King) provides year round foliage and flowers for up to six months of the year to welcome visitors to the house.



Download my full shade plant list for more fern recommendations that thrive in shady conditions.


Shrubs

These are the work-horses of any shady garden, providing predominantly evergreen structure to your garden.


I'm a huge fan of Buxus sempervivens (Common Box) which can be topiarised into any shape. Even in the dark days of winter this provides elegant structure. When planted in pots with a dripper watering system it avoids many of the challenges of competing for nutrition and moisture with more established trees.




Acuba japonica (Spotted laurel), Fatsia japonica (False castor oil plant) and Skimmia japonica (Japanese skimmia) cope with anything we throw at them. We have many of these shrubs planted around the garden, either in pots or direct in the ground, and they handle the toughest conditions and lowest of light levels.


The shrubs already listed are great for evergreen foliage, in addition there are some beautiful flowering shrubs such as camelias and Japanese quince providing a huge range of flower colour to the garden.


Conclusion

Beth Chatto's edict of “right plant, right place” holds true for every type of garden condition and nowhere more so than when planting for shade.


This article covers some of the easiest-to-find, common bulbs, plants and shrubs for shady conditions but if you'd like to come and see some of the rarer varieties I have in my own garden we open for the National Garden Scheme (https://www.ngs.org.uk) and Didsbury Open Gardens every year. We have a wonderful variety of woodland plants from hepaticas to trilliums.


If you're looking for advice for your own shady garden I'm happy to come to you or arrange for you to visit my own garden. In addition to my full design and build projects I also provide a service comprising two-hour garden visits which is redeemable if you choose to proceed to a full design solution. Please do not hesitate to email or call to discuss your garden.