While a shade garden can present challenges, it also provides an opportunity to include some of the most stunning and unusual plants, and employ some creative design solutions.
Shade is an inevitable part of gardening, so rather than thinking of shady corners as lifeless voids, you can use our tips and shade garden ideas to embrace them and, to discover the plants that thrive on the dark side.
Shady borders can be the most delightful areas of a garden, providing cool contrasts to sunlit plots. Read on to find out the best plant choices, then find more gardening inspiration and advice in our dedicated garden ideas page.
1. Assess the areas of shade in your garden
First, you need to determine the type of shade by observing the space at different times of the day through the seasons, as it is seldom constant and is a crucial part of every successful garden design. It will also vary in different parts of the garden. Your shade garden may be in:
- ‘Light shade’, when it is open to the sky but with no direct sunlight.
- ‘Semi-shade’, where it receives three to six hours of direct sun in mid-summer.
- ‘Dappled shade’, with diffused light from deciduous trees.
- ‘Moderate shade’ with two to three hours of midsummer sunlight.
- ‘Deep shade’, under a dense evergreen tree canopy with less than two hours of sun.
2. Check your soil type
There are many plants that will thrive in the shade, but each has its own soil needs. Whether it is more acidic or alkaline plays a part, but the most important factor tends to be the soil's ability to retain or drain moisture.
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Dry areas in a shade garden tend to be under large trees that have shallow roots, or against walls that face away from the wind and therefore are sheltered from the rain; this is particularly so if your soil is shallow, sandy or chalky.
When planting beneath trees, remove any weeds and scratch the surface of the soil with a garden fork – as the soil can be very compacted – taking care not to damage any roots.
Select shade loving plants with compact root systems so they don’t compete with the tree for nutrients, and pay attention to watering and fertilising as plants establish. Add in plenty of organic matter before planting, and mulch to help the soil retain some – find out how to make your own compost.
Damp areas in a shady garden are found in cool, moist woodland areas, near water and with clay soil. Helping your soil here is important, too; use organic matter to improve drainage and mulch to break down and aid the soil structure.
For both dry and damp areas in a shade garden, aim to add some light, colour and warmth through planting to enliven the shadows. An advantage is that the structures that cast the shade also offer shelter.
3. Choose the right plant for the right place
Plants need sunlight to manufacture the sugars for energy and for making their organic molecules, so shade lowers these and reduces growth, unless plants are adapted to those conditions.
Plants that are not suited to a shady garden grow long, lanky stems as they try to reach for some extra sunlight, so avoid these.
Some fruit and vegetables can be grown in the shade, too, including leafy greens, mint and currants.
4. Use focal foliage and evergreen plants for shade
Some plants may flower less in shade gardens, but often have larger leaves to enable photosynthesis. So experiment with lush foliage textures, layering up different leaf types, and also investigate evergreen plants for shade that will look good year round.
As the shade gets darker your choices lessen to a limited selection of extremely tolerant plants, such as ivy, ferns and liriope.
Include some evergreen fillers with gleaming foliage for a year-round lustre, combine different forms and heights, and then infill with more ephemeral highlights.
Consider making a focal point of plants with glossy reflective leaves or foliage and flowers that give the impression of light, such as gold, silver or variegated leaves and luminous white or pale flowers.
Good shade garden ideas for focal foliage include:
- Hostas will spread and are grown for their decorative large leaves that are green, grey or variegated – just watch out for snails.
- Ferns offer hardy choices for both dry and moist shade areas. Many are evergreen plants for shade.
- Liriope is an evergreen perennial with grassy leaves that provide excellent groundcover. It produces wands of grape-like purple flowers in autumn.
- Euphorbia amygdaloides is an evergreen perennial that features sprays of yellow-green flowers from spring to early summer.
- Brunnera macrophylla has heart-shaped leaves, forget-me-not like flowers and is great for mixing with other shade tolerant choices in woodland borders.
- Alchemilla with its large leaves, beads of sparkling water droplets and trouble-free nature is ideal for edging shady borders.
5. Choose perennial shade plants
The benefit of choosing perennial shade plants is that they will keep coming back year after year. This not only makes your shaded garden more established over time, but reduces maintenance of annual replanting, and saves you money in the long run.
These are good perennial shaded garden ideas:
- Bergenias are hardy perennial shade plants with leathery leaves that turns a burgundy tone in autumn and winter, as well as forming a dense groundcover for suppressing weeds.
- Tiarella bloom with cones of cream and pink flowers in late spring and summer. They are hardy, reliable performers.
- Rodgersia are perennial shade plants that grow in damp areas. They feature large leaves that provide foliage and texture for much of the year.
- Erythronium form carpets planted in drifts in woodland areas in moist, rich, well-drained soil.
- Astilbe add colour and texture with their plumes of flowers and some also have showy foliage.
- Polygonatum, Solomon’s Seal is pretty in a shady border with its arching clusters of tubular white flowers.
6. Add some shade loving flowering plants
Pale and brightly coloured flowers work beautifully to light up the shadows, so as well as lush foliage plants try to add some shade loving flowering plants too.
White in particular adds an etherial quality. The classic choice of layers of rich greens relieved by touches of white flowers around seats, trellises and statues creates a cool oasis that also glimmers in twilight.
An added benefit of flowers is that any fragrance is accentuated in more confined spaces.
Good choices for shade loving flowering plants include:
- Dicentra are lovely traditional perennials for part shade with strings of heart-shaped flowers held above divided blue-green foliage.
- Pulmonaria and lungwort are good groundcovers and ideal in garden borders. These deep shade loving flowering plants have funnel shaped blooms that open pink but then turn blue.
- Snowdrops will flourish in light shade in moist soil, popping through ice and snow in late winter and early spring. They will easily naturalise in grass, providing a blanket of white.
7. Use bedding plants for shade
Often thought of as sun lovers, bedding plants for shade are ideal for adding year-round colour. They needn't just be annuals either – go for perennials that will come back year after year.
Some of the best bedding plants for shade are:
- Violets with their heart-shaped leaves and sweetly scented flowers, need moist shade.
- Primulas and primroses add light to dark areas in tones of white, yellow, cream, pinks.
- Geraniums have different preferences when it comes to light, but certain types, such as macrorrhizum, nodosum and pheum, survive on almost no direct sun, making them fantastic bedding plants for shade.
- Begonias grow best in partial shade in moist but not waterlogged soil.
8. Add containers to create impact
Include moveable seasonal containers of shade-tolerant plants for splashes of colour. This idea works so well because you can monitor the success of a plant and adjust its position if you feel it would benefit from more or less sun.
Great shade garden ideas include hydrangeas, fuchsias, impatiens, pansies and begonias. Find ideas or inspiration for container gardening.
9. Look for ways to reduce shade in a garden
If you feel there is too much shade in your garden, look for ways to reduce it. Prune low branches of trees to let in more light or thin out higher branches to lighten the canopy.
If your neighbour's trees or hedges are getting out of control and blocking too much light, politely ask them to think about addressing them.
10. Employ clever design tricks to increase the sense of light
There are a number of different ways to lessen the impact of dark areas. Here's some clever shaded garden ideas that will help to maximise the sense of light:
- Paint nearby walls, fences or sheds in white or light tones to reflect and diffuse light into the garden – find inspirational garden paint ideas to add colour your garden.
- Use pale coloured paving, stones or gravel to reflect light and lighten the mood of a space.
- Place reflective panels or mirrors to not only give the illusion of space but also to brighten a dark space or reflect light and warmth from the sun.
- Water will spread light in various ways, from trickling fountains catching in the light to flowing streams.
- Plant some highlight choices in white flowers and variegated foliage to give an illusion of light, especially at dusk.
- Glass or stainless steel sculptures can also be used to reflect light year round.
- Illuminate containers, water features or tree trunks so you can also enjoy the scene at night.