Shade gardens: 5 planting and design tips

Find out how to make the most of a shade garden and choose the right shade loving plants for shifting levels of sunlight

border in a shade garden
(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

What to plant in a shade garden is a question that many gardeners face to differing extremes. After all, shade is an inevitable part of gardening. 

Rather than thinking of a shady garden, or shady corners as lifeless voids, however, embrace them and 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, or find more gardening inspiration and advice in our dedicated garden ideas page.

Shaded seating area in a shady garden

By selecting the right shade loving plants you can create pretty vignettes in even the darkest corners of a shady garden

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

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. 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.

Next, decide if the soil is dry or wet. 

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 moisture - 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.

Hydrangeas in a shady garden

Hydrangeas are a beautiful choice of colour throughout summer and into autumn in dappled shade, planted in swathes of mixed hues or repeated varieties

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

2. What to plant in a shade garden

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.

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Right plant, 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.

Foliage focus

Accept that some plants may flower less, so experiment with lush foliage textures and colours of shade-loving plants. As the shade gets darker your choices lessen to a limited selection of extremely tolerant plants, such as ivy, ferns and liriope.

Plant options

Find a wide array of options for the varying levels of shade in a shady garden on the RHS  website, from trees, shrubs and climbers to annuals and perennials. Or see our guide to the best shade loving plants.

Characteristics of many shade lovers are: 

  • Large leaves to enable photosynthesis;
  • Paler flowers to light up the shadows;
  • Any fragrance is accentuated in more confined spaces.

Some fruit and vegetables can be grown in the shade, too, including leafy greens, mint and currants.

mixed foliage in a shady garden

This area of a shady garden in resplendent in layers of greens with interesting mixes of foliage and form

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

3. Focal features and foliage in a shade garden

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. 

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.

Use some tricks to create impact:

  • Include moveable seasonal containers of shade tolerant plants for splashes of colour, with choices such as hydrangeas, fuchsias, impatiens, pansies or begonias. Find ideas or inspiration for container gardening.
  • Or create your own light and dramatic illusions with placement of water or mirrors.

a mirror in a corner of a shady garden

A design trick in a shade garden is to use mirrors to brighten a dark corner by reflecting light and warmth from the sun

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

4. Design tips to reduce shade in a garden

  • Prune low branches of trees to let in more light;
  • Thin out higher branches to lighten the canopy;
  • Paint nearby walls, fences or sheds in white or light tones to reflect and diffuse light into the garden - find inspiration for how to use paint to add colour to 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 also 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.

5. Plants for a shady garden

plants for a shady garden

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

1. Pulmonaria and lungwort are groundcovers for deep shade, with funnel shaped flowers that open pink but then turn blue.

2. Primulas and primroses add light to dark areas in tones of white, yellow, cream, pinks.

3. Polygonatum, Solomon’s Seal is pretty in a shady border with its arching clusters of tubular white flowers.

4. Hostas will spread and are grown for their decorative large leaves that are green, grey or variegated, just watch out for snails

5. Alchemilla with its beads of sparkling water droplets and trouble-free nature is ideal for edging shady borders.

6. Bergenia is a hardy perennial with leathery leaves that turns a burgundy tone in autumn and winter, as well as forming a dense groundcover for suppressing weeds.

7. Dicentra are lovely traditional perennials for part shade with strings of heart-shaped flowers held above divided blue-green foliage.

8. Brunnera macrophylla has forget-me-not like flowers and is great for mixing with other shade tolerant choices in woodland borders.

9. Ferns, many are evergreen and offer hardy choices for both dry and moist shade areas.

10. Erythronium form carpets planted in drifts in woodland areas in moist, rich, well-drained soil.

11. Astilbe add colour and texture with their plumes of flowers and some also have showy foliage.

12. Violets with their heart shaped leaves and sweetly scented flowers need moist shade.

See more of the best shade-loving plants in our guide.

More garden design advice