Best plants for shade – plant up shady spots in your garden



Most of us have a spot in our garden that is shady and challenging. What can you plant in shade? Most popular and colourful plants tend to thrive in full sun or half-shade. But there are spots in every garden, under trees, along a north facing hedge or fence that can be shady all day. What can you plant that will thrive?

Most people will probably suggest ferns, hostas and hardy geraniums, and with good reason, they are stunning. But there are so many more to choose from.

Nature, in its wisdom, has a plant for every place and every condition. A bit of research will show you just how many plants there are that would happily live in shade. However, not all shade is the same.

Hostas and Ferns

Dry shade:

Dry shade is very common under large trees, where the roots of the trees take up most of the water. It can also occur near a fence or wall, where the rainwater doesn’t quite get to the soil and causes dry conditions. So if your spot is under a tree, wall or fence, have a feel of the soil, especially after rain and find out if this part of your garden dries out quickly or if it retains moisture well.

I have an area of dry shade in my garden, where a fairly large Ceanothus tree is keeping the ground very dry. When it rains, the dense foliage of the tree prevents water from reaching the soil.

shady spot under tree

I have planted the following plants very successfully:

Fatsia Japonica – very lush and exotic looking but hardy. Can grow quite large so make sure to give it plenty of space

Hostas – My hostas love the dry shady spot but so do the slugs! I know a lot of people avoid hostas for that reason but I will be trying out a home-made garlic solution that is said to help repell slugs and snails. I will write a separate post about that so I will keep you updated.

Hardy geraniums – I have a lovely white cranesbill geranium growing in dry shade and it produces very delicate white flowers from spring through to summer.

Japanese anemone – I just love these plants! Mine produce beautiful white blooms on long elegant stalks with lush green foliage.

Euphorbia – make sure you pick the right variety, Euphorbia amygdaloides robbiae is great in shade, although mine is currently growing in sun! It goes to show that sometimes you can break the rules and get away with it.

Hellebore – I really love these plants. They thrive in shade but also flower in winter, when there is not much else flowering! There are so many colours available, I’m sure you will love them too.

Hydrangea – When we first started gardening, I planted these in full sun, which made the flowers turn brown during the hot summer. These do so much better in shade and reward you with huge blooms during summer through to autumn.

Ajuga – beautiful glossy dark green leaves with deep blue flower spikes. Can also grow in sun where it will not spread so much and grow slower. Ideal ground cover that spreads quickly when in shade.

Heuchera – We have a purple one growing in shade but there are quite a few colours now from green, red, orange, purple and almost black.

Other dry shade loving plants:

Lilly of the Valley – fantastic for groundcover with an amazing scent. Unfortunately I didn’t do too well with these last year but will try again. Gardening is all about trying and having some failures amongst the successes.

Wood anemone – lovely white spring flowers creating a carpet of colour under trees.

Viburnum tinnus – lovely evergreen shrub with white flowers. Reliable and tough plant.

Sarcococca – also known as Christmas box, this is an evergreen shrub with very fragrant white flowers during winter.

Buxus sempervirens – also known as box and used in topiary. We have several box ‘balls’ in the garden and love them for being evergreen and the structure they provide the garden in winter. They are often planted in sun but are actually much better in shade where they will thrive.

Aucuba Japonica – lovely evergreen plant, with light green speckles on dark green background. Lovely in shade and the speckled effect livens up a dark shady corner.

These are just some of the plants that will thrive in dry shade. There are many more and if you’re not sure which plant to grow in your garden, you can ask at your local nursery or garden centre where they will point you in the right direction. I find garden centre staff very helpful and they usually know the local soil conditions, so it’s well worth asking their opinion.

Lilly of the valley

Damp shade:

Damp shade can occur when you have a spot near water, for example a pond, or in woodland. Before you plant in damp shade, it is a good idea to improve drainage in the soil by digging in plenty of organic matter, like compost or leaf mould.

There are plenty of beautiful plants that will thrive in damp shade:

Angelica – This can grow to quite a height, our Angelica grew taller than me and had the most fantastic flower heads. Very good architectural plant but you need to give it space.

Brunnera macrophylla – the delicate blue flowers in spring remind a little of forget-me-nots.

Astilbe – these can be quite striking and come in pinks, white and red colours with a feather-like flower.

Alchemilla Mollis – I actually have this growing in dry shade and in full sun, and both are growing really well, too well even as they can get quite unruly in summer. Seems to be indestructible and the yellow frothy flowers look great together with other blooms in flower arrangements. When it rains, the raindrops settle on the leaves, like little sparkly gems.

Hostas – these grow in dry or damp shade, check the variety for which they prefer but I find that they grow equally well in both.

Bleeding heart – this one is still on my wish-list and there is a pink, white and red version. What better plant to brighten a dark shady corner than this beautiful plant with arching stems which have small heart-shaped blooms hanging like little lanterns.

Acid Soil

So far we have talked about dry and damp shade, but another consideration is whether your soil is acid or alkaline. You can buy small soil testing kits online, they are not expensive and will let you know what kind of soil you have. Some plants like rhododendrons, azaleas, camelias, magnolias and skimmias need acid soil to thrive. If you do have acid soil, then this opens up your choice for shade loving plants.

There are many plants that you can plant in shade and I’ve only given you a few suggestions. Even though they are divided into dry and damp shade, I find that some are equally good in either. Sometimes in gardening you can experiment and some plants will thrive and others won’t. If a plant isn’t growing well you may want to move it somewhere else and see if it feels happier in a different location.

But it’s a good idea to give it some thought before you plant something to give it the best start.

I hope this blog post has helped you decide, and remember that you can ask your local garden centre or nursery for advice if you’re not sure. Or send me a message and I will do my best to help.

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