Design Tips + Plant Recs for the Shade Garden

While humans enjoy a nice shady spot on a hot summer day, a lack of direct sun isn’t ideal for most plants. Many plants simply can’t go into shade and remain healthy. This leaves us with a hard truth: shade gardens can sometimes look a little sparse. But with the right plants and a little finessing*, your shade garden will look lush and healthy. 

*see the layering and color/texture sections below

Pick the Right Plants for Your Shade Garden

Not all shade gardens are equally shady. Determine which type yours is.

– It gets a minimum of four hours of exposure, which makes it a part sun space. 
– It gets all day dappled light or receives a bit of direct sun, but not enough to qualify as part sun. 
– It’s very dark and it seems as though rays of sun never get to it (because of a building or thick tree canopy).

Depending on your conditions, you can look for one of three different types of plants:

Shrubs that enjoy part sun

4 hours of direct exposure

This is the most abundant group of plants to pick from! There are a variety of reasons a plant will grow in part sun – sometimes the plant needs shade at some point in the day to keep from burning or sometimes the plant simply doesn’t mind the shade. 

Shrubs that are fine in mostly shade

all day dappled light or just under 4 hours of exposure

Many plants that are marked as part sun will do alright with less than 4 hours of direct light. They’ll just flower a little less profusely, grow slower, and perhaps have slightly less colorful foliage if that is part of their appeal. However, they are still lovely and offer a lot of interest. Here are six such plants:

Shrubs that do well in full shade

almost no sun exposure or none at all

A mix of well-known and new-to-the-scene shade loving shrubs can build the foundation of your space. Use them in multiples to create a reliable lush look. These mass plantings will keep the space from looking sparse while you experiment with plants labeled only as part sun. The first three plants are tried-and-true shade shrubs, and the second group are newer plants you may not have heard of yet.

Create Layers

A trick for easily making a visually interesting garden is to arrange plants in two different layers. When you can, plant in groups and use the same species of plant in a few different places. This keeps the space looking full.

Height Layers
Use plants that have different mature heights. Tall plants for areas that can accommodate them, medium plants, and short plants too. 

Depth Layers
Unless you’re planting a hedge, a reliable way to ensure your garden is visually interesting is to arrange it with the tallest plants at the back, mid-size plants in the middle, and the shortest plants at the front.

Add Colors and Texture

Add color to the space! There are plenty of colorful shade annuals, and perennials to choose from. Consider creating a color scheme. Make that task a little easier with this article

Mixing up foliage and flower texture is another way to make a shady space more interesting. Learn all about how to do this in this article.

We have a few suggestions for livening up an established shade garden.
  • Plant a hydrangea to provide coarse texture with their large flowers (or double up on coarse texture with oakleaf hydrangeas thanks to their large foliage).
  • If possible fill the vertical space with an upright habit or vine on a tree or fence (plant D).
  • Use annual or perennial ferns to give the space fine texture (plant E). 
  • Add heuchera or begonias to get a pop of color and coarse texture (plant F).
  • Add brunnera or hostas for coarse texture only.

With these three thoughts in mind, you can create a lovely shade garden. One that captivates just as much as a full sun space! Explore the variety of full shade and part shade shrubs we offer and build a palette for your space.

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Picture of Kristina Howley

Kristina Howley

I am all in when it comes to gardening. Almost every part of the experience delights me – new leaves emerging in spring, pollinators buzzing in summer, birds devouring berries in fall, and the somber beauty of seed heads in winter. Thanks to a background in horticulture and gardening my own clay-filled, flowery USDA zone 5b plot, I’ve learned plenty of practical things as well. I like sharing these joys and lessons with my fellow gardeners and soon-to-be gardeners any way I can.


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