Creating a garden in the shade

Don’t let limited sunlight stop you from growing a beautiful garden. Make the most of shady locations with proper plant selection and design strategies.

Start the season with native spring ephemerals like hepatica, spring beauties and trout lilies. These plants grow and flower early in the season before the trees leaf out, shading the area. They dieback soon after flowering as shade tolerant plants fill the garden. Look for those native to your region.

Select bright and lime green foliage plants that stand out in the shady corners of your landscape.  Combine them with your favorite dark leafed and flowered plants that tend to disappear in the shade. The contrasting colors help both plants pop.

Use plants with variegated foliage to light up the garden long after their flowers fade. Siberian bugloss (Brunnera) has blue forget-me-not-like flowers in spring and variegated heart shaped leaves. Variegated Solomon Seal’s upright stems covered with green leaves edged in cream, white bell-shaped flowers and yellow fall color provide multiple seasons of interest.

Barrenwort (Epimedium) also provides seasonal color in the shade. The heart shaped leaves are tinged red and emerge with the flowers in spring. The leaves turn green for the summer and then change once again to red in fall.

Add some height to those shady areas with bugbane. The leaves are topped with white spires of flowers in summer or fall, depending on the variety selected.

The white or pink blossoms of Roger’s flower brighten the early summer garden. The big, bold leaves of this moisture-loving perennial resemble those of a horse chestnut tree.

The narrow leaves of sedges and Hakone grass create a striking contrast with the bold leaves of hostas. For an even bolder statement and focal point include a few elephant ears.

​​​​​​​Look for shade tolerant plants with a variety of leaf shapes and sizes. The differences in texture add interest to the shade garden. Repeat the leaf sizes and shapes to unify the garden. Use this same strategy to create continuity between sun and shade gardens in your landscape.

Include a variety of plant shapes. Use columnar plants to create a focal point and weeping and mounded plants for a sense of fluidity in the garden.

A lack of sun is not the only factor to consider when planning a shade garden. The density of the canopy of trees or an overhang may also limit the water that reaches and is available to the plants below. Growing dry, shade-tolerant perennials will help reduce your long-term maintenance. Barrenwort, liriope, coral bells, foam flower, sweet woodruff and hellebores are fairly shade tolerant once established.

Make sure all new plantings are watered thoroughly and when the top few inches of soil are crumbly and moist. Proper watering the first few years will result in deep, drought tolerant root systems that will help these plants grow and flourish despite the dry shade.

When planting under or near trees, be careful not to kill the trees when creating your shade garden.  Don’t cut or remove surface roots, creating entryways for insects and diseases. Adding as little as an inch of soil over the roots can kill some tree species. Avoid deep cultivation which can damage the feeder roots that are critical for water and nutrient absorption since the majority grow within the top 12 inches of soil.

If there’s too much shade to grow even shade-loving plants, consider mulch to protect the soil and tree roots. Add a chair for relaxing and enjoy this cool space as summer temperatures rise.

About Melinda Myers
Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including “The Midwest Gardener’s Handbook, 2ndEdition” and “Small Space Gardening.” She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the nationally-syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV and radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine and was commissioned by Summit for her expertise to write this article. Her website is

Bugbane’s white spires of flowers will provide some height to the shady areas in the landscape. Photo by

Melinda Myers, Author, Special to Lassen News