My newer to me 100-year-old home has a shady yard. The trees have had a long time to grow and the beautiful tree canopies cast a lot of shade. As someone who was used to gardening in the full sun, this was a challenge. As a backyard gardener (with some horticultural extension courses), I've been learning what works in my yard. One of the best sources of shade plant inspiration has been visiting my neighbors' shade gardens. Most plants in this article are shade perennials. However, if the plant is not, I point it out in the description. It should be noted that my gardens are in the USDA horticultural zone 5.
What can I plant in the shade?
This is probably one of the most frequent questions I receive. It can be tricky and the tags in the planters are your best friend. Read them to get information about how much sun the plants need. My personal experience, you can 'push' the sun/shade requirement a bit and the plants still do well. That's what I plan on sharing. Most of these plants I personally grow or have friends/neighbors who have had success growing these in the shade.
I have heard hostas are ugly/boring/colorless
WRONG! You may have not looked at them with an open mind and eye. They can be such a beautiful monochromatic display of interesting foliage. There are many types of hostas, of varying colors (yes, usually variations of green leaves). But, they are often a beautiful backdrop to other plants or other textures in your garden. Hostas are true shade-loving plants and thrive where other plants won't.
Simple variegated hostas
These are the most common hostas I see. They often have the white on the inside OR on the outside.
I have some large leaf blue-colored hostas and I love them! One of the most common is called the Blue Angel Hosta. It grows in zones 3-8. I have it growing in the dappled sun which is perfect for this hosta which grows well in partial sun to full shade. Many hostas are shade-loving perennials and can certainly brighten up darker areas of the yard.
I think this image helps see the pretty blue color of this hosta!
Bleeding hearts (dicentra spectabilis) come in quite a few varieties. Most flower either in a darker shade of pink or white. The name comes from the shape of the flower. This perennial grows in zones 3-9 and likes partial sun to full shade. However, I do see it growing well in full sun too (even though it's considered a shade plant).
These are such pretty plants and their only downfall (in my opinion) is that they bloom and look pretty only in the spring. These do die back late spring/early summer but are one of the first spring perennials to bloom.
And a closeup of the flowers. This is what everyone loves about this bleeding heart plant/flower!
See the pretty fuchsia colored heart shaped flower with what looks like a tear on the bottom?
There are so many types of columbine (Aquilegia) and they grow in so many different environments. Make sure you buy a perennial that grows in the shade like these beauties below.
I love the flowers and here is a closeup of the purple one.
When I moved into my house a few years ago, it was the scary house on the street. The landscaping was out of control including the hydrangeas! They had taken over my lawn and flopped all over my narrow shared driveway. They are under control and I LOVE them! These are the old fashioned white hydrangeas that you see.
Mine get a few hours of morning sun only and then have afternoon shade. I have tried these in shadier areas of my yard and they do bloom but not as early as the ones that get more sun. These plants are quite hardy and are rated zones 3 - 9.
Anyone who knows me in 'real life' and would like some, give me a shout and bring your shovel. I still have lots.
These are fabulous flowers to dry! Plus, they are quite drought tolerant once established!
This plant is officially a sun plant. I've had it in a partial shade location and this plant's tolerance for shade is better than expected. It only had a couple of hours of morning sun then shade for the rest of the day. It's rated for zones 3-10. It's worth trying in your shadier spot. If it doesn't flower where it is, move it for the second year to see how it does. I find this one is happy with a fair amount of shade as long as it's doing well with the soil.
I love the texture of the foilage! A very easy plant to take care of!
Most of the ferns in my yard are osterich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris). They are wonderful in more moist soils and grow well in USDA hardiness zones of 3-7. Some people don't like how ostrich ferns spread, but I love it. I find these are such a pretty backdrop to other shade plants that I have. This is one of the most shade-tolerant plants. There are many fern types so choose the ones that do the best in your area. Neighbors, local online resources or local nurseries can guide you about this.
I love little baby ferns and watch for them in the spring. At this stage, they are called fiddleheads. Some ferns are edible and fiddleheads can be quite delicious! They taste similar to spinach to me.
I have a corner of my yard that has quite a few different trees and a natural woodland area, as far as plants is developing. I LOVE seeing these local plants growing.
The May Apple (podophyllum peltatum) grows in zones 3-9 in partial sun to shade areas and likes moist but well drained soil. It does bloom and has a flower that looks similar to a strawberry flower under it's leaves.
Another volunteer woodsy plant that showed up in my garden is Solomon's seal (Polyganatum). It grows in zones 4-6 (but some species of this plant can tolerate 3-9). This grows right by my May Apples in moist well-drained soil.
The flowers grow underneath the leaves and can easily be missed. The flowers on this plant are still forming but will have pretty white line of flowers in a few days. I was holding this plant straight up to get a picture of where the flowers are forming.
It is illegal in many areas to transplant trilliums (trillium grandiflorum) from public land to your garden. I was able to buy nursery-grown trilliums at a former home but haven't been so lucky where I live now. They often sell out very early in the season. I've also only been able to buy white ones. Apparently they can have red, pink and even yellow blooms! Trilliums bloom in the spring to early summer and prefer part shade to shade growing environments.
In my zone (5), this is an annual. However, it has pretty flowers and grows well and blooms in the shade. Some begonias have tubers that you can save and overwinter inside. This specific begonia I'm showing below does have tubers that need to be dug out in the fall. I do it because it's such a pretty orange! Others are treated like houseplants and keep them in a pot to overwinter. Most people just purchase this plant as an annual if they are planting outside in the garden. For year round gardening, they are a zone 9-10. They don't tolerate frost, that's for sure.
Picture is of a tuber begonia where I dug up the tuber each winter and replanted in the spring.
One of the easiest to care for plants in my shade gardens is the wild geranium which I've also heard called cranesbill and hardy geranium. Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) grows in USDA hardiness zones 3-8. These are a native North American plant. That's why they probably grow so easily, spread well but are easy to pull if they spread too much. I love their flowers, and they do bloom very prolific in the early summer. The bees love them! Once finished blooming, I do trim them back and am often rewarded with a second flush of blooms.
I love the color and texture of this plant. It is a silvery sage color and it is a soft fuzzy feel (like the ear of a lamb). There are a few different kinds of lambs ear but the kind I have and am writing about is known as stachys byzantine and grows in USDA hardiness zones 4-8. This plant thrives in full sun. However I have been planting it in shadier areas of my yard. It's doing well in the partial shade areas of my garden. This groundcover does spread but is easy to contain by pulling plants where you don't want it. It has pretty purple flowers that contrast nicely with the silvery leaves.
Impatients (Impatiens walleriana) are one of the most popular flowering plant for shadier areas of the yard. It will not tolerate any frost and has a zone rating of 10-11 (which means it's an annual elsewhere). Partial shade (with a couple of hours of sun) is ideal for these plants but they will also grow in full shade. If they don't get much sun, they will have fewer flowers. This plant has different colored flowers including white, red, pink coral and purple. I've heard talk that there is a yellow one now but have never seen it (but I'm looking!!).
One of the reasons this plant is so popular is the many ways it can be used. It can grow in gardens or also in containers. Isn't this pretty beside a walkway?
This is a plant of many names. It is most commonly known as a wandering Jew but that is considered inappropriate by some. I've also seen it called an inch plant. Officially it is a tradescantia zebrina and I always thought of it as a houseplant but am seeing it growing more and more in containers. It's zoned as a 10 - 11 and is considered an annual elsewhere. I'm sure some have it as an annual in their gardens too (give me time, I will!). This plant has beautiful purple foliage with silver stripes and it's often an indoor hanging plant. It would also be a perfect 'spill' type plant for your outdoor container garden in shadier spots. As a houseplant it likes bright light but NO direct sun. Outdoors it would be much more of a shade plant due to this tendency. Some gentle morning sun would be fine but it won't do well with the afternoon sun.
It's the foliage that I like. The leaves of the lungwort (Pulmonaria) are a nice dark green with white spots. This plant flowers early in the season and is often blue or pink (purplish). Sometimes it's white. This plant grows in USDA zones 3-9. Lungwort likes shade and one of the things it's known for is it's ability to grow under a black walnut tree. It is immune to the juglone that the black walnut tree excretes into the soil.
Coral Bells (Heuchera) come in many different colors. They have spikey flowers and most are grown for their leaves, not their flowers. I know some people love their coral bell flowers but I haven't seen those specific ones. Coral Bells are a hardiness zone of 4 - 9. If you do buy some of these, make sure you buy a color that stands out against your mulch. Or at least contrasts with plants that are planted close.
Varigated Jacob's Ladder
I was in love with this version of Jacob's ladder (Polemonium) the first time I saw it in my neighbor's yard. It looks delicate but it's a zone 4-8. The tag said it was deer resistant, and attracts butterflies. The staff person at the nursery said the bunnies in her yard didn't eat it. The variegated leaves and the delicate purple flowers made me want to buy this one. It's a perfect shade plant!! This plant is known to like partial to full shade. So definitely no afternoon sun!
I saw the plant but have not yet seen it blooming. That didn't stop me from buying it! The one I have is called "The Rocket and has a big yellow spikey flower. It's apparently quite the show-stopper flower! I also love that it's a zone 3-9. This should have not problems with local winters!
Sea Heart or Silver Heart
This beautiful plant (Brunnera macrophylla) is a perennial that grows in USDA zones 4-9. It has beautiful big silvery leaves and it's the leaves that makes this plant stand out. It does have blue flowers but I have not seen them yet, as this is my first year with this plant. It is a shade to part shade plant. I've heard great things about how it grows!
Lamb's ear, (stachus byzantine) is a tough little perennial that grows in zones 4-8. This plant is a silvery light green with soft velvety leaves. It's because of the softness of the leaves that this is my favorite. I do love it as a groundcover but will warn that it does spread. I find it easy to contain and any plants that are where they shouldn't be pull up easily. There are pink/purple flowers that are on a taller stem and I've found bees seem to really enjoy these flowers.
Astilbes are a beautiful blooming plant that technically is in sun to part shade. I've seen it do quite well in part shade but in full shade it doesn't flower well. I've seen it placed where it gets morning and early afternoon sun and the flowers are beautiful! Here is what the plant looks like but it's not in bloom yet.
Bellflowers can be annuals or perennials, depending what you purchase. The one I have is a USDA zone 3-8 so it is a perennial. It is a pretty low growing groundcover. It can grow in the sun or in the shade. It does best in the sun but it can also do fine in the shade if the plant is happy. I keep it deadheaded to keep it blooming.
The name of this Anemone was "pretty Lady Susan". I 100% bought it because my name is Susan! I'm looking forward to seeing what it does in the summer. This is a partial shade plant with a zone hardiness of 5-9. Although I am in a zone 5, it's risky buying plants in a 5 zone because if the winter is a little colder than normal, plants won't survive. I'll have to report back as to how Susan does this summer! It is spring blooming and should have pretty pink blooms on top of it's mounded leaves.
Autumn Joy Sedum
This Sedum spectabile 'Autumn Joy' is such a classic plant that I've grown for over 30 years. It is technically a full sun to partial sun and rated a USDA zone 4-7. BUT, I've grown it in part shade and when I've propagated too many, some have ended up in almost full shade. The part shade ones do well, they just get a little leggy. The ones I've put in full shade are slower to flower. I've written a post about growing and propagating (easy!) this plant. If you would like to know more follow the blue link Autumn Joy Sedum.
Just to be clear, this is an annual (or can be taken in as a houseplant). It is a zone 11 plant as an annual. There are a large variety of these and the sunlight requirements vary from full sun to full shade. Most do well in partial shade and I have never had an issue planting coleus where it gets a bit of sun but is in the shade most of the day. I LOVE the various colors the leaves come in (I have green, yellow, pink burgundy, white and purple this year). Normally, I plant a planter full of various colored coleus and I also plant some between my hostas (for a punch of color). Makes my hosta landscape a little more interesting to look at. These are defiantly foliage plants as their flowers are normally not pretty.
Snow on the Mountain aka Bishop's Weed or Bishop's Goutweed
If you don't like someone, give them some of this! Four years later I'm still fighting this one. If there is a tiny piece of root left in the ground it will grow! It is also invasive and really hard to keep contained unless you are willing to spend almost daily time keeping this one contained. DO NOT PLANT.
The scientific name for this is Aegopodiaum Podagraria and it's USDA hardiness zone is rated at 3 - 9. It looks pretty and is often varigated. When grown from seed, even from a varigated plant it can be just green. It is pretty, will grow in the toughest conditions (including shade) and is really difficult to eradicate, and is invasive. The reason this plant is such an issue is if it gets into our woodlands, it will choke out our native woodland plants.
As part of a shade garden it looks beautiful but needs to be aggressively managed. In the image below, the Snow on The Mountain is the plant that is growing around the tree trunk. This is a very thick (and I think pretty) ground cover.
Also known as Wild Violets, this common blue violet is actually Wisconsin's state flower (where I live). But, they are my nemisis. They grow very well in shady grass and become a weed. Do not plant these in your yard because they are a very aggressive spreader. Wood violets (Viola sororia) like partial sun to partial shade. In my lawn they seem to do well in full sun too! These grow in zones 3-9. An interesting thing about these plants, the leaves don't all die back in the fall or winter. It's a tough plant. The big plus about these wild violets are that they bloom in the early spring and are enjoyed by pollinators.
The (Scilla siberica) is another pretty but invasive spreading weed. You have heard the definition of a weed is a plant this grows where it isn't supposed to, right? This one grows early in the spring and can cover lawns with its pretty flowers. The problem with Siberian squill is that it's invading our woodlands and squeezing out our native growing plants. The growth zones are 2 - 8. Do not buy or plant this if you see it sold in a garden center.
I have a whole post about Siberian Squill if you would like to know more about this pretty weed.
Lily of the Valley
Another invasive plant which is still sold in some gardening centers. Don't buy or plant this!! It will spread. I am guilty of having some of these but it's a small area of plants trapped between my house and my cement driveway. I have dug them up hoping to get rid of them but they keep coming back! I'll admit I do like them and think they are pretty.
The Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) grows in zones 2 to 9 and is an early spring bloomer. I love the little white bell-shaped flowers.
This is a groundcover which can become invasive. It is a perennial in zones 4-9 and likes partial to full shade. I have one of these and am watching to see what it does in my yard. When purchasing plants, I wish growers/retailers would warn consumers about a potential issue with it growing out of control.
What I do like about this plant is the fun shape of the leaves. It also blooms in early spring with white flowers. I LOVE spring bloomers!
The technical name for the dogwoods I have are Cornus sericea (cardinal redosier dogwood). I've been looking for a shade tolerating shrub to plant as a natural privacy fence. There are many types of dogwoods so research a little and/or read the tag to make sure you are buying one that does what you would like and will grow well where planted.
I love dogwood shrubs for two reasons. One, they grow quickly and are a great privacy shrub. The second, I only buy dogwood shrubs that get red stems in the fall. I can use those red stems in my winter planters. The red stems also provide some winter interest and they also still do a good job as a privacy barrier when all the leaves have been dropped.
Please pin this to your gardening boards!