Plants for a Shade Garden

Check out annuals, perennials, groundcovers, shrubs and understory trees that are made for the shade garden.

Gardening in the shade often proves to be a challenge for even the most experienced gardeners, but it doesn't have to be limiting. Choose from a broad plant palette of annuals, perennials, shrubs and understory trees, or trees that grow under the shade of a forest canopy, that offer a wide range of foliage, flowers and fruit, and you'll have a garden that visitors, both human and animal, can enjoy, especially in the heat of summer.

Shade-Tolerant Trees

Dogwoods are one of the best shade-tolerant, understory trees that, in the wild, grow in the shade cast by larger trees. The flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is native to the United States and has white flowers in early spring. The Asian species, C. kousa, flowers about one month later and thrives equally well in shady spots.

Japanese maples also do nicely in all but the densest shade, but red varieties may not color as well without a few hours of sun, preferably morning sun. Other options include paw paw (Asimina triloba), American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina), witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia), possumhaw (Ilex decidua), American hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), red buckeye (Aesculus glabra), redbud (Cercis canadensis), Anacacho orchid tree (Bauhinia), Stewartia, Gardenia and Camellia.

Shrubs for the Shade

When it comes to shrubs, consider deciduous and evergreen options, such as azaleas and yews. Other shrubs for shade include sweet bay (Laurus nobilis), spicebush (Lindera benzoin), oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), gold dust (Aucuba), holly (Ilex), Clethra, Japanese pittosporum (Pittosporum tobira), Viburnum), boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), Japanese kerria, doghobble (Leucothoe), beautyberry (Callicarpa), Oregon grape (Mahonia), mock orange (Philadelphus), Nandina, privet (Ligustrum) and cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus).

Shade-Loving Perennials

Perhaps the best-known shade perennial is the hosta, which offers a variety of foliage colors, forms and heights. Hardy ferns are also easy to grow; good options include cinnamon fern, autumn fern, holly fern, lady fern, Christmas fern, maidenhair fern, ostrich fern and Japanese painted fern. Astilbe produces gorgeous fernlike foliage and showy blooms. Flowering bulbs, such as daffodils, snowdrops and crocus, can naturalize in shady areas and provide colorful spring flowers.

Other shade-loving perennials are bleeding hearts (Dicentra), columbine (Aquilegia), bugbane (Cimicifuga), campanula, coral bells (Heuchera), foamflower (Tiarella), goatsbeard (Aruncus), Brunnera, Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia pulmonarioides), monkshood (Aconitum), phlox, primrose (Primula), lungwort (Pulmonaria), turk's cap (Malvaviscus arboreus drummondii), Oxalis, Trillium, Lamiastrum, sweet flag (Acorus), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), cast iron plants (Aspidistra), Celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla), Solomon's seal (Polygonatum), Jacob's ladder (Polemonium), ground orchid (Bletilla) and epimedium.

Shady Groundcovers

When planting in dry shade, use English ivy or Japanese pachysandra, both of which are easy to find and grow. (Caution: English ivy is extremely invasive and readily takes over if unchecked, creating "ivy deserts" in which nothing else will grow.)

Even in areas of dry or deep shade, these groundcovers add varying shades of green. Opt for Ajuga, wild ginger (Asarum), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), Lamium, monkey grass (Liriope), mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) and vinca.

Annuals for the Shade

Brighten up the shade throughout the growing season with flowering annuals. Popular selections include begonia, impatiens, caladium, coleus, cyclamen, wishbone flower (Torenia) and forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica). In the winter, when there is little going on in the shade garden, grow violas and pansies under deciduous shade tree that have lost their leaves.

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