51 Plants That Don't Need A Lot Of Sun To Thrive

Embrace the shade in order to create a diverse and beautiful garden.

May 18, 2016
shade garden near a gazebo
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Gardening in the shade challenges the talents of many gardeners because they fight the shady conditions rather than adapting to them. You can't grow a lovely lawn or an English flower border under trees—but you can grow a diverse and beautiful garden. Instead of struggling to grow sun-loving flowers and lawn grass on a shady site—why not design a garden that will actually thrive in shade? By carefully choosing flowering shrubs, perennials, annuals, groundcovers, and ferns adapted to shady conditions, your garden will be not only colorful and interesting, but also easy to care for.

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The Challenges Of Shade Gardening

Study your shady site to decide if you have dense, light, or partial shade. In partial shade—where some direct sun shines for a few hours a day—you'll be able to grow a wider selection of plants. Light or dappled shade also allows a wider selection than dense all-day shade cast from a thick-foliaged tree. If tree shade is very dense, you might want to thin out a few tree branches by cutting them off at the trunk so that more light reaches the ground—creating a light or filtered shade. You may have to thin out branches every few years to maintain the effect.


In a shady area, it's often the case that poor, dry soil limits plant growth more than lack of light. Shade spots under trees can often be remarkably dry, because the trees' surface roots suck up all the available moisture and nutrients. The lack of moisture—not the shade—often limits your endeavors. You'll know if dry, root-clogged soil poses a problem because the ground will feel hard and compacted and you'll have trouble digging a hole with a trowel.

The best way to start Preparing Soil In Spring if it is compacted in your shady spot, is to layer chopped-up leaves and twigs over the area and in a year or so, they will decompose into a rich humus. Chop the dry leaves to the size of 50-cent pieces with a bagging lawn mower and spread them several inches deep beneath the tree boughs. Sprinkle the leaves with a compost activator and keep them moist. Repeat this procedure annually until the leaves have rotted into a deep humus. By then, earthworms will have moved in and begun to loosen up the subsoil. Only when you have a loose, friable soil can you begin installing a diverse shade garden—though tough groundcovers such as epimediums will grow in dense tree shade and poor soil.

Sometimes tree roots interfere with digging a planting hole for a shade-loving shrub. When this happens—dig an extra-large planting hole and sever all interfering tree roots smaller than 1 inch in diameter. Mulch the soil with compost to nourish the young shrub. The large planting hole should give the shrub enough growing room to get established before tree roots return.


Related: Design Your Ideal Shade Garden

wild phlox
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Creating A Shade Garden

For the most pleasing effect, arrange plants beginning with the tallest at the back of the garden—or in the center if it is to be viewed from all sides—and filling in with the shortest. You might start by planting a shade-loving understory tree and then arranging groups of broadleaved evergreen shrubs. After these woody plants are in place, add large groups of flowering perennials—like This Autumn-Blooming Flower That Adds Surprising Color To Your Yard—and underplant them with groundcovers to keep the soil cool and moist. Spring-flowering bulbs often flourish beneath trees—soaking up all the sun they need in spring before the tree leaves emerge. Plant them in large drifts together with the perennials.

Choose white and pastel-colored spring flowers as well as white-, cream-, or yellow-variegated and gold-and chartreuse-leaved foliage plants—such as hostas and golden hakone grass—for your shady site. These light colors pop out of the shadows rather than receding into the gloom like red or purple flowers tend to do. With a careful selection and placement of plants, you can transform your dim spot into a cool, flowery retreat. It just might become the best-looking part of your yard.


Related: 5 Trouble-Free Summer Perennials

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Plants For Shady Gardens

The wide selection of Shade-Loving Perennials mentioned below will brighten up any dark corner. Most prefer partial or filtered shade, but some can do well even in full shade. Check plant hardiness of perennials, groundcovers, and shrubs—and choose plants that are hardy in your area. If you have room, consider flowering understory trees like dogwoods and redbuds that do well in woodland conditions.

Begonia Semperflorens-Cultorum hybrids—wax begonias
Browallia speciosa—browallia
Solenostemon scutellarioides—coleus
Impatiens wallerana—impatiens
Myosotis sylvatica—garden forget-me-not
Torenia fournieri—wishbone flower
Viola × wittrockiana—pansy

Related: The Flowers That Florists Can't Live Without

Astilbe spp. and cultivars—astilbes
Dicentra eximia—fringed bleeding heart
Dicentra spectabilis—common bleeding heart
Digitalis grandiflora—yellow foxglove
Digitalis purpurea—common foxglove; reseeding biennial
Filipendula ulmaria—queen-of-the-meadow
Helleborus spp.—hellebores
Hemerocallis spp. and cultivars—daylilies
Heuchera spp. and cultivars—heucheras, alumroots
Hosta spp. and cultivars—hostas
Mertensia virginica—Virginia bluebells
Osmunda cinnamomea—cinnamon fern
Phlox divaricata—wild blue phlox
Phlox stolonifera—creeping phlox
Polygonatum spp.—Solomon's seals
Primula spp.—primroses
Pulmonaria spp.—lungworts
Tiarella cordifolia—Allegheny foamflower

Ajuga reptans—ajuga
Asarum spp.—wild gingers
Bergenia cordifolia—heartleaf bergenia
Carex spp.—sedges
Convallaria majalis—lily-of-the-valley
Fragaria vesca—Alpine strawberry
Galium odoratum—sweet woodruff
Epimedium spp.—epimediums
Hakonechloa macra—hakone grass
Lamium maculatum—spotted lamium
Liriope spp.—lilyturfs
Mitchella repens—partridgeberry
Pachysandra terminalis—Japanese pachysandra

Related: 9 Jaw-Dropping Desert Gardens

Calycanthus floridus—Carolina allspice
Daphne cneorum—rose daphne
Ilex crenata—Japanese holly
Kalmia latifolia—mountain laurel
Kerria japonica ‘Variegata'—variegated Japanese kerria
Leucothoe spp.—leucothoes
Mahonia spp.—mahonias and Oregon grapes
Nandina domestica—heavenly bamboo
Prunus laurocerasus—cherry-laurel
Rhododendron spp. and cultivars—rhododendrons and azaleas
Ribes alpinum—alpine currant
Sarcococca hookerana—Himalayan sarcococca
Skimmia japonica—Japanese skimmia