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
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
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
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
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
Tiarella cordifolia—Allegheny foamflower
Asarum spp.—wild gingers
Bergenia cordifolia—heartleaf bergenia
Fragaria vesca—Alpine strawberry
Galium odoratum—sweet woodruff
Hakonechloa macra—hakone grass
Lamium maculatum—spotted lamium
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
Mahonia spp.—mahonias and Oregon grapes
Nandina domestica—heavenly bamboo
Rhododendron spp. and cultivars—rhododendrons and azaleas
Ribes alpinum—alpine currant
Sarcococca hookerana—Himalayan sarcococca
Skimmia japonica—Japanese skimmia