Plants for shade

Sunless plot? Make shade work for you

Hosta Canadian Blue
Hosta Canadian Blue – an obvious choice but I’m shying away from them – slug and snail damage is too great

Most people think it’s the end of the world if they have a garden that’s in shade and give up on the idea of gardening at all.

However, more and more of us in urban or suburban homes have this to contend with – sunlight not blocked by trees but by other buildings.

You can have a successful, beautiful, lush garden in semi shade or shade – to use that well-worn phrase, ‘right plant, right place’.

You may have to forego sunflowers and a productive vegetable garden but here’s a list of plants and conditions they will tolerate. Most people think of hostas when they think of shade, which is true – they thrive in light-medium shade but will not tolerate dry conditions – and there’s always the slug/snail problem, so I haven’t listed them below.


How much shade will they have to cope with?

It’s no good saying ‘my garden is shady’ – unless you’re referring to a basement that gets no direct sunlight at any time of the year, the amount of sun/shade will change with the seasons.

When the sun is highest in the sky in May-July, rays may penetrate areas in deep shade at other times. Really examine where the sunshine hits as the days wear on. Don’t just examine ground level – are any walls in sunlight?

Bear in mind if your shade is cast by deciduous trees and hedges, they will get more sun in winter/spring (as is the case with some of my garden).  In the gallery above, you can see late winter and spring flowering plants and bulbs (species tulips, daffodils, bluebells, Pulmonaria, Heuchera, Oxalis) naturally found in the understorey of woodlands – which have done their thing by the time the whitebeam tree and beech hedge come into full leaf.


Definitions of shade

Soft shield fern and hosta Big Daddy
Soft shield fern and hosta Big Daddy – in total shade in winter but they get about 3 hours late afternoon/evening sun in summer

We see ‘full sun’, ‘partial sun/shade’, ‘dappled sun/shade’ and full shade on plant labels but what do they actually mean? These definitions are based on time in the sun, along with shade density.

  • Full sun: six full hours or more of direct sunlight at any time of the day and can be split up say three in the morning, three in the evening. In nature, meadows, prairies, and other open country; farmland growing crops requiring direct summer sun.
  • Partial sun/shade: Three-six hours of sunlight each day. However, partial shade usually refers to morning and early afternoon sun, while a plant listed as partial sun needs protection from intense late afternoon rays. In nature, open woods, and small clearings with up to 50 per cent canopy.
  • Dappled sun: Similar to partial shade, only the light is filtered through a deciduous tree, as in a natural woodland setting. Natural environment – Deciduous woodlands with filtered or dappled light throughout all or part of the day.

    Group self-sown foxgloves
    Group of self-sown foxgloves in the shade of the hedge and under the plum tree
  • Light shade: Shadow cast by a building, wall, hedge, or tree on a site exposed to the sky and open to light. In nature, similar to the edges of woodlands and in savannahs where trees provide up to 25 per cent canopy.
  • Full shade: Full shade means less than three hours of direct sunlight, best if it’s morning light. Even in the absence of direct sunlight, full shade can be a bright light. Forests and woodlands with complete canopy closure.
  • Deep shade: Dense kind of shade found under evergreens or shrubs that do not allow any direct light to penetrate. Coniferous forests, or in gardens where walls or building overhangs block out the sun.

Don’t forget the strength of the sun’s rays, which vary with the time of day, season and the latitude. Early afternoon sun is the most intense, especially from June to September.


Suitable plants

As this is about plants for shade and there are loads of plants for full and partial sun, I’m only concentrating on deeper levels of shade. I’ve included plants for dry shade, one of the most difficult aspects a gardener can face, and damp shade.

Light and dappled shade: Campanula, Stachys, golden rod, Aquilegia, foxglove, bleeding heart, Pulmonaria, Brunnera, Ajuga, Tiarella, forget-me-nots.

Full shade: Pachysandra terminalis, box, ivy, ferns, Hebe rakaiensis, Phillyrea angustifolia, Ajuga, Bergenia x schmidtii. Griselinia littoralis, Hydrangea quercifolia, Mahonia, Pittosporum tenuifolium, Sambucus, Epimedium, Galium odoratum, Luzula, Euonymus fortunei Emerald Gaiety, x Fatshedera lizei Variegata, Lonicera nitida Baggesen’s Gold, Hydrangea seemannii, Lonicera henryi, Pileostegia viburnoides, Schizophragma integrifolium.

Deep shade: Butcher’s broom, Iris foetidissima, wood spurge, spring bulbs, snowdrops, winter aconites, Vinca.

Dry shade: Alchemilla mollis, barrenwort, cranesbill geraniums, Hellebores, masterwort, Astrantia, ivy, Cyclamen, Viola labradorica, sweet rocket, Convallaria, Pulmonaria, Rubus tricolor, Symphytum, Vinca, Waldsteinia ternata, ferns such as Dryopteris filix-mas, Polypodium vulgare or Polystichum setiferum, Fatsia japonica.

Damp shade: Bleeding heart, Monarda, Astilbe, Actaea, Solomon’s seal, toad lily, Himalayan blue poppy, Heuchera, Deinanthe caerulea, Maianthemum racemosum (American spikenard), Saxifraga stolonifera (strawberry saxifrage), Gentiana asclepiadea (willow gentian), Rheum, Rodgersia.