The Shade Garden

If you have a border that doesn’t receive much light, this is the perfect spot for a shade garden!

Many of the most beautiful plants thrive in cool places where they are under less stress from water loss and do not have to cope with harsh direct sunlight. Early spring-flowering bulbs are often at their best in shade, and camellias prefer shade because early morning winter sun can damage their leaves and petals by causing them to defrost too fast.

Woodland plants also grow best under the cover of trees. For a pretty show of spring flowers, choose from primroses, bergenia, hellebore, Solomon’s seal, bleeding heart, pulmonaria and periwinkle, all of which are happy growing in shade.

An additional challenge is that shady areas often have a poor, dry soil (especially under trees). This is rather more of a problem for many plants than simple shade. Soil can be improved with the addition of organic matter such as compost or leafmould. Careful selection of plants may also help – some reliable plant choices for shade are shown in the chart below.

Container Plants

If your shady area has poor soil, you might also consider using containers. Shrubs and small trees will grow well in shady containers, as will bulbs and bedding plants. Container-growing is a cost-effective way of marking seasonal changes and providing additional interest in your shady border or corner. There are, however, several factors to bear in mind to ensure healthy, attractive plants when growing in containers. Most importantly, select your growing medium carefully it should be suitable for container plants. Some compost mixes also have additional water-retention abilities, an ideal choice if you don’t always remember to water your containers or if you are going away for a few weeks. Some plants may also require winter protection, so check their individual requirements when you purchase them.

Select plants to suit the size of your container, the degree of shade (in your border is in deep shade, there will be fewer plants to choose from than if it is only in light or dappled shade), and your own seasonal favourites.

Year-Round Colour

with careful planning, your shady border can offer colour and interest throughout the seasons. For a bright burst of early colour, consider spring-flowering bulbs such as Winter aconite (Eranthus hyemalis), snowdrop (Galanthus), Scilla sibricia, and daffodil (cultivars such as Narcissus ‘Actea’, N. ‘Jack Snipe’ and N. ‘Jenny’ do well in shade).

Shrubs and perennials can provide additional early colour. Winter jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum, for example, provides a bright pop of early colour when it’s yellow flowers emerge. Shrubs such as Cornus provide winter interest due to their brightly coloured stems (good examples include Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ and Cornus sanguinea Midwinter Fire).

At the other end of the growing season, late summer or autumn-flowering perennials can extend the season interest. Good choices include: for dark shade – Geranium nodosum, Tricyrtis formosana, Alchemilla mollis; for lighter or dappled shade – Aster thomsonii ‘Nanus’, Saxifraga fortunei, Phlomis russeliana.


Many climbing plants do well in shady corners of the garden. They will not be as rampant as they might in a sunnier position, but they offer colour cover for walls and fences. Climbers can also be coaxed to grow up trees.

The climbing hydrangea, Hydrangea petiolaris, likes shade but is slow to get started, so some patience is needed. Once it gets going, however, it provides gorgeous lace-cap flowers and glossy green leaves that work perfectly in a shady area.

Some climbing roses also thrive just as well in shade as in sun. Select varieties that have a long-flowering season, such as R. ‘Zephirine Drouhin’, to give scent and colour from spring to autumn.

Ivy can be used to brighten and soften shady spots and comes in a wide range of leaf colours and shapes. Hedera colchica ‘Sulphur Heart’ for example, has a vivid yellow splash of colour in the centre of its leaves, while Hedera helix ‘Atropurpurea’ brings a reddish-purple hue to the winter garden. Its dark leaves turn a bronze to purple colour in winter.

Shrubs for Shade

The following shrubs work well in shade.

  • Japanese azaleas – evergreen, varied flower colours, acid lover.
  • Camellia japonica and x williamsia varieties – evergreen, varied flower colours, acid lover.
  • Skimmia japonica – evergreen, needs male and female plants.
  • Mahonia aquifolium – evergreen, yellow flowers, purple berries.
  • Floribunda roses – many alternatives.
  • Pieris formosa – evergreen, red leaves in spring, white flowers, acid lover.


Evergreens often really come into their own in shady positions, creating dense, luxurious cover. Bear in mind, however, that in deep shade they may not be as bright as they might be in a sunnier situation.

Many evergreens have brightly coloured berries in autumn, lasting through the winter.

Favourite evergeens for a shady border include:

  • Epimedium spp.
  • Hosta spp.
  • Vinca major spp.
  • Skimmia japonica
  • Polystichum polyblepharum
  • Viburnum davidii
  • Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’
  • Iris foetidissima
  • Mahonia aquifolium ‘Apollo’
  • Euonymus fortunei varieties
  • Helleborus argutifolius

Non-Plant Features

  • Wall-Mounted Mirrors – use mirrors to create a feeling of extra light and space in a shady garden. Fix them securely to a solid wall or fence, in a position where they won’t be at risk from visitors or footballs. They should be cleaned regularly to ensure they are effective.
  • Reflection Pool – A shallow pool filled to the brim with water can be used as a horizontal mirror too reflect the sky or an attractive feature beside the pool. Make use of it at night as well by lighting a tree or ornament to be reflected on the water’s surface, or put lights directly in the pool itself. To achieve maximum reflections for any given size of pool, it is best to have the water level as near to ground level as possible.
  • Light-coloured Walls or Fences – lighter colours reflect more light and give a greater sense of space.

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