How To Choose Plants For Shade

How To Choose Plants For Shade

Follow our guide to solving that problem of a tricky shady part of the garden

Shady areas of the garden may present a bit of a headache when it comes to planting but it is an opportunity to try something new & expand your planting knowledge & more importantly your plant collection! Shade offers a different perspective on plants & even though some species will tolerate shade they may not make your shady area look at its best. It is similar to planting a ‘night garden’, some plants & flowers just fade away into the gloom as night is falling & others with variegated or silver foliage & white or blue flowers seem to come to life.

Shade is a bit of a general term & you will need to assess your own shady patch & do a bit of reading around & possibly some trial & error before you can enjoy the final effect.

The amount of shade is important - whether the area gets some sun during part of the day or even part of the year. Don’t forget that areas beneath trees are often well lit in spring before the leaf canopy cuts out the light. All plants come with care instructions so check out the label to see what shade they will tolerate before you buy.

The soil type in your shady area is also important. If you are growing your plants in pots or a raised bed you can create the right planting medium to accommodate the plants you would like to grow. You can even buy specialist compost so that you can grow ericaceous plants, like rhododendrons, if your soil is naturally alkaline. If you are planting straight into your garden soil it is still possible to improve the soil by digging in grit for drainage if it is too moist or bulking it up with well-rotted compost if it is too sandy.

To give you some ideas on planting a shady area, garden designer, author & plant expert Andrew Mikolajski answers some of your questions about plants that thrive in limited sunlight.

Q: Can you recommend some plants for my small woodland area under three birches?

A: Woodland gardens are shady in summer when the trees are in leaf, and then enjoy dappled shade in winter and spring, as the sun filters through the bare branches. Many spring bulbs take advantage of this extra light. Start the season with snowdrops (Galanthus), followed by daffodils (Narcissus) and a dog’s-tooth violet, such as Erythronium ‘Pagoda’, which produces dainty nodding yellow flowers. Hellebores will also thrive in the shade under the trees. At the edge of the canopies, try the drumstick flowers of Allium ‘Purple Sensation’, the elegant peach and pink spires of the foxglove Digitalis ‘Illumination’, and Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium caeruleum), with its tiny blue flowers and ferny leaves.

Dicentra spectabilis

Q: I have a dry shady area next to my north-facing fence. What flowers could I plant here?

A: This is one of the trickiest sites in the garden – dry soil in shade. For mid to late spring, the bleeding heart Dicentra spectabilis ‘Valentine’, with its scarlet dangling flowers and dark foliage, is a good choice. In summer, several hardy geraniums will put up with these conditions and a climbing hydrangea will add height to your scheme. You could then plant hardy cyclamen to provide colour in early winter.


Q: My soil is alkaline but I love camellias and rhododendrons. Can I still grow them, and which varieties would you recommend?

A: Growing plants in large containers or a raised bed filled with an acid (ericaceous) compost is a simple solution to planting in gardens with alkaline soil. Suitable rhododendrons for pots include the compact pink-flowered ‘Morning Cloud’ and ‘Dopey’, which produces masses of deep red blooms. Most camellias are also happy in large containers. The popular pink ‘Donation’ blooms over a long period, or try ‘Lavinia Maggi’, which sports white blooms with red flecks. These plants are hardy, but terracotta pots may need wrapping with bubble plastic in winter to protect them from cracking in freezing weather.

Aucuba japonica ‘Crotonifolia’

Q: Can you suggest some plants that will provide year-round colour for the large containers on my shady patio?

A: Apart from the camellias and rhodos mentioned above, you could try variegated forms of box (Buxus) and privet (Ligustrum), which can be clipped to create decorative shapes. Alternatively, opt for dwarf conifers or spotted laurel (Aucuba japonica ‘Crotonifolia’) – its large glossy yellow variegated leaves look unexpectedly elegant in a large pot. Many hollies and skimmias have bright winter berries to brighten up the colder months. For additional seasonal colour, edge your containers with bedding plants – pansies for winter, polyanthus for spring and one of the many forms of begonia in summer.

Q: The area around my wildlife pond is in shade for part of the day. What can I plant here?

A: If the ground is naturally damp, hostas and astilbes will perform well here. Astilbe ‘Delft Lace’, with its fluffy pink flowers and dark leaves, is among my favourites, but other varieties come in white, peach, scarlet and cerise. Ferns are also useful pond-side plants; try the beautiful Polypodium vulgare, which has several intriguing forms, and the magnificent shuttlecock fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). You could also include a few variegated brunneras for sparkling leafy highlights. If you created your pond using a liner, the soil around the edges will be no damper than soil anywhere else in the garden, but these plants are not too fussy and will be happy here, given an annual mulch of well-rotted manure.

Borders in partial shade offer a wealth of opportunities as many perennials will flourish in this situation. Fill borders with a mix of flowers and foliage, including ferns, hostas, Jacob’s ladder, alliums, geraniums and astrantias, for a spectacular designer look that will provide colour throughout the summer.

Profile Image Angela Slater

Angela Slater

Daughter of a farmer and market gardener so have always had a connection with the outdoors, whether it was keeping animals or producing fruit, vegetables and cut flowers. Along with my work at Hayes Garden World I also have a smallholding, mainly breeding rare breed pigs. I gained an HND and BSc in Conservation and Environmental Land Management, as a result I am an ardent environmentalist and have a keen interest in environmentally friendly gardening. In my time at Hayes I worked for several years in the Outdoor Plant and Houseplant areas.