What Is A Shade Garden? (Plus 11 Great Plants To Include)


Many people mistakenly believe that a shady property severely limits your gardening options. On the contrary, it can give you the opportunity to have a diverse, attractive, and low maintenance shade garden. 

A shade garden is comprised of plants that thrive in low levels of sunlight. Shade gardening is perfect for homeowners who want a fuss-free garden with minimal weeding and watering required. Popular selections for a shade garden include plants such as astilbe, ferns, caladium, and bellflowers.

You might think that you’re limited to herbacious deep green foliage plants like grasses and hostas, but the possibilities are more vast than you might think. 

What Is A Shade Garden?

A shade garden is exactly what it sounds like: an arrangement of plants that receive minimal or no direct light. There are many degrees of shade, however, so it takes researching and planning to figure out which plants would work best for your garden. 

sunlight through forest
Plants in a shade garden don’t need much sunlight to thrive.

Here are some of the shade-related terms you’ll likely find on plant tags when shopping for your garden:

  • Generally, plants in partial shade are in direct sunlight for 4-6 hours per day. Their time in the sun should ideally occur in the morning when the light isn’t as strong.   
  • Like with part shade plants, part sun means that the plants get 4-6 hours of sunlight per day. The difference with part sun plants is that they are better at handling the intense rays of afternoon sunlight. 
  • This type of shade results from sunlight filtering through a tree canopy or lattice structure such as a trellis or pergola. Depending on the season or your location, plants in dappled shade receive varying amounts of sun. 
  • Full shade plants receive little direct sunlight per day – 2 hours or less. 
pergola
You can use a pergola to provide shade for plants that prefer less sunlight.

You can learn more about full sun and types of shade here.

Benefits of a Shade Garden

The most challenging aspects of shade gardening are selecting plants that grow well with minimal sunlight, and the work involved with constructing the garden. Once it’s set up, you’ll get to enjoy the many benefits of having a shade garden, such as: 

  • According to University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Extension office, moisture loss in the summer isn’t as rapid in the shade. As a result, you don’t need to water as frequently as plants that are in full sun. 
  • Once the roots have established themselves, shade-loving plants tend to be relatively low maintenance and easy to care for. Weeds, for example, tend to have difficulty germinating in the shade.
  • In general, pests are less prevalent in shade gardens.
squash bug
Pests are less prevalent in shade gardens.

How Do You Make A Shade Garden?

To successfully plan and implement a thriving shade garden, you’ll need to observe the sunlight on your property. The best way to do this is to set a timer for yourself each hour on a sunny day that you’re home, and take note of where the sun is positioned. Then, you’ll know how many hours of sunlight each potential garden space receives. 

When you pick your spot, you can start researching plants that work well in that amount of light, your type of soil, and your hardiness zone. You can find out which zone you’re in by visiting the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map

wheelbarrow with soil
Think about your soil type when choosing plants for a shade garden.

Alternatively, you can head straight to the local nursery or garden center, find plants you like, and read the plant tags. Garden centers often group plants together based on winter hardiness (annuals vs. perennials), and sun requirements. This makes it easier to find plants that grow well near each other, and work best for your environment. 

Can You Grow Vegetables In A Shade Garden?

Growing vegetables or other edible plants in a shade garden can be tricky. Many vegetables need high amounts of sunlight to thrive.

green lettuce
Lettuce might do ok in shade, but most vegetables need full sunlight to really thrive.

You’ll find more options if a part of your shade garden receives “dappled sun” (when sunlight filters through a tree canopy, for example.) 

What To Plant In A Shade Garden (11 Plants For A Shade Garden)

1. Hosta

Type of Plant: Hostas are an herbaceous perennial plant in zones 3-9. Grown for their foliage, hostas are extremely low maintenance once established. Hostas come in many different shades of green, yellow, white, and even blue – many of which are variegated (two-toned). On average, hostas reach a height and spread of 1-3 feet.

Hosta (shade garden plant green leaves)
Hostas are perennial in Zones 3 to 9, and they have leaves with green, yellow, white, or blue coloring.

Shade Tolerance: Hostas are truly the shade gardener’s best friend. Most of them can tolerate some morning sun, but will likely suffer in the hot afternoon sun. 

2. Astilbe

Type of Plant: Astilbe is a flowering, perennial plant in hardiness zones 4-9. Its flowers come in various colors, and cultivars range in size from 6 inches to nearly 4 feet tall.  

Astilbe (shade garden plant pink flowers)
Astilbe is a flowering perennial that is hardy in zones 4 to 9.

Shade Tolerance:  While astilbe flowers reach their full potential with a few hours of morning sun, it also grows well in more heavily shaded areas. If planted in deep shade, for example (zero sunlight reaches the plant), it may not always bloom, but the foliage is still attractive without flowers. 

3. Bellflower

Type of Plant: Bellflower is a flowering perennial in hardiness zones 4 and up. It may survive zone 3 winters if given some protection from harsh temperatures, such as mulching to retain heat. Some varieties of bellflower are smaller, only reaching heights of 6 inches or less, while some can grow up to 3 feet tall.

bellflower
Bellflower is a perennial that is hardy to zone 4 and higher.

Shade Tolerance: Some cultivars of bellflower require more sunlight than others. While some varieties need part sun or full sun for adequate flower production, others bloom well in part shade. The best course of action is to head to the local nursery and read the tags or ask an employee if any of their bellflowers will work for a shade garden. 

4. Ferns

Type of Plant: Ferns are an extremely popular shade garden plant, since they require minimal sun, and there are a wide range of varieties that come in different shapes, colors, and sizes. Some ferns are tropical, while others are winter-hardy, so it’s best to inquire at your local garden center to find one that suits your needs.

Ostrich Fern (shade garden plant)
Ferns (like this Ostrich Fern) need little sun. Some are very cold-hardy.

Shade Tolerance: Shade tolerance depends on the type of fern, but it’s fairly easy to find a variety that’s well suited to almost any degree of shade. Ostrich ferns, which are native to North America, are one example of a popular variety that can thrive in anywhere from part shade to full shade. 

You can learn about 22 ferns for various growing conditions here.

5. Coral Bells

Type of Plant: Coral bells are a type of shade loving perennial in zones 4-9. They are known for their gorgeous foliage which comes in many different colors, and are relatively low maintenance. Coral bells grow in a mounding form, and can grow up to a little over a foot tall, and up to 36 inches wide.

Coral Bells pink leaves
Coral Bells are a shade-loving perennial, hardy in zones 4 to 9.

Shade Tolerance: While their flowers perform best with a few hours of direct sunlight each day, their foliage maintains interest anywhere from full sun to shade. 

6. Bleeding Heart

Type of Plant: Bleeding heart plants are classic flowering beauties that are perennial in zones 3-9. They die back to the ground in the winter, but come back bigger and fuller each spring. Bleeding hearts can grow up to 4 feet tall.

Bleeding Heart (shade garden plant pink flowers)
Bleeding Heart is a perennial that is hardy in zones 3 to 9. A perfect addition to a shade garden.

Shade Tolerance: Although bleeding heart plants will tolerate full sun in climates that remain cool and moist, most prefer only morning sun and afternoon shade. 

7. Caladium

Type of Plant:  Caladium are tropical foliage plants that are only perennials in zones 8-12. Since they grow from tubers, however, you can easily dig them up in the fall and replant in the spring if you live in a climate where temperatures get below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

Caladium pink leaves
Caladium is a tropical plant that is only perennial in zones 8 to 12. Some of them don’t need much sunlight.

Shade Tolerance: There are many different types of caladium that prefer varying amounts of sunlight. Depending on your location, chances are good that you’ll find a variety that will flourish in your shade garden. For the most part, caladium can only handle 1-2 hours of direct sunlight per day.

8. Dogwood

Type of Plant: Dogwoods are deciduous flowering shrubs or trees. Most dogwood are winter hardy in zones 5-9, although some varieties can live in zones 3 and 4 as well. 

Flowering Dogwood
Dogwood is a deciduous, flowering shrub or tree. Some are hardy to zone 3 or 4.

Shade Tolerance: Dogwood are the perfect ornamental tree to add to a shade garden. Although they can tolerate full sun, most dogwood are happiest in partial sun that receives only morning sun.

9. Coleus

Type of Plant: Coleus are considered annuals in most areas, as they are only hardy to zones 11 and warmer. They are an herbacious perennial that come in a wide range of colors and patterns. Coleus can grow up to 3 feet tall in a single season.  

Coleus
Coleus is an annual in most places (hardy to zone 11 or higher). They don’t do so well in full sun.

Shade Tolerance: Coleus prefers either dappled shade, or a few hours of morning sun. Full sun tends to scorch their tender foliage.

10. Hydrangea

Type of Plant: Hydrangeas are flowering shrubs that are hardy to zones 3-9. They are known for their show-stopping blooms, which can come in many colors.

hydrangea flower
Hydrangeas are flowering shrubs that can thrive in almost full shade. They are hardy in zones 3 to 9.

Shade Tolerance: Hydrangeas can thrive in nearly full shade, but they bloom best and are at their happiest when they receive at least some morning sun. 

11. English Ivy

Type of Plant: English ivy is a type of evergreen vine with dark green foliage that is hardy in zones 4-13. This plant can be invasive in some areas, as it aggressively climb and damage structures, as well as compete with other plants in its vicinity. To grow this pretty vine responsibly, it might be best to grow ivy in a container, and let it climb a decorative trellis or pergola.

English Ivy
English ivy is an evergreen vine that can tolerate full shade.

Shade Tolerance: English ivy is tough and easygoing – it can tolerate nearly any amount of light, including full shade. 

Conclusion

Perfecting a shade garden will undoubtedly involve some careful planning and moderate amounts of elbow grease. But once your plants start thriving, you’ll soon see how rewarding the process is. 

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with someone who can use the information. 

You can learn more about plants to grow in shade in these articles:

About the author:
Kathryn is a plant enthusiast and freelance content writer who specializes in home and garden topics. Based in New York, you can get in touch with Kathryn at https://kathrynflegal.journoportfolio.com/.

Kathryn F.

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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