33 Easy Ideas for Shade Gardens

Updated: Apr. 24, 2020

Liven up your shady spaces with these shade garden ideas.

Dark shadows don’t mean your gardening days are doomed. Numerous options abound for creating eye-catching shade gardens. These easy shade solutions will help turn your shady yard into the colorful retreat you’ve always wanted.

  1. Determine the various degrees of shade in your yard. How much sunlight areas receive—and when they receive it—dictates what kind of plants will thrive there.
  2. Dew dries faster in areas that receive morning sunlight, so use plants there that require moderate or drier conditions.
  3. Poor soil often hampers shade gardens more than lack of sunlight, so liberally add organic matter in spring, fall or whenever preparing a new garden. Be careful not to disturb tree roots.
  4. Moss is a pretty, low-maintenance winner for shade gardening.
  5. Under deciduous trees, plant bulbs that will bloom before shady canopies develop. Smaller bulbs that naturalize—or spread on their own—work best, such as crocuses, daffodils, grape hyacinths and winter aconite.
  6. Help conserve moisture and add nutrients and organic matter by mulching with shredded leaves, evergreen needles and other organic materials.
  7. When you lay out new flower beds, take heed of the shadows thrown off by nearby buildings, shrubs and trees.
  8. Be careful when planting; errant digging easily damages tree roots.
  9. Make foliage a mainstay. Allow different colors and textures to complement each other, like broad, paddle-like caladium leaves against frillier fern fronds.
  10. Use shade-loving shrubs to anchor beds, add height and structure, and provide a dark backdrop off which bright blooms visually pop. Good choices include azalea, camellia, dogwood, hydrangea and rhododendron.

    Millenium Azalea
    Azaleas are perfect plants to brighten up shady areas.
  11. Sunlight intensity varies depending on how far north or south you live. Consequently, plants that require full sun in northern climates may need partial shade farther south.
  12. Container gardens add spot color and dimension to shade gardens and thrive because plants don’t compete with tree roots.
  13. Locate dense conifers on the northern side of your property to avoid creating excessive shade.
  14. If you’re trying to create shade, plant trees with small leaves and open, layered canopies. Mountain ash, birch, Japanese maple, honey locust, Asian dogwood and hawthorn will produce dappled, eye-pleasing degrees of shade.
  15. Do not bury tree roots with soil when adding shade plants beneath their canopy. As little as 1 inch of soil can kill some species of trees.
  16. Cyclamen grows well in shallow soil among tree roots.
  17. Water infrequently—only as needed, if possible—and thoroughly and deeply when you do.
  18. Pick plants that match your soil’s pH, rather than trying to change the soil.
  19. Shade plants that thrive in acidic soil include cinnamon fern, clethra, lily of the valley, rhododendron and tiarella.
  20. Shade plants that will grow and prosper in neutral soil include jack-in-the-pulpit, Kentucky lady’s slipper, trillium, Virginia bluebells, white baneberry and wild ginger.
  21. In areas where plants or grass won’t grow, create a mulch pathway to add visual interest, cover bare spots and enrich the soil.
  22. Early-blooming shade plants include bleeding heart, Japanese primrose, rue anemone, shooting stars, trillium and violets.
  23. Late-blooming shade plants include bear’s breeches, monkshood, toad lilies, willow gentian and yellow wax bells.
  24. Perennial ferns and sedges are fine choices for shade areas.
  25. It’s possible to replace dense shade with dappled light through judicious tree pruning. Don’t prune more than one-third of a tree’s branches in 1 year, and focus on smaller branches.
  26. Intermix shade plants as artistically as you would in a sunny spot. Position taller growers like astilbe in back, shorter ones like foam flower and hosta in front, and low-growing ground covers to fill in your display.
  27. Shade doesn’t mean your color choices are limited. Experiment with different plants and color schemes. A few to try are the white wands of astilbe flowers along brunnera’s sprays of little blue flowers, or bugleweed’s sapphire-blue spikes next to a light-hued rhododendron.
  28. Another great way to liven up a shady spot is to pick plants with varying textures. Combine the fine leaves of ferns against bold hostas. Or mix leafy bergenia with spiky ornamental grasses such as hokone grass. Even in complete shade, you’ll still have visual appeal.
  29. For a low-maintenance, attractive shady spot, try ground covers. Plant seedlings in staggered rows rather than straight lines. They’ll expand, fill the area and form a nice carpet.
  30. Want flower color in late summer or early fall? Several plants are adapted to this. Rhododendron blooms from midsummer to late summer with an array of color. Toad lily produces adorable violet-dabbed flowers.
  31. Don’t overpamper your shade garden in fall. If you allow the leaves to break down, they’ll contribute valuavle humus to the soil. Only if they’re smothering your plants should you rake them out.
  32. Consider how changing seasons affect sun and shade conditions in your yard. Even a yard filled with shade trees can support bright, spring-flowering bulbs, as long as they emerge before trees leaf out fully. Pick up hints from previous seasons. If sun lovers like marigolds died where astilbe thrived, you’ve likely found a hot spot for a shade garden.
  33. Resist the temptation to give shade plants a nudge by overwatering or overfertilizing them. Shade slows plant growth, so your plants in low light need less water and energy, not more. Mulching will also keep your workload light. It retains soil moisture and minimizes weeds.