The Best Shade Garden Plants for Your Shady Areas

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Gardeners are not doomed to boring, colorless plants for shady areas. Today’s shade garden plants are more colorful and interesting than ever.

shade garden plantsCourtesy Shelley Delaney

Just a few years ago, the words shade garden plants brought to mind hostas, ferns, impatiens and maybe some astilbe. Shady areas were viewed as a fine place to rest awhile on the garden bench, but not nearly as exciting as a sunny border.

Colorful garden plants for shade are still more limited than those for sun—especially now that impatiens no longer thrive in many areas due to a fast-spreading fatal disease. But foliage colors have exploded. And, oh, the possibilities! Today we can spice up our shade gardens with plants in bright lime, orange, pink, red, burgundy, purple, chocolate, near-black and every shade in between. Foliage plants are no longer considered accents: They are the foundation and the “flowers.”

Add Vibrant Foliage Plants to Shade Gardens

Today’s splendid palette lets us use foliage plants as we would blossoms, creating color combinations that last all season. Easy-to-grow coleus, for instance, now comes in an unbelievable selection of luscious colors, with leaves ranging from simple shapes to frilly ruffles, in heights from 8 inches to 3 feet. As a bonus, the flowers attract hummingbirds.

The tiny flowers of heuchera, or coral bells, attract hummers, too, but it’s the sumptuous apricot, caramel, rose, lime or plum leaves of the new varieties that steal the show in the garden.

Even ferns have left good old green behind. Take a look at the Lady in Red cultivar, with her lacy fronds and blood-red stems, or silver and burgundy Japanese painted fern, or the autumn fern Brilliance, which starts out coppery pink in spring, turns green for summer, then colors up again for fall.

Wghosta Drop Dead GorgeousWalters Gardens, Inc
Drop-dead gorgeous hosta

Create a Calming Shade Garden Design

It’s easy to get carried away and come home with one of everything. But instead of throwing them all together, give your fancy shade garden plants room to shine beside quieter companions. Remember that serenity is one of the best things about a shade garden. Keep that peaceful feeling by separating different kinds of variegated plants with plainer companions so the leaves aren’t fighting each other for the spotlight. Use dark-colored plants, such as Osiris Café Noir ligularia, Hillside Black Beauty actaea or Chocoholic cimicifuga to create “shadows” between your bright-colored beauties so your eyes have a resting place.

Playing with color is the new trend for gardening with full shade plants. Free your fuchsias from the hanging basket and partner them with smoldering red coleus for close-up hummingbird watching. Spice up summer with copper plant (Acalypha wilkesiana), Dragon Wings begonia, pink polka-dot plant and red fuchsias.

Add zing to serene green and white hostas and ferns with a pool of blue Summer Wave torenia and an unexpected dash of hot sauce from orange and pink coleus. Mix and match whatever tickles your fancy, combining annuals and perennials with foliage plants that echo or contrast with their colors.

Choose the Right Plants for Shady Areas

Sure, you can get technical, plotting the arc of the sun and keeping track of how many hours your shady yard gets direct light, in which part of the day, in every season. But if you have a shady part of the yard, you already know it. Most shade plants do best in part shade or light shade—the usual conditions, even in many forests. Partial shade means a few hours of sun every day; light or dappled shade, created by shifting leaves, may get no direct sun at all, but it gets a good amount of light.

Learn what grass grows in shade and how to grow it.

Shade Tolerant PlantsWalters Gardens Inc
Columbines are wonderful blooming shade tolerant plants.

Deep shade is an area where even indirect light rarely penetrates. It’s an uncommon situation, but you may have that, too, if you have buildings blocking the sun or other barriers. Most shade plants are very adaptable when it comes to the degree of shade they prefer. They’ll quickly tell you if you’ve guessed wrong. If they start looking weak and leggy, there’s not enough light. If their leaves crisp or curl or start looking bleached or browned, and you find yourself watering way too much, there’s too much sun. Move them, and try something that’s better suited to the original spot.

Garden centers make it easy by corralling shade plants into separate sections. Also stroll the shrubs and trees to seek out azaleas and rhododendrons, eastern redbud, dogwood, serviceberry, red-flowering currant and white sweetspire, all good bloomers in shade.

Consider houseplants, too. The filtered light in our houses is similar to outdoor shade, and croton, polka dot plant, Moses-in-the-boat, asparagus fern, Swedish ivy and abutilon (flowering maple) will thrive in the ground or in containers for a summer vacation.

Colorful Shade Garden Plants to Try

lungwortWalters Gardens
Try lungwort to add purple and pink to your shade garden.

Pink Shade Garden Plants

  • Perennial: Astilbe, bleeding heart, fern-leaf bleeding heart, foxglove, Geranium cinereum ‘Ballerina’, hellebore, winter cyclamen
  • Annual: Begonias, fuchsia, torenia

These pink and orange flowers look just like a sunset.

Red Shade Garden Plants

  • Perennial: Astilbe, eastern and western red columbines, fire pink
  • Annual: Fuchsia, begonias

Here are the top 10 red flowers that attract hummingbirds.

Yellow Shade Garden Plants

  • Perennial: Lamium Hermann’s Pride, kirengeshoma, ligularia, wood poppy, woodland sunflower, yellow corydalis
  • Annual: Monkeyflower, tuberous begonia

Discover the top 10 classic yellow flowers to grow.

Green Shade Garden Plants

  • Perennial: Hellebore
  • Annual: Nicotiana langsdorfii

Check out more gorgeous green flowers for your garden.

Blue and Purple Shade Garden Plants

  • Perennial: Blue wood aster, brunnera, Brookside hardy geranium, Jacob’s ladder, liriope, lungwort, monkshood, Phlox divaricata, Phlox stolonifera, Rocky Mountain columbine, Scilla siberica, toad lilies, Virginia bluebells
  • Annual: Browallia, Summer Wave torenia

Psst—we found beautiful blue flowers and purple flowering plants for every garden.

White Shade Garden Plants

  • Perennial: Astilbe, bear’s-breeches, Biokovo hardy geranium, hellebore, White Nancy lamium, lily-of-the-valley, snowdrops, tiarella, white wood aster
  • Annual: Fuchsia, woodland tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris)

Check out 15 beautiful white flowering shrubs.

solomon's sealBluestone Perennials
Solomon’s seal

Gardeners Favorite Shade Plants

“My coral bells plant amazes me year-round. I’m always impressed that it keeps most of its color and shape even through the winter. Also, few perennials come in as many colors as they do,” says Victoria Williams of Waterville, Ohio.

“Sweet William reseeds easily and butterflies love them, which is a bonus!” says Lenora Witt of Dennis, Mississippi.

“Elephant ears are a gigantic, lovely choice for shade gardens,” says Joan Heid of Chester, South Carolina.

“I love hostas. I have about 30 types. Their lush shades of green, blue and yellow are very comforting to me,” says Elizabeth Johnson of Rice Lake, Wisconsin.

“My favorites shade garden plants are astilbes. They’re beautiful in full bloom and offer interesting texture as seasons change,” says Laura Cox of South Dennis, Massachusetts.

“Solomon’s seal is my new favorite. Plants arch with pale green leaves edged in white. In spring, white bell flowers dangle from the stems,” says Juli Seyfried of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Next, check out the top 10 vegetables that grow well in shade.

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Sally Roth
Sally Roth is an award-winning author of more than 20 popular books about gardening, nature, and birds, including the best-selling Backyard Bird Feeder's Bible. Roth is also a contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. She and her husband share their home in the high Rockies with a variety of animals.