GBDW: Plants For Shade

Brunnera 'Jack Frost' - a spectacular introduction to my shady border in 2008

Say the word shade to a gardener and you're likely to get a long face and a pitying look in return. Yes, the planting palette can be a little tricky in a shaded situation, but it doesn't mean that the border can't look spectacular. I've still to get it totally right, but I treat shade as an opportunity to have a different look to part of my garden. And in the height of summer, a shady spot can be rather a relief can't it?

I have 2 shaded areas as both the front and back of the house is bordered by public land, which has a native hedgerow and trees planted along its entire length. This gives us privacy of course, but it does mean my Eastern facing borders are shaded for much of the day. The trees are deciduous, so at least there's a fair amount of constant light in late autumn through to late spring. I garden on a clay soil (and in Zone 8), so at least moisture isn't a problem, except for a lot of the front border as it's on a steep bank.

Both front and back gardens are geared towards a winter/spring spectacle. Bulbs are in abundance - this is where the bulk of my snowdrops are, plus winter aconites and daffodils of course. In the back garden I have a winter flowering honeysuckle - Lonicera purpusii 'Winter Beauty' which adds a fragrant touch to a dreary time of the year. After bulbtime I have a mass planting of Dicentra spectabilis which has the neat trick of hiding a lot of the dying daffodil foliage. Pulmonaria is in flower from December through to April and they make a good combination with both daffodils and Dicentra, plus their speckled foliage is an added bonus. I also have a sprinkling of Anemone sylvestris and Convalaria majalis as their white flowers brighten up the oncoming gloom in April. After that the accent falls on foliage - Hostas and Houttuynia 'Chameleon' are both good doers. The latter can spread a bit further than needed, but can be kept in bounds easily enough. Of course, my ever trusty Heucheras can't be ignored as a choice for shade - 'Green Spice' does particularly well in this situation. Our native foxglove, Digitalis purpurea pokes through the gloom in June/July and two roses 'New Dawn and 'Rambling Rector' still manage to bloom in profusion and form a neat incentive for prying children not to climb the fence into our garden!

Apart from the bulbs, the front shady border is totally different to the back. This is where children play football (soccer), so I have chosen shrubs that are tough as old boots to withstand anything that comes their way. The builders planted an irregular, massive row of Cornus 'Elegantissima' which I relocated to the bottom of the bank (see picture). This Cornus may not have the best red bark in winter, but an annual prune keeps the stems at their brightest. It comes into its own during the summer as its variegated foliage brightens up the gloom beneath the trees. My own choice of shrubs includes Weigela florida and Potentilla 'Manchu' both having white flowers which lifts this area considerably. I've also found Kerria japonica 'Flore pleno' does well beneath my silver birch tree, often flowering from December through to May. I'm using the prolific Cotoneaster dammeri for bank stabilisation - it's tiny white flowers in spring echo the Potentilla and its red berries in Autumn are attractive as well as being a good food source for the birds. In places it's interplanted with Sedums and Euonymus as you can see in the picture on the right.

The Hardy Plant Society stand at Chelsea last week had much to inspire on the shady plant front which I also included in my Great Pavilion slideshow. I fell in love with Podophyllum 'Spotty Dotty', a moisture loving shade plant. Graham Rice has lots more information on his Transatlantic Plantsman blog. The same stand revealed Cornus canadensis as ground cover candidate in the more lightly shaded areas, plus the spectacularly striped Convalaria majalis 'Albostriata'.

So I suppose my basic 'rules' for shady gardening can be summed up as: make use of the less shaded times of the year for a flowering spectacle; use lots of interesting foliage for the rest of the year; and use white (flower or leaf) to brighten the area at any time. If you bear these 3 simple things in mind, your tricky shady area should always have something of interest and those pitying looks from your fellow gardeners will turn into smiles of pleasure.

Garden Bloggers' Design Workshop is hosted by Gardening Gone Wild.


  1. Great suggestions for coping with shade, VP! And that variegated convallaria is awesome. I find that it frequently reverts, but it's worth editing out the solid greens to keep the stripey bits.

  2. Hey VP Girl !
    My back garden is becoming more and more a shade garden as my trees mature. I love all of the plants you have talked about and have many of them : )
    Of course my favorite is "Jack" but I will have to move on and try some fo these as well. Soon I will have more room and will add your suggestions to my "shopping list" .. thank you !

  3. Great post, VP! We have tons of shade at Hawk's Haven, too, but I actually love it---it's not dry shade, so no watering! I also love brightening the shade with the bulbs and perennials you mention, as well as hostas, astilbes, wild gingers, shade-loving wildflowers, lamiums, etc. I've always secretly longed for the striped convallaria---the regular species thrives here---but I too had heard it reverts, so I've never tried it. But maybe...

  4. I have recently found myself wishing I had more shady areas in the garden as I keep spotting plants I would like but have little shady space left for them!!

    Hadnt picked up on this GBDW so may do one in the next couple of days

  5. Hi VP. My garden faces south, but with a shade sail, a big bamboo and a Cercis 'Forest Pansy' creating a screen, I now mainly grow shade lovers. In fact I was just about to post about arisaemas this morning until work got in the way. Boo! Maybe tomorrow.

  6. I don't know why shady area are considered the problem, I find the sunny areas are my problem beds! I love so many shade loving plant - more shade please, and help with the real problem area - sun!

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  7. Nan - I did wonder if that would happen, the striations are so well marked, I suspected that deep shade would make it revert.

    OFB - I've grown to love it too - it means my garden has lots of different moods in such a small space.

    PG - I was drawn to the shade loving plants at Chelsea. And the Smilacina racemosa (or whatever it's called these days) you bought at Malvern's a shade lover too!

    Martyn - our back garden faces south too, but the trees on the public land are our equivalent of your sail. Looking forward to your next post :)

    Sylvia - now sunny's the other side of my garden, where I grow lots of Mediterranean plants - yum! I like both sun and shade because it means the garden has so much more interest at any time of the year.

  8. trust you to sneak some heucheras in there

    I love the dicentras used almost as a sort of repeating pattern against the hedge - I really like that, it satisfies something in my soul!

  9. Emmat - so glad I didn't disappoint ;) I love the Dicentra too - it's a great foliage plant as well as having all those lovely teardrop flowers. It's been particularly lush this year.

  10. I suppose that I'm lucky as there aren't any shady areas on my plot!

  11. Enjoyed your post VP being a shady character myself. I catch the sun at the allotment. I have both 'Jack Frost' and 'Green Spice' in fairly close proximity and am so pleased with both of them. The former took a while to establish but has been spectacular this year.

  12. Flighty - yes, shade on the allotment's another matter!

    Anna - Jack Frost's settled in well here in spite of my usual neglecting it in its pot for a while before planting out!

  13. I love all of your shade plants, VP. I am still trying to deal with my backyard, which is mostly shade due to lots of canopy as the trees are very mature. It gets some hot sun though, in late afternoon-so I worry about some of my shade plants fizzling out. Each year it's just slightly different so it's a guessing game where each plant really should be. I just keep moving them around to keep them happy;-)

  14. Hi Jan - thanks for coming over and I'm sorry to hear of your struggles with illness lately. That's a great tip to keep in mind - move your plants around until they're happy. I must do that with one of my Heucheras (Lime Rickey) which doesn't appear to have as much shade (which it needs, else the leaves go white) as I thought I was giving it...


Your essential reads

Wildflower Wednesday: Alpengarten

Salad Days: Mastering Lettuce

Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day: 'Just Add Cream'

From The Editor's Post Bag...

Just Chilling

June Drop

Jack Go To Bed At Noon

Garden Bloggers' Muse Day: The Best of Summer

Dessert Apple Jelly: Seasonal Recipe

Weekend Wandering: To the Sunflowers!