Melinda Myers: Planting a garden in the shade

Don’t let limited sunlight stop you from growing a beautiful garden. Make the most of shady locations with the right plant selection and design strategies.

Kick off the season with native spring ephemera like liverworts, spring beauties and trout lilies. These plants grow and bloom early in the season before the trees sprout and shade the area. They die back soon after flowering as shade tolerant plants fill the garden. Look for those that are native to your area.

Select light green and lime green plants that stand out in the shady corners of your landscape. Combine them with your favorite plants with dark leaves and flowers that tend to disappear in the shade. The contrasting colors make both plants pop.

Use plants with variegated foliage to light up the garden long after their flowers have withered. Siberian bugloss (Brunnera) has blue forget-me-not-like flowers and variegated heart-shaped leaves in spring. Variegated Solomon Seal’s erect stems, covered in green leaves with cream margins, white bell-shaped flowers, and yellow fall color provide multiple seasons of interest.

Barrenwort (Epimedium) also provides seasonal color in the shade. The heart-shaped leaves are red in color and appear with the flowers in spring. The leaves turn green in summer and red again in autumn.

Add some height to those shady areas with Bugbane. The leaves are topped with white flower spikes in summer or fall, depending on the variety selected.

The white or pink blooms of Roger’s Flower brighten the early summer garden. The large, strong leaves of this moisture-loving perennial resemble those of a horse chestnut.

The narrow leaves of sedge and hakone grass provide a striking contrast to the stout leaves of hostas. Add a pair of elephant ears for an even bolder statement and eye-catcher.

Look for shade-tolerant plants with a variety of leaf shapes and sizes. The differences in texture make the shade garden more interesting. Repeat leaf sizes and shapes to unify the garden. Use the same strategy to create continuity between sun and shade gardens in your landscape.

Include a variety of plant shapes. Use columnar plants to create a focal point, and hanging and hilly plants to add a sense of fluidity to the garden.

A lack of sun is not the only factor to consider when planning a shade garden. The density of the tree canopy or an overhang can also limit the water that can reach and be available to the plants below. Growing dry, shade-tolerant perennials will help reduce your long-term maintenance requirements. Barrenwort, liriope, coral bells, foamflower, woodruff, and hellebore are fairly shade tolerant once established.

Make sure all new plantings are thoroughly watered and when the top few inches of soil are friable and damp. Proper watering for the first few years will result in deep, drought tolerant root systems that will help these plants grow and thrive despite the dry shade.

If you plant under or near trees, be careful not to kill the trees when creating your shade garden. Do not cut or remove surface roots or create entry routes for insects and diseases. Adding just an inch of soil above the roots can kill some tree species. Avoid deep cultivation, which can damage feeder roots, which are critical for water and nutrient uptake, as the majority grows in the top 12 inches of soil.

If there’s too much shade to grow even shade-loving plants, consider mulch to protect the soil and tree roots. Add a chair to relax in and enjoy this cool space as summer temperatures soar.

Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books including The Midwest Gardener’s Handbook, 2nd Edition and Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses DVD series How to Grow Anything and the national television and radio show Melinda’s Garden Moment. Myers is a columnist and editor for Birds & Blooms magazine and was hired by Summit to write this article because of her expertise. Her website is

Bugbane’s spiers of white flowers add some height to the shaded areas of the landscape.
Photo courtesy of

Leave a Comment