Shady gardens can pose a challenge to even the most creative gardeners. With limited light, sun-loving plants that make buckets of blooms or delicious fruits just won’t succeed. And all too often the usual suspects for shade gardening can feel basic and boring.
By embracing a new range of plants with unusual foliage textures and colors, you can create a beautiful, fragrant, and unique space, no matter the size of your shade garden. Here are our favorite unsung heroes of the understory—add one to your existing landscape or combine them all for a chic, high-impact and low-maintenance shade garden!
1. Shade Tree: Acer palmatum ‘Seiryu’ – Japanese Maple
Feathery, delicate foliage floats from the layered branches of this upright Japanese Maple. With leaves that emerge acid green and mature to a pale grass-green in Summer, Acer palmatum ‘Seiryu’ is perfect for enlivening corners of small, dark gardens.
In Autumn, the leaves will put on a beautiful display of tawny reds before dropping to expose green bark for a strong structural impact all Winter long. In areas where soils are poor, plant Seiryu in a large container for an elevated focal point. This shade tree is slow growing to 10–15 feet tall and 6–8 feet wide with minimal pruning required.
2. Shade Shrub: Fatsia japonica – Japanese Aralia
An evergreen shade plant with undeniable impact, Fatsia japonica sports large, glossy rich green leaves and stands out in even the darkest environments. Fatsia leaves can reach up to 12 inches across and have a decidedly tropical look.
Unusual, cream-white pom-pom flowers form in the Summer and are followed by black ornamental berries. In the landscape, Fatsia makes the perfect backdrop to shorter plants or can stand alone for a more modern look. Japanese Aralia is fast growing to 8 feet tall and 6–8 feet wide, and can be cut back hard to regenerate from the base.
3. Shade Conifer: Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Duke Gardens’ – Japanese Plum Yew
The long, soft needles of this versatile conifer line each dense, low-growing branch. New growth emerges lighter green, providing attractive contrast to the deep green of the more mature foliage. ‘Duke Gardens’ is a male plant and will not produce fruits, making it ideal for gardens with children.
Plant Cephalotaxus as a stand-alone for a pop of texture against a simple backdrop, or use it as a hedge to surround seating areas. This conifer is slow growing to 2–4 feet tall and 2–4 feet wide. Keep its shape natural by tip pruning or shear the shrub for a low hedge or topiary.
4. Shade Vine: Akebia quinata – Five-Leaf Chocolate Vine
True-green, compound leaves extend from the twining stems of Akebia quinate. Evergreen during mild winters, this vine can tolerate deep shade better than almost any other vine! Small, wine-purple cupped blooms have a light fragrance and bloom on old wood developed during the previous growing season. Plant on a trellis to add a blanket of greenery to a north-facing wall or fence. Five-Leaf Chocolate Vine is fast-growing to 40 feet tall; prune in Summer after flowering.
5. Shade Perennial: Actaea – Bugbane or Cimicifuga
Dark, bronze-black serrated foliage fans out from graceful stems on Actaea, formerly known as Cimicifuga. Actaea produces wands of blush-white flowers that extend above the foliage and bring their intoxicating fragrance into dark gardens. We like ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ and ‘Pink Spike’.
Actaea dies back in the Winter and emerges from the ground each Spring, producing textural and striking foliage that combines well with other shade perennials and shrubs. This herbaceous plant has moderately growing foliage to 2.5 feet with flower spikes 4–6 feet tall; cut back after frost.
6. Shade Groundcover: Mentha requienii – Corsican Mint
Low-growing to form a dense mat of tiny, evenly green leaves, Corsican Mint is the ideal groundcover for dark garden areas. The leaves are soft to the touch and release intense, sweet fragrance that fills gardens when agitated.
Planted between stepping stones, along walkways, or under perennials and shrubs, Corsican Mint will travel through the garden as it pleasantly reseeds itself each year. Though not evergreen, the groundcover will add dimension to any planting from Spring through Fall. This herbaceous groundcover is creeping or reseeding to 12 inches wide and 0.5 inches tall with no pruning required.
7. Shade Annual (and Houseplant!): Plectranthus coleoides ‘Nico’ – Swedish Ivy
The fleshy, firm leaves of Plectranthus are rich green from above with subtle purple veining and purple undersides. Stems extend from the center to form lateral arms with textured foliage that make this annual a perfect compliment to add bulk each season to existing landscape plants. Swedish Ivy is ideal for planting at the front of borders, around the edges of containers, or as a mass planting in a low bowl to form a centerpiece.
Easy to propagate by cuttings, Pletranthus ‘Nico’ can be brought indoors to live as a houseplant until April when Winter is over. It is fast growing to 8–12 inches tall and 12–24 inches wide; annual unless brought indoors.