In an area with an abundance of trees, one of the biggest challenges for gardeners is shade. Generally, a partially shaded area is one that receives 3 to 6 hours of direct sunlight daily. Wet, dry, and deep shades are the most common planting situations in our area:

  • We usually find wet shade in areas with poor drainage and edges of bogs, ponds, or streams.
  • Under conifers (Douglas Fir) and deciduous trees (maples) is where we most often encounter dry shade. In dry shade, new plants must compete for water with the established trees.
  • Deep or full shade is an area that receives less than 3 hours (and perhaps only dappled) direct or indirect sunlight daily. A garden bed on the north side of a house is considered deep shade.

Because each of these shade situations presents particular challenges, choosing plants best-suited to the environment requires smart gardening. Along with tips for success, below are lists of some plants that thrive in various shade situations. Instead of focusing on flowers, shade gardens provide lush foliage textures and rely on varying shades of green, chartreuse, and variegation for beauty and interest.

Vinca minor Periwinkle
Carex or Sedge
Myosotis Forget-Me-Not

Wet Shade

To assist with heavy soil plagued by poor drainage, always mix compost with the existing soil prior to planting. The following are some plants suitable for wet shade:

Bulbs

  • Muscari (Grape Hyacinth): grass-like green foliage; fragrant flowers of varying colors in spring; will naturalize if undisturbed
  • Crocus (Crocus): fine green foliage; varying colors/patterns of flowers; bloom in spring or fall
  • Galanthus nivalis (Snowdrop): nodding white with green accented flowers held above grass-like foliage in spring; will naturalize if left undisturbed
  • Narcissus ssp. (Daffodil): narrow bright green foliage; flowers are usually shades of yellow; bloom in spring; can be used in borders or to naturalize

Groundcovers

  • Soleirolia soleirolii (Baby’s Tears): tiny foliage; spreads by creeping stems; vigorous
  • Pachysandra terminalis (Japanese Spurge): evergreen; spreads by shallow underground roots; clean-looking foliage
  • Lamium (Dead Nettle): evergreen in mild climates; heart shaped foliage; vigorous growth
  • Vinca minor (Dwarf Periwinkle): evergreen; trailing; roots where arching stems touch the ground; star-like flowers in blue, white, mauve, or deep purple
  • Lysimachia (Creeping Jenny)
  • Mentha requienii (Corsican Mint)

Perennials

  • Acorus (Sweet Flag): evergreen; grass-like
  • Astilbe (False Spirea): summer blooms of varying color with file-textured foliage; dormant in winter
  • Carex (Sedge): many are evergreen; foliage is soft looking and feeling
  • Chelone (Turtle Heads)
  • Filipendula (Meadowsweet): summer blooms held above coarsely divided foliage; dormant in winter
  • Juncus (Rush): tolerates standing water; grass-like appearance
  • Myosotis (Forget-Me-Not): spring blooms of blue, white, or pink held above dark green foliage; can be used as groundcover; dormant in winter
  • Zantedeschia (Calla Lily): shiny arrow-shaped foliage; white flowers; dormant in winter

Shrubs & Trees

  • Clethera alnifolia (Summersweet): deciduous; fragrant spikes of white flowers late summer/early fall
  • Gaultheria shallon (Salal): evergreen; glossy, nearly round green foliage; white or pinkish bell-shaped flowers followed by edible berries; NATIVE
  • Cornus stolonifera (Redtwig Dogwood): deciduous; fast-growing, green or variegated foliage; brilliant red stems in winter; NATIVE
  • Acer circinatum (Vine Maple): deciduous; many-stemmed, multi-trunked large shrub/small tree; nearly round light green foliage that turns orange, yellow, or scarlet in fall; NATIVE
  • Sequoia sempervirens (Coast Redwood): evergreen; fast-growing; feathery foliage; reddish-brown bark, pyramidal mature shape; NATIVE

 

    various Heuchera Coral Bells
    pink hellebore flowers
    Japanese Laurel 'Gold Dust'

    Dry Shade

    Winter and early spring are optimal time frames to establish new plantings in dry shade, as it is at this time when such areas receive periods of moisture, especially underneath decicuous tree cover. New plants are thereby allowed to settle and develop a good root structure prior to entering into their growth stage. Likewise, if planting in the heat of summer, you will have the greatest success by providing regular water to newly planted areas. Compost worked into the soil at planting time can assist with water retention and a layer of mulch over the top can reduce evaporation. The following are some plants suitable to dry shade:

    Bulbs

    • Crocus (Crocus): fine green foliage; varying colors/patterns of flowers; blooms in spring or fall
    • Fritellaria imperialis (Crown Imperial): broad, glossy green foliage supports tall, sturdy stalk topped with red, orange, or yellow bell-shaped flowers tufted with green leaves
    • Galanthus nivalis (Snowdrop): nodding white with green accented flowers held above grass-like foliage in spring; will naturalize if left undisturbed
    • Narcissus (Daffodil): narrow bright green foliage; flowers are usually shades of yellow; bloom in spring; can be used in borders or to naturalize
    • Cyclamen hederifolium (Baby or Hardy Cyclamen): triangular to heart-shaped deep green marbled with silver, star-shaped fragrant flowers of white or pink in late summer/early autumn; will naturalize to form groundcover

    Groundcovers

    • Epimedium (Bishop’s Hat): semi-evergreen to evergreen; heart-shaped foliage; stalks of little flowers of white, pink, red, or yellow in spring
    • Gaultheria shallon (Salal): evergreen; glossy, nearly round green foliage; white or pinkish bell-shaped flowers followed by edible berries; NATIVE
    • Mahonia repens (Creeping Oregon Grape): evergreen; blue-green foliage turns spectacular purple-bronze with cold weather; clusters of small flowers in mid to late spring followed by dark blue berries; NATIVE
    • Sarcoccoca (Sweet Box): evergreen; small, fragrant winter/early spring flowers

    Perennials

    • Alchemilla (Lady’s Mantle): roundish lobed foliage of pale green; clusters of yellow flowers in summer
    • Bergenia (Pigsqueak): evergreen; rosette of bold, glossy foliage; pink or white flowers in spring
    • Helleborus (Hellebore): evergreen; long, leathery, leaflets; cup-shaped flowers of white, green, pinks, purples in winter through spring (NOTE: they do NOT like being transplanted!)
    • Heuchera (Coral Bells): evergreen; roundish foliage with scalloped edges; available in a variety of colors (yellows and limes, in particular, appreciate and brighten a shady spot in the garden); spikes of delicate flowers in spring or summer
    • Lirope (Lily Turf): evergreen; grass-like straps of green foliage; spikes of white or purple flowers in summer

    Shrubs & Trees

    • Acer circinatum (Vine Maple): deciduous; many-stemmed, multi-trunked large shrub/small tree, nearly round light green foliage that turns orange, yellow, or scarlet in fall; NATIVE
    • Calocedrus deccurens (Incense Cedar): evergreen; large, pyramidal, flat sprays of rich green foliage; reddish-brown bark; lovely fragrance; NATIVE
    • Hydrangea queciifolia (Oakleaf Hydrangea): deciduous; large, deeply-lobed foliage that resembles (in shape) oak leaves; exquisite bronze to red autumn color; long clusters of white flowers in late spring/early summer (also other types of Hydrangeas)
    • Aucuba japonica (Japanese Laurel or Gold Dust Plant)
    • Fatsia japonica (Japanese Aralia): evergreen; large fan-like glossy dark green foliage; tropical looking
    • Vaccinium ovatum (Evergreen Huckleberry): evergreen; shiny, toothed, dark green foliage tinged with red when new; white/pink flowers followed by edible black berries in summer; NATIVE
    • Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon Grape): evergreen; glossy green leaflets that resemble holly leaves; new growth tinged red and take on purplish color with cold; yellow flowers in spring followed by edible blue-black fruit in summer; NATIVE; also hybrid Mahonia varieties such as ‘Soft Caress’ and ‘Narihira’
    • Sarcococca ruscifolia (Sweet Box): evergreen, shiny, dark green leaves with fragrant, small white flowers in late winter/early spring; grows to 3-5 feet tall and wide

     

      maidenhair fern
      hosta plants
      Vinca minor Periwinkle

      Deep or Full Shade

      In areas that receive little to no direct sun or only minimal dappled sun, soil also needs special consideration. As with soil in wet shade, the goal is to improve drainage to allow for greater planting success. Adding compost to existing soil is a must in these areas. The following are some plants suitable for deep shade:

      Bulbs

      • Arum (Jack-in-the-Pulpit): foliage emerges in fall or winter and is green with white veins and arrow-shaped; calla-like “flowers” emerge after foliage and are followed by clusters of red berries that persist after foliage dies (actually a tuber)
      • Colchicum (Meadow Saffron or Autumn Crocus): broad green foliage in spring that die down in late summer/early autumn when flaring white, rosey-purple or lavender-pink flowers bloom (actually a corm)

      Groundcovers

      • Asarum varieties (Wild Ginger)
      • Cornus canadensis (Bunchberry)
      • Epimedium (Bishop’s Hat): semi-evergreen to evergreen heart-shaped foliage, stalks of little flowers of white, pink, red or yellow in spring
      • Gaultheria procumbens (Winterberry): evergreen, small dark green foliage that clusters at the end of a stalk, strong wintergreen fragrance when bruised, pinkish flowers in spring followed by red berries that persist through winter
      • Oxallis oregana (Wood Sorrel)
      • Pachysandra terminalis (Japanese Spurge): evergreen, spreads by shallow underground roots, clean-looking foliage
      • Sarcoccoca (Sweet Box): evergreen, small, fragrant winter/early spring flowers
      • Vinca minor (Dwarf Periwinkle): evergreen, trailing, roots where arching stems touch the ground, star-like flowers in blue, white, mauve or deep purple

      Perennials

      • Anemone (Wind Flower): clumped foliage gives rise to tall, graceful stems that are topped with single or semi-double white or pink flowers in early autumn
      • Beesia deltophylla (Beesia)
      • Brunnera macrophylla (False Forget-Me-Not, Brunnera): large, heart-shaped foliage of green or silver veined with green, dainty blue flowers that rise above foliage spring into summer
      • Corydalis (Corydalis): clumps of finely lobed, fern-like foliage; clusters of spurred yellow, blue (many variations of blue) flowers spring into summer
      • Disporopsis (Evegreen Solomon’s Seal)
      • Ferns: large family of plants; deciduous, semi-evergreen, or evergreen; vary greatly in size and foliage (Deer Fern, Sword Fern, Heart’s Tongue Fern, Holly Fern, Maidenhair Spleenwort, etc.)
      • Hosta (Plantain Lily): clumps of lance-shaped to nearly round foliage of many different colors and patterns; mature size varies greatly in this group; spikes of trumpet-like blue or white flowers in summer (some are fragrant)
      • Ophiopogon (Mondo Grass): evergreen; small, grass-like foliage of green or black; stems of small, clustered purple flowers in summer followed by black berries
      • Polygonatum odoratum ‘varietagum’ (Variegated Solomon’s Seal)
      • Pulmonaria (Lungwort)
      • Saxifraga primuloides ‘London Pride’
      • Trillium (Wake Robin): multi-stemmed, low-growing woodland plant; each stem holds a whorl of 3 leaves topped by a 3-petaled flower in early spring; goes dormant in mid to late summer

      Shrubs & Trees

      • Acer circinatum (Vine Maple): deciduous; many-stemmed, multi-trunked large shrub/small tree; nearly round light green foliage that turns orange, yellow, or scarlet in fall; NATIVE
      • Aucuba japonica (Japanese Aucuba): evergreen; smooth green or green splashed with yellow foliage; sparkles in deep shade!
      • Elaegnus X ‘Gilt Edge’ and Elaegnus ebbingei, E. pungens (Russian Olive)
      • Fatsia japonica (Japanese Aralia): evergreen; large fan-like glossy dark green foliage; tropical looking
      • Kerria japonica (Kerria): deciduous; toothed and crinkled looking, triangular, bright green foliage; single or double rose-like small yellow flowers in spring
      • Osmanthus burkwoodii, Osmanthus delavayi, Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’, Osmanthus ‘Purpureus’ (Osmanthus)
      • Prunus laurocerasus (English Laurel)
      • Thuja plicata (Western Red Cedar)
      • Tsuga (Hemlock): evergreen; horizontal needle-like sprays of foliage; graceful; large group of conifers that range in size and habit; NATIVE (Mountain and Western Hemlocks)

       

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