15 of the best shade-loving garden plants

From Country Living UK

Shade is seldom constant. It varies according to the season and time of day, so the first step to understanding what will grow in a shady spot is to observe how the light changes. Once you know what you are dealing with, there are things you can do.

Unless deep shade appeals to you, judicious pruning will make a shady space much easier to manage. Thinning the canopy and removing the lower branches of trees (you may need planning permission for this), as well as lifting the skirts of shrubs, will let in more light, allow rain to penetrate the soil more easily and create better growing conditions. But bear in mind that, over time, trees and shrubs re-grow and shade will deepen once more, so cut back regularly or plants may fail to thrive.

Choose shrubs for year-round interest, including blossoms for spring, flowers for summer, berries and vibrant leaf colour for autumn and evergreens for winter. Many shade gardens are at their best in spring when bulbs, primroses, wood anemones and hellebores carpet the ground beneath deciduous trees before the leaf canopy opens and excludes much of the light.

Summer shade planting seldom has the same impact, but the good news is that there are tough perennials, such as epimediums, ferns, lily of the valley and hardy geraniums (avoid Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae unless you are desperate – it's a thug), that can provide ground cover and create a backdrop for some of summer's best shady characters, including the white form of foxglove, martagon lilies, lamiums and Japanese anemones. For the best effect, choose white or pale tones to stand out against the largely green backdrop.


1. Amelanchier X Grandiflora – This small tree does well in semi-shade, tolerating deeper shade in summer. Best bought multi-stemmed, unless space is limited, it provides clouds of white flowers and coppery young foliage in spring, summer berries and vivid autumn colour.

2. Hakonechloa Cacra – Known as Japanese forest grass, this vibrant deciduous plant thrives in damp shade and has mounds of cascading leaves. Variegated and golden forms are the most eye-catching and will have the brightest colour in partial shade. Good in pots.

3. Melica Uniflora – Described by Beth Chatto as "quietly attractive", this deciduous native grass grows in woodland, on shady banks and in alkaline soils. It forms upright clumps with stems of dainty rice-like flowers and, once established, will self-seed readily.

4. Ferns – Happy to grow in inhospitable spots, many of these plants are evergreen, and there's a huge range of shapes and sizes – from shiny leaved asplenium to tough polystichum and the elegant, moisture-loving Osmunda regalis.

5. Hydrangeas – Once established, these shrubs will provide reliable summer colour beneath trees or on the shady side of a garden. Tough and resilient, they come in a variety of sizes and different forms, including climbers.

6. Epimediums – Reliable in dry shade, the evergreen varieties of this plant make excellent ground cover with their wiry branching stems and heart-shaped leaves. Trim clumps with shears in spring so emerging flowers can be seen above the foliage.

7. Hardy Geraniums – This useful plant does well, even in dry shade. G. endressii and G. x oxonianum can be pretty thuggish and self-seed freely, but G. macrorrhizum, G. phaeum and G. versicolor make good ground-cover plants in full or partial shade.

8. Clematis – Spring-flowering C. montana and autumn-blooming C. viticella are good climbers for shady spots. Like all clematis, they prefer their roots in shade and heads in sun, so plant them where they can scramble up a wall or through a tree or shrub.

9. Helleborus Orientalis – Invaluable in winter and spring, these leathery leaved perennials are tougher than their delicate drooping heads might indicate. Plant on a bank or where you can look up into the flowers. H. foetidus, the stinking hellebore, only smells if you touch it and does well in very dry shade.

10. Persicaria virginiana 'Lance Corporal' – This perennial foliage plant deserves to be better known. Happy in partial or full shade, its bright green leaves have striking dark chevron markings. It prefers a moisture-retentive soil but will grow in dry shade and self-seed if you are lucky.

11. Tellima Grandiflora – A semi-evergreen, tallish, ground-cover perennial that does well planted around trees. It sends up spires of white or green-tinged bell-shaped flowers above rosettes of leaves from May to July. Although it prefers a moisture-retentive soil, it will do almost as well in dry shade.

12. Tiarella Cordifolia – In late spring and early summer, this evergreen perennial bears attractive foamy white flower spikes, held just above its robust heuchera-like leaves. The foliage takes on bronze tints in autumn. A good choice for dense, dry shade.

13. Galium Odoratum – Sweet woodruff hugs the ground with whorls of foliage and starry white flowers in spring and early summer. It dies back for a few months, re-emerging in early autumn. Great beneath hellebores, among ferns or in dark corners, but it can be rampant.

14. Cyclamen Coum and Cyclamen Hederifolium – C. coum flowers in late winter and early spring and needs a damp soil, while C. hederifolium is happy in dry shade and blooms in August and September. Plant both where they will not be disturbed and, once established, they will spread beneath deciduous trees.

15. Astrantias – Known as a perennial for the herbaceous border, astrantia grows in damp ground at the edge of woodland in the wild and will do best in similar garden conditions. A moisture-retentive soil is essential for it to grow well.


Soil conditions (like light) can vary throughout the year: damp in spring but dry once the tree canopy develops, prone to flooding in winter, but free-draining the rest of the year – or permanently dry. It is essential to choose plants that are well adapted to your soil type.

Moisture-loving shade plants will never thrive in a dry soil. Humus-rich damp shade is good news. Dry shade is low in fertility and can repel water, but it can be improved by digging over the soil, removing intrusive roots and adding compost or soil conditioner.

Nurture plants in their first year, water in dry weather and liquid feed until they are growing strongly. An annual mulch with composted bark or leaf mould will keep all shady soils in good condition and suppress weeds: apply it after rain or a thorough watering.


  • The Beth Chatto Gardens Elmstead Market, Colchester, Essex (01206 822007; bethchatto.co.uk)

  • Long Acre Plants Charlton Musgrove, nr Wincanton, Somerset (01963 32802; plantsforshade.co.uk)

  • The Plantsman's Preference Church Road, South Lopham, Diss, Norfolk (01379 710810; plantpref.co.uk)

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