What’s the most troublesome area in your garden to landscape?
If you’re like many homeowners, it’s probably the woodland garden under shade trees. This is because:
- The area rarely receives enough morning sun.
- If forest grass does grow there, accessing it with a lawnmower can be difficult.
- The canopy of tall trees tends to prevent rainfall from reaching the ground.
- The tree’s roots compete with other plants in the shady areas for water and nutrients.
Creating a Successful Shade Garden
If you want the crops you plant under dense shade in your garden to thrive, you should:
- Plant your shrubs and perennials while planting the trees or shortly after. Some trees have roots lying close to the surface even as they mature. Introducing new crops later, such as coral bells, might damage their roots.
- Choose native plants. They will grow and thrive even as understory plants.
- Reduce the plant competition for water through mulching.
- Install a drip system to supplement rainwater.
- Trim low hanging branches from your tree. It gives you better access to the shaded garden and exposes the full shade plants to a little more sunlight.
- Don’t create a raised bed under your trees for the new plants. It might kill your trees. Most trees have surface roots, which need oxygen to survive.
- Dig a hole for each shade plant and add compost to the hole.
What Plants Do Best in Shade?
Before planting in a shady spot, you need to find the best plants for growing in the shade such as coral bells.
Most full shade plants and trees complement each other.
While there are thousands of options, plants for the shade fall into five major categories:
1. Shade Loving Shrubs
Azaleas and Rhododendrons. These shrubs thrive in acidic soil in USDA zones six through nine. They need a pH between 4.4 and 6.0. Azaleas need consistent moisture to produce foliage.
Oregon Grape Holly. Oregon grape holly is a tough and drought-resistant plant. It is available as an upright shrub or with a trailing form, which is especially attractive in a garden.
Alpine currant. This tough plant can grow as far north as USDA zone 3, making it suitable for the cold weather garden. Dwarf varieties are a good choice as understory garden plants.
Hydrangeas. Hydrangeas need consistent moisture, but they tolerate and even prefer shade. In zones 6 through 9, you can grow mophead or French hydrangeas. In zones four through five, you’re better off growing panicles or arborescent hydrangeas.
Pieris Japonica. Pieris Japonica is native to eastern China, Taiwan, and Japan where it grows in mountain thickets. It is hardy to USDA zones 5 through 8.
Tree Peony. Hardy to USDA zones 4 through 9, the giant, beautiful flowers of the Tree Peony are sure to catch the eye. The woody shrubs lose their leaves in the fall but their woody stems do not die.
Camellia. This beautiful flowering shrub boasts a long blooming season with showy flowers and loves the southern climate. It is hardy to USDA zones 6 through 9.
Mountain Laurel. This broadleaf evergreen shrub is hardy to USDA zones 4 through 9. It boasts many different colors including white, pink, or rose-colored flower clusters that bloom in late spring.
Ninebark. This perennial deciduous shrub features reddish to dark green leaves. It gets its name from its bark, which can be peeled off in multiple layers.
Spirea. Most spirea varieties are hardy to zones 3 to 9. Newer spirea cultivars boast vibrant foliage that is attractive year-round.
2. Foliage Bushes
Japanese Maples. Though it is technically a tree, Japanese maples are available in many smaller sizes.
Yews. The yew is a great shrub for borders, entrance ways, paths, and hedges. They can grow anywhere between eight and 65 feet tall.
Alpine Currant. The alpine currant is mostly confined to high altitudes. These low maintenance shrubs have very little ornamental appeal. They are loved in the garden for their dense green foliage and shade tolerance.
Junipers. There are over 60 different species of Juniperus in the Cypress family. With the many varieties, there is a juniper fit for any garden.
Snowberry. There are about 15 different species of Snowberry shrubs. They produce bell-shaped white blooms in the spring and white, globe-like berries from early fall to late winter.
Anemone. The anemone flower blooms in both the spring and the fall. It is a great groundcover choice if you are looking for a showy plant with blooms that come in a wide variety of colors. Many species offer double flowers.
Japanese Spurge. This evergreen perennial is a member of the boxwood family. It produces white flowers in the spring. Nonetheless, people love it for its leathery, dark-green leaves.
Lamium. Vigorous but not invasive, Lamium is a great choice. It brightens up a shaded grove with tiny flowers in beautiful colors of white, pink, and purple.
Lily of the Valley. Lily of the Valley is quite invasive. It is also toxic to both animals and humans. However, it is a beautiful plant, loved for its sweet scent, simple elegance, and tough constitution.
4. Perennial Plants
Wild columbine. Columbines abound in woodland meadows. The state flower of Colorado, these plants have delicate flowers that belie their rugged nature. Columbines are short-lived perennials that reseed easily. They’re fairly drought tolerant, once established.
Wild ginger. Wild ginger needs some moisture, but it tolerates shade and spreads quickly making it an excellent choice for shady gardens. Its large, heart-shaped leaves form a dense mat.
Vinca. Vinca grows in full sun to part shade and tolerates dry to moist conditions.
Hosta. Hostas are somewhat drought tolerant, although they’ll perform better with consistent moisture. This versatile plant comes in hundreds of varieties and is a great addition to a shady yard.
Bergenia. Bergenia is a clump-forming perennial that is hardy to zones three through eight. Grown primarily as a groundcover, it is loved for its large glossy leaves and colorful flowers.
Bleeding Heart. The heart-shaped blooms of the bleeding heart flower are glorious. If you need a spring show-stopper, this is your huckleberry.
Columbine. The columbine flower is a herbaceous perennial. It comes in a variety of bold-colored blooms in red, white, blue, pink, salmon, purple and yellow blooms. Some varieties are even bicolored.
Ferns. There are many different types of ferns. Creeping ferns make excellent groundcovers in shady locations. Ferns are grown for their interesting looking green and lime green foliage.
Foam Flowers. Foam flowers are charming, shade-loving plants with small sprays of pretty flowers. The foam flower performs well for years without losing steam. If they look dull, trim then and give them a chance to rejuvenate.
Hens & Chicks. Hardy to USDA zones 3 through 11, hens and chicks are great for woodland areas. They are one of the few succulents that enjoy shaded gardens.
Lungwort. Lungwort, or pulmonaria, is a very early spring blooming perennial. With bright, eye-catching blue, white, and pink flowers, lungwort will offer more beauty.
Milkweed. Milkweed gets its name from the sticky white sap that damaged leaves secrete. They bloom in late spring through summer. The flowers provide a nice splash of color and emit a wonderful fragrance. This attracts plenty of butterflies, birds, and wildlife.
Sedum. Sedum, also known as stonecrop, is a luscious succulent that has over 600 species. With that many varieties, there is a sedum that is suitable for any garden design imaginable.
Siberian Irises. Native to Europe and Central Asia, the Siberian iris is a rhizomatous herbaceous perennial. Hardy to USDA zones three through eight.
Impatiens. The classic underplanting annual, impatiens tolerate deep shade, especially in hot weather. They need regular watering and frequent fertilizer.
Begonias. Begonias are available with white, orange, pink, and yellow flowers. Hardy to USDA zones seven through 11. They thrive in moist soil conditions.
Coleus. There are few plants as vibrant throughout the year as the coleus plant. Hardy only in USDA zone 11, the coleus is particular about its environment. Though it flowers throughout the growing season, its flowers are removed before they bloom. This keeps the plant’s energy focused on producing a bushy plant.
Lysimachia. Native to Russia and Asia, the Lysimachia is a low maintenance ground cover. Though it is an aggressive grower, some varieties are more behaved than others.
Practices for Healthy Shade Plants
Choosing plants with a good ground cover is only a small part of gardening.
There is a lot you need to consider if you want to enjoy beautiful foliage and flowers every year.
Luckily, the Gardening Channel offers you all the resources you need to create a beautiful garden.
You can find a plethora of resources to help you:
- Find the right plants and create a dull shade garden.
- Understand different plants, shade growing conditions, and moisture requirements.
- Identify the right gardening products.
Should have picture examples for each suggestion… pictures are worth a thousand words…
Carole Garnett says
Agreed. should have pics with each suggestion.
Should also use the botanical names – not common names which very so much.
* vary* so much
Cathy Frederick says
Has a heart shape leaf and compact but does spread slowly. Lost the tag
Peter Thurman says
Isn’t the internet wonderful! It means that people all over the world can communicate with one another in a micro second. The common names of plants can be different in even regions of one country – let alone continents. That is one of the reasons why Latin names are so useful. For example, here in England, Polypody, Spurge Laurel, Butcher’s Broom, Rose of Sharon, Elder, Sweet Woodruff, and Stinking Iris all do well under trees. Know what I mean?
That’s why I am very good at looking up American names of English plants. Ohhhh the wonders of the Internet! I think it’s fun knowing ihe English names of plants I have in my garden! ?
Gill Bowden says
I find epimedium grows well in dry shade under conifers in England. They are evergreen, and after a year or so getting established, they proliferate around the trees, and have delicate looking flowers in spring, – mine are yellow, but they come in other colours too.
Diane Curley says
Yes I discovered Epimediums for my dry shade, which have done. Very well. I also like Woodruff that a friend gave to me that flowers and looks lush. I’ve also been experimenting with different ferns but do water them to keep in tip top condition.
CW Hutchins says
You are absolutely correct. God bless you and your garden.
Rita Johnson says
For a wet shady area or an area that receives regular watering Pink Wood Sorrel is great. I was lucky enough to obtain some of these plants from the base of trees on a friends wooded lot that were growing wild. They come back every year and spread to about 12″ to 15″ wide. They have a beautiful pink flower on a slender stalk and clover shaped leaves. The flowers open at around 10:00 am and close about 5:00 pm. Bees love them. Very low care.
Joe Hopkins says
The trouble is the roots of the tree, I have a garden in front of my house with hostas.and ferns , Rhodadens and rose of Sharon . Trying to plant other things like I did coleus etc as fillers is a challenge .
I am a visual person can we get a picture?
Hello hi I have a desert museum beautiful green stalk with leafy leaves blooms yellow flowers.
My house is chocolate/ with moca trim
I just did a complexâtes make over also put in a court yard with gate.
I like lavender to pull with the browns
Also I have a deep beautiful blue birdbath.
Alexander Alexanderov says
Really very usefully article, but soenthese plant names are starge at least for me, I’d like if you add pictures so it will be more benefits for readers,
Thanks for good information,
Highlight the name of the strange plant and google it, it answers you question with pictures and other names that the plant is called 🙂
I’m moving from southwest Louisiana where everything grows wild and with very little effort, to north of Dallas. Planting will be a new experience especially where there are actually seasons.
The Blarney Gardener says
Fear not; the challenge will be to keep them watered in summer. Also, find out what zone you’re in and purchase accordingly. Good gardening!
I started with 2 Hostas, been dividing them for 5 years… now I have Hostas all around every tree.
Lynda DeBorde says
Don’t you have slugs in your garden O love Hosted but got sick of providing three meals a day and midnight snack for the local slug population.
A little saucer of beer attracts them and they either drown or drink themselves to death! But they die happy!
White vinegar kills slugs quickly and helps the plants, too.
Chris Glazier says
I just read on another blog that pine needles themselves help prevent slugs. Mulch or under a pine tree garden.
Janet DeLage says
I would like to know the name of the featured plant above which is under the heading 10 plants that grow well under trees, which is a ground cover with white flowers.
If you mean the one in the photo on top, that’s a variety of Hosta.
I believe your talking of the ground cover called Sweet Woodrift
Janet DeLage says
No. It’s the one below the purple iris about half way down that says 10 plants that grow well in shade. The foliage is green with white flowers.
That is sweet woodruff and it also smelss really nice. It “burns” if it gets full sun. And, it fills in really well. One of my favorites here in northern Nevada – zone 5.
I believe it is Sweet Woodrift.
This is very useful to me, but I have an additional requirement: something deer won’t eat.
I’d suggest trying Lily of the Valley. It’s a deer resistant plant, grows well under trees and has a lovely scent. Good luck.
PATRICIA Lucente says
My 40 yr. old arborvitaes lower branches
Had 7 ft. Trimmed. So many surface roots and messy foliage droppings.
I’m an avid Gardner of 50yrs. And want to garden under these trees…….
Have planted ferns, hostas , solmon seal
But it was not easy. Any hints or ideas.
Small leaf oaks! What grows well under them in the south ( Alabama)
Impatients, mine reseed themselves every year, cast iron plant, ivy, hostas, and clover which usually a nuisance and will spread but if you have no sun and a huge 80 to 100 yr. old oak trees it grows fantastically and blooms almost all year(south Alabama). vinca major as well the variegated does not do as well as the green
My hydrangeas grow under trees and get just some evening sun. They did not produce any flowers this year and I even put Good fertilizer on them. The hydrangeas are 3 years old. I’m thinking about digging them up. Any suggestions.
Chris Glazier says
Maybe you added too much nitrogen? I’m not 100% as far as hydrangeas but often that happens with other plants. Too much N adds lots of green growth but lacks flowers.
Do they get any sun at all? They like part sun & shade. If you trimmed at the wrong time you sacrifice the flowers.
Did you use Hollytone ? They need acid fertilizer to bloom.
Hydrangeas need morning sun and afternoon shade. They do well in the areas of my garden where they get this kind of sun exposer.
I have a berm with six Amur maples. We had a landscape designer that planted boxwood in front of them when the trees were very small. These trees have several crooked trunks which make them very unusual and pretty. Now that they’re mature I have a problem of growing anything under the. They suck up water from any plant I’ve tried other than day lilies and the boxwood. I planted midnight salvia which surprisingly survives. They bloom in the spring and then just stay green the rest of the year forming small mounds. Does anyone have a suggestion on what other plants I could plant in dry shade. Open to reading about others successes when it comes to dry shade and fighting maple tree feeder roots. Thank you.
Jan Stiegler says
Do not include Impatients in a grow list. They are susceptible to a virus that is killing them all over the US. New Guinea Impatients are a better choice or the new Sun Impatients which are lovely and immune to the disease.
I have a moisture sucking maple tree in which the roots have grown above the ground making it very difficult to grow anything. This is a very interesting article and I like the pictures. I don’t know why there are complaints about the pictures. I could see all of them.
It’s too bad that you added vinca to the list. It’s incredibly invasive and causes harm to our native species once it spreads into natural areas – which it will.
There are much better alternative ground covers such as blood root, wild leeks or wild violet.
Confused as to why Azaleas are on this list. They need 4-6 hours of sun to properly bloom or you end up with leggy, flowerless shrubs. I have several, so I know this.
Ruth Kaplan-Kramer says
Many of my local plant nurseries have stopped growing and selling impatiens because of the fungus. The New Guinea ones and Sunpatience are fairly hardy and still available.
Another plant that seeds does well is myosotis (perennial forget-me-not). It comes in several different varieties, including several with silver veining on the leaves. Corydalis does well in my garden under a flowering cherry. It also seeds and spreads readily in my zone 6 garden. I haven’t tried the blue variety, but the yellow and white ones are very hardy. Another very successful plant under the tree is helleborous. It blooms very early, sometimes before the last snow. Enjoy those early flowers and the snow doesn’t seem to hurt them. They cross polinate and eventually bloom in many different combinations of purple and white, the two original colors I planted. This year there are dozens of small seedlings coming up under and next to one of the big clumps of white flowered ones. And of course, hostas and astilbes and vinca (I particularly like the reddish-purple one but have white and blue too) and begonias where they get morning sun.
Several years ago, I bought one small liriope and regret putting it in that garden because it has spread so much. Consider it wasted space that I could use for more interesting plants but can’t do as much digging as I used to so I didn’t get it out this summer. Too many other things to do out there, like amend the soil in another garden and dig up weeds in a new garden area I cleared last year that was overrun with weeds and ornamental grass this year. Used to rent a community garden plot and turn it over every year but had to give it up a few years ago because there was too much to do in the flower gardens at home. Don’t feel old (I’ll be 68 next week) until I do some digging and my hip hurts for a few days.
Lazy J says
Living in the south and subjecting plants to endless weeks of sweltering heat and near 100 percent humidity can be challenging for even the most seasoned gardener. Notwithstanding,I have spent 20 years in the pursuit to find a shade tolerant plant which could adapt and thrive under these most demanding conditions.
Lazy J says
Kudzu was the answer to my dilemma. It can reclaim even the poorest of soils down to a subsoil level. It is lush, green and has absolutely stunning foliage. Three blooms in spring are fragrant and make lovely bouquets.
It will eat you and your house! Around here (red clay northern part of SC) it grows unbelievably fast. But it does love the sun and the humid heat of summer. Maybe yours will be more obedient if it’s under trees. But I warn you, watch vigilantly for runners or you’ll lose the tree and maybe everything else near it.
Kudza is horribly invasive and takes over; it is not good to plant as it doesn’t allow for native plant growth. Check your local area to see if it’s on the Do Not Grow list of invasive plants
Helen Schmidt says
I find Bleeding Hearts grow extremely well for me in the shade. Also the lovely Painted Japanese fern grow very well in shade
nirmala patel says
We have just moved home and have a very large garden however the bottom third of the garden is totally shaded by trees from bothering neighbours and park and the whole garden is only grassed two thirds as I don’t think grass would grow in the third? Or am I wrong? What can I plant in the shaded area would have liked a vegetable patch but too dark I think… thank you
Sarah V says
Is there any (attractive) plant that grows under trees that has a bit of height itself? My husband just had my privacy trees trimmed and we now have full view of plastic play toys next door. 🙁 About 4 or 5 feet height is what I’ll need and, again, it’s in almost full shade. Thank you in advance.
Dawn Reese says
We have a silver birch tree in our front yard what kind of plants partner well with them?
Bettye Webb says
I have a maple tree in my front yard on a small bank. I need to put some like vine. That will spread and come back every year. To old to water and plant every year. The tree takes all of the water and the grass around it looks awful.
Jill Ditsch says
This is a really nice web site. I’ve been establishing a wooded area over a period of time. I have several hosta’s and a few other plants. I’m looking to add some ferns this year and maybe a few other woodland plants.
Thank You for sharing your knowledge.
I am looking for a Jasmine that grows like a shrub.
It has to be suitable for zone 7A.
Sound here you can only find the vine kind.
Black walnut trees. I’m limited to my choices, anyone have success?
Susan Cody says
Why do say we should plant native and then list all sorts of non-native options. It is really important to educate the public about the real importance of natives
Regina S Brennan says
…very helpful….I have a shaded tree area, on a hill, that I would like to plant colorful plantings.
Can I plant sun-loving shrubs under a pear tree? I’m wondering if there’s enough sun because the lower branches of the tree aren’t too low.
Thank you for sharing! I’m having a landscape designer redo my backyard in the spring to help with some drainage issues. I also have large trees in my yard that they are going to help spruce up, I’d love for them to plant some pansies and violets under the trees as well!