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Gardening in the shade

Quick facts

  • Shady areas are cooler and the soil remains moist longer.
  • Shady areas may be the last areas in your landscape to thaw out in the winter.
  • Different levels of shade exist, from dappled to deep shade.
  • Soil fertility can be a challenge to maintain and plants often require supplemental fertilization.
  • Containers of plants can be located under trees and near shrubs to avoid competition from tree and shrub roots.
Green, large-leafed plants in tan mulch in shade alongside a house near a lake.

Diversity in landscape lighting can add interest and a sense of discovery to your yard and garden. This includes a diversity of plants, the use of structures and containers, and having various levels of light from full sun to full and even deep shade. Created by trees, landscape light allows you to be creative in various parts of your yard and garden.

Trees are valuable additions to landscapes.

  • They provide shade and windbreaks resulting in energy efficiency.
  • Trees lower ambient temperatures by creating shade and through transpiration.
  • Trees provide habitat for wildlife, supporting many forms of life, and they absorb carbon dioxide, converting it through photosynthesis into oxygen.
  • Healthy trees can raise property values by 3 to 15%. 

See The Benefits of Trees from the National Arbor Foundation.

The National Tree Benefit Calculator can help you estimate the value your trees provide to your landscape and neighborhood.

Creating shade

Green plant in terracotta pot under a green shrub by a gray wall with a blue pot on top. Plants in five pots in a group with tall green plants behind. A bird bath with water and three rocks in it surrounded by tall green ferns under a tree.

You can create shade by locating structures like pergolas and layering taller perennials and climbing plants so they block sun from other plants, shading them. 

You can also tuck low-growing plants under other plants, creating a shady growing environment. A large Sagae Hosta provides shade for big root geraniums.

Green and yellow plant growing over a small green plant with a green shrub on a patio.

Planning a shade garden

Know your site conditions

Creating shade gardens can be a challenge, but one that, as gardeners facing warmer, drier summers, we should embrace in order to have a long-lived, healthy landscape. The first step is to understand your growing conditions: 

  • Size of your planting space
  • Cold hardiness zone
  • Light levels
  • Soil conditions

Having a basic knowledge of the garden area will help you choose the plants that will grow best in your site and your plants will thrive, not just survive. A plant won’t perform well in conditions that differ from what it needs to grow. The plant will be stressed and unable to reach its full size, form and shape, nor will it produce healthy leaves and flowers. Plants growing in less-than-optimal conditions are also more likely to succumb to diseases and insect damage.

“Right Plant, Right Place” plant selection video series

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Containers and houseplants in shade gardens

Red flower in a decorative pot surrounded by a white flowering shrub in a garden bed.
Shade plants in containers can be tucked under trees or shrubs like this begonia under the hydrangea. The container offers an interesting design element as well.

Containers add interesting art and structure to your shade garden. Stretch your creativity by mixing and matching annuals, perennials, bulbs, and even some edibles in your garden beds and containers.

  • Start with robust bedding plants from your local nursery or garden center. Don’t bother direct seeding shade annuals as our season is too short for most to ever bloom well.
  • Get creative! Combine annuals, bulbs, grasses, small shrubs and perennials in containers.
  • Set containers under trees and near shrubs to avoid combating tree and shrub roots.
  • If space allows, sink pots into the soil to conserve moisture.
  • Tall shrubs can provide shade for houseplants in pots
  • Replant containers each spring as these plants will most likely not survive the winter in containers.

Houseplants as part of a shade garden

Look for unusual items that can be reused as planting containers—pails, troughs, cans, wagons, ceramic crocks. Just about anything can hold a plant. Use a power drill to add drainage holes in most materials. If drainage holes are not possible, pot up your plant in a separate pot and set it in the container. Remove it from the outer container when you water and allow it to drain well before putting it back.

Incorporating your houseplants into shade gardens can add some exotic interest to your garden.

Many houseplants also benefit from being outdoors over the summer. However, a change in location can shock a plant, so it’s important to gradually get plants accustomed to new growing conditions or acclimate them.

  • Locate houseplants in dappled shade and under trees to protect them from the hot midday sun.
  • Hang plants from tree branches or from structures like a pergola.
  • Add lighting to highlight plants and create a great gathering space for summer evenings.
  • Take advantage of shaded patios and north sides of your house to hang plants on walls.

Plant lists

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Author: Julie Weisenhorn, Extension educator, horticulture

Reviewed in 2021

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