Gardening in the shade
- Shady areas are cooler and the soil can remain moist longer.
- Shady areas may be the last places in your garden to thaw out in the winter.
- Shade has different levels of light, from dappled to deep.
- Soil fertility is hard to maintain in shady sites.
- Set containers under trees and near shrubs to avoid combating tree and shrub roots.
An abundance of large trees and shady areas in your yard can be seen as challenge or an opportunity.
Shade gardens provide cool, refreshing areas of beauty during summer's heat.
They can create mystery, whimsy and discovery in your landscape and feature different plants than those in the rest of your yard.
Know your site conditions
Like all long-lived, healthy landscapes, successful shade gardening starts with understanding the basic conditions of your planting site:
- Cold hardiness zone
- Soil type
Having a basic knowledge of your planting space will help you choose plants that will grow best in your site.
A plant won’t thrive in conditions that differ from what it needs to grow. It will be stressed and unable to reach its full size and shape or produce healthy leaves and flowers.
Plants that struggle in less-than-optimal growing conditions can also be more susceptible to pests and diseases.
How much space will your shade garden occupy?
Maybe it’s just room for a few plants under a shade tree or a large woodland planting. Either way, measure the plantable space and keep that in mind when choosing your plants.
Plants should have enough room to grow to their full, mature size. Check plant labels, catalogs or the Plant Elements of Design plant database for specific plant information.
- Being “zone hardy” means a plant can survive the temperature extremes in a particular area.
- Choose plants that grow in your cold hardiness zone.
- Minnesota resides in three hardiness zones: 3, 4 or 5 depending on the location. Zone 3 is the coldest.
- A plant’s cold hardiness information can be found on plant labels, in catalogs, reference books, databases and on reliable websites like the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.
- Shady areas are microclimates: areas within your yard and garden where the conditions vary from the rest of the landscape.
- Year-round shade from evergreen trees can create a cooler space that is protected from wind.
- Soil in shady areas may remain consistently moist due to lack of sunlight and warmth.
- Shady areas may also be the last places in your landscape to thaw out in the winter.
Spend some time in your landscape and observe how the light changes. Sunlight varies throughout the day—morning sun is less intense than afternoon sun.
Shade has different levels of light as well:
- Dappled shade—caused by light filtering through tree canopy
- Light to part shade—about 3 to 6 hours of sunlight
- Full shade—less than 3 hours of sunlight
- Deep shade—almost no sunlight
Although partially or lightly shaded areas receive direct sunlight for only a small portion of the day, light intensity is still quite bright.
- There are numerous plant choices for these locations, such as woodland wildflowers.
- Certain herbs and leafy greens can even be grown in dappled or part shade.
- Some plants tolerate relatively low light, and a few actually thrive in it.
- Many groundcovers do well in shady, difficult areas.
Soil is the foundation of every garden. It provides nutrients, water, air and support for plants.
Soil will affect everything you do from planting to building structures like decks, patios, arbors and terraces.
A good understanding of the type of soil on your property is important to knowing which plants will grow well in your landscape. A soil test is a good place to start and should be done every three to five years. For instructions, visit the UMN Soil Testing Laboratory.
Note that soil can vary within a single landscape, especially in urban sites. Soil tests are the most reliable way to get specific information on your yard and garden soil.
Shady areas are cooler and the soil can remain moist longer. This can benefit plants that prefer cooler conditions, especially in the afternoon when summer sun is most intense.
Moss will sometimes grow in shady moist areas, especially where soil is compacted.
Slugs in home gardens can be pests in shady, moist areas as well.
However, lack of moisture can be a problem even in shady conditions. Possible conditions that create dry shade:
- Tree canopies
- Eaves or the overhang of a house
- Competition from other plants for moisture
- Building foundations that block rainfall
As a microclimate, dry shade is one of the most limiting for gardeners and plant lovers. Growing beneath large trees or under the overhang of a building are difficult conditions for plants because both act like umbrellas and prevent even plentiful rainfall from reaching the plants.
Supplemental watering using a drip hose, irrigation or a sprinkler is needed in dry shade even during times of adequate rainfall. Feel the top three to four inches of soil. If it is dry, it’s time to water.
Adequate nutrients, as well as water and root growth, are important for plant health. Maintaining soil fertility is challenging in shady sites.
- Trees and shrubs have extensive root systems or “feeder roots” in the top 18 to 20 inches of soil that take up and use up nutrients, water and soil space.
- With few exceptions, shade-tolerant plants will grow best in well-drained, loamy soil.
- Check your soil test results before applying fertilizer for nutritional recommendations.
- A general recommendation might be to apply a balanced fertilizer, such as a 15-15-15 (N-P-K), in spring followed by one or two applications as the season progresses.
Containers and houseplants in shade gardens
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.
Look for unusual items that can be reused as planting containers—pails, troughs, cans, wagons, ceramic crocks. Just about anything can hold a plant.
A power drill can be used 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 to water, allowing 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.
Lists of favorite plants for shady sites as compiled by Master Gardeners in The Best Plants for 30 Tough Sites (2007).
Shade limits plant growth. The heights listed for plants are for less than ideal conditions. Many plants will grow larger when grown in full sun with adequate moisture.
Deciduous shrubs that grow well in shade
|Common name||Botanical name||Height/width||Soil type||Zone||Exposure|
|Azalea, Northern Lights||Northern Lights Series||5'/3'||well-drained, pH 4.5-5.5||3 to 7||light to medium shade|
|Chokeberry, Autumn Magic||Aronia melanocarpa 'Autumn Magic'||5'/4'||average, well-drained||3 to 8||light to heavy shade|
|Dogwood, Garden Glow||Cornus hessei 'Garden Glow'||5-6'||average, moist||4 to 6||medium to heavy shade|
|Dogwood, Gray||Cornus racemosa||8'/6'||moist, well-drained||2 to 9||light shade|
|Dogwood, Pagoda||Cornus alternifolia||15-25'||average||2 to 8||full sun, light to medium shade|
|Dogwood, Red twig||Cornus sericea 'Cardinal'||10'/10'||moist, well-drained||2 to 9||full sun to heavy shade|
|Honeysuckle, Bush||Diervilla sessifolia 'Butterfly'||3'/5'||average/moist||4 to 8||light shade|
|Hydrangea, Annabelle||Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle'||5'/5'||moist, well-drained||3 to 9||light shade|
|Hydrangea, Panicle||Hydrangea paniculata||9'/8'||moist, well-drained||3 to 9||light to medium shade|
|Lace shrub||Stephanandra incisa 'Crispa'||1'/3'||average||4 to 7||light to medium shade|
|Rosemary, Bog or marsh||Andromeda polifolia 'Blue Ice'||2'/3'||acidic, moist, well-drained||2 to 6||light shade|
|Snowberry||Symphoricarpos albus||4'/4'||average/moist||4 to 7||light to medium shade|
|Sumac, Tiger Eye||Rjus typhina 'Bailtiger'||6'/6'||sandy, well-drained||4 to 8||light to medium shade|
|Summersweet||Clethra alnifolia 'Hummingbird'||3'/3'||moist||3 to 8||medium to heavy shade|
|Viburnum, Dwarf European||Viburnum opulus 'Nanum'||2'/3'||moist, well-drained||3 to 8||light to medium shade|
|Viburnum, Highbush cranberry||Viburnum trilobum||10'/5'||average||2 to 7||light to medium shade|
|Viburnum, Nannyberry||Viburnum lentago||15'/6'||average/moist||4 to 7||light to medium shade|
|Witch alder||Fothergilla gardenii x major 'Mount Airy'||6'/4'||acidic, moist, well-drained||4 to 9||light to medium shade|
Evergreen shrubs that grow well in shade
|Common Name||Botanical Name||Height/Width||Soil Type||Zone||Exposure|
|Arborvitae, Holmstrup||Thuja occidentalis 'Holmstrup'||8'/3'||moist, well-drained||2 to 9||light shade|
|Boxwood, Green Velvet||Buxus 'Green Velvet'||2'/3'||loose, well-drained||4 to 8||light shade|
|Hemlock, Aurea compacta||Tsuga canadensis 'Aurea Compacta'||6'/6'||moist, well-drained||3 to 8||full sun to heavy shade|
|Yew, Dwarf Bright Gold||Taxus cuspidata 'Dwarf Bright Gold'||4'/6'||moist, well-drained||2 to 7||full sun to heavy shade|
|Yew, Taunton||Taxus x media 'Tauntonii'||3'/6'||moist, well-drained||4 to 7||medium to heavy shade|
Whether in the city, suburbs or rural areas, small trees are often needed for shady locations. Some of these trees may grow larger in full sun. The height listed is for full sun conditions.
|Common Name||Botanical Name||Height||Native||Comments|
|Alder, speckled||Alnus rugosa||15-25'||x||Prefers wet soil high in organic matter.|
|American bladdernut||Staphylea trifoliate||5-15'||x||Bladder-like fruit; tolerates very heavy shade.|
|Blue beech||Carpinus caroliniana||20-30'||x||Fall color is orange-scarlet; bark is fluted giving a muscle appearance; tolerates heavy shade.|
|Chokecherry||Prunus virginiana||20-30'||x||Fruits globose dark purple, edible; understory tree in the woods.|
|Dogwood, pagoda||Cornus alternifolia||15-25'||x||Fall color reddish purple; horizontal branches.|
|Eastern hemlock||Tsuga canadensis||40-70'||x||Leaves are soft, short needles; no fall color; evergreen; grows slowly; likes cool, moist conditions.|
|Hoptree, wafer-ash||Ptelea trifoliate||15-20'||x||Fall color yellow-green; understory tree in moist woodlands.|
|Ironwood||Ostrya virginiana||25-40'||x||Fall color yellow; understory tree, does well in heavy shade.|
|Japanese yew||Taxus cuspidata||5-15'||Dark green foliage; upright and spreading forms; deer favorite; toxic to cows and horses.|
|Juneberry||Amelanchier arborea||15-25'||x||Fall color is yellow to dull red; fruit berry-like, reddish purple; tolerates partial shade.|
|Nannyberry||Viburnum lentago||12-18'||x||Fall color purplish red; fruits bluish-black; filtered shade.|
|Redbud, Eastern||Cercis canadensis||20-30'||Tolerates partial shade; plants should be from Univ. of MN seed source to be reliably hardy in MN.|
|Serviceberry, Allegheny||Amelanchier laevis||15-25'||x||Fall color is orange red; fruit purple black, sweet and edible.|
|Sour gum||Nyssa sylvatica||30-50'||Fall color bright scarlet; moist, well-drained acid soil; plant only trees from northern sources.|
|Witchhazel, common||Hamamelis virginiana||10-20'||Yellow flowers bloom in October-November; fruit a capsule; handles filtered shade.|
|Witchhazel, vernal||Hamamelis vernalis||6-10'||Yellow flowers in March; fruit a capsule; handles filtered shade.|
Tall plants for shade are harder to find. Drier sites are usually better for shorter plants, but this list features a variety of taller perennials.
- S = full sun
- PS = partial sun
- Sh = shade
|Common Name||Botanical Name||Height (feet)||Zone||Soil Type||Exposure||Comments|
|Big leaf ligularia||Ligularia dentata||4||3-7||alkaline||PS||Desdemona' 'Britt-Marie Crawford' are good.|
|Bleeding heart||Dicentra spectabalis||3||4||tolerant of boggy conditions||S, PS||Exquisite arching sprays of flowers.|
|Bowman's root||Gillenia trifoliata||2-3||4-8||moist||PS|
|Cinnamon fern||Osmunda cinnamomea||2-4||3-8||rich, well-drained||S, PS||Cinnamon brown spore bearing stalks.|
|Culver's root||Veronicastrum virginicum||3-5||4-9||rich, moist||S, PS, Sh||Candles of white flowers; native to moist sites.|
|False spirea||Astilbe biternata||2-6||4||moist, acidic woodlands||PS, Sh||Clusters of flowers.|
|Foxglove||Digitalis purpurea||2-4||4-10||moist, well-drained||S, PS||Tall elegant flower spikes; self-seeding biennial.|
|Goat's beard||Aruncus dioicus||4-6||4-9||moist||PS, Sh||Attractive foliage; spectacular plumes.|
|Joe-Pye weed||Eupatorium maculatum||3-6||3-9||average||S, PS||Useful in wet areas.|
|Leopard plant||Ligularia przewalskii||4-6||3-8||moist||PS, Sh||Requires moist soil.|
|Martagon lily||Lilium martagon||3-4||4||humus rich||PS, Sh||Small, turk's cap flowers.|
|Milky bellflower||Campanula lactiflora 'Prichard's Variety'||3||4-8||moist||Sh||Self-seeds.|
|Monkshood||Aconitum spp.||4-5||3-8||moist, well-drained||PS||Poisonous.|
|Monkshood, autumn||Aconitum henryi||3-6||4||average, dislikes wet||PS||Showy flowers, poisonous.|
|Ostrich fern||Matteuccia struthiopteris||3-4||4-8||moist||PS||Tolerates moisture; ostrich plume leaves.|
|Queen-of-the-meadow||Filipendula ulmaria||4||3-9||moist, well-drained||Sh|
|Queen-of-the-prairie||Filipendula rubra||3-6||3-8||moist||PS||Flower clusters; 'Venusta' has dark pink flowers.|
|Rodgersia||Rodgersia spp.||3-6||4-7||moist||PS||Huge foliage; accent plant.|
|Royal fern||Osmunda regalis||3-5||3-8||moist, wet||S, PS, Sh||Can be grown in swampy conditions.|
|Snakeroot, black||Actea racemosa (Cimicifuga racemosa)||4-6||3-9||moist, well-drained||S, PS||Tall blossoms; 'Atropurpurea' has purple foliage.|
|Snakeroot, white pearl||Actea simplex 'White Pearl' (Cimicifuga simplex)||4||3-8||tolerant of boggy conditions||S, PS||Spikes of flowers|
|Tall meadow rue||Thalictrum dasycarpum||3-6||4-9||rich, well-drained||S, PS||Blue-green foliage.|
|Turtlehead||Chelone glabra||2-3||3-8||rich, moist||PS|
Reviewed in 2018