Shade gardening comes with some distinct challenges, including a perceived lack of interesting plants to choose from. So here are a few gardening and design tips and a lot of plant options besides just hostas.

Assess the light. Part sun or full shade? How many hours, truly, do the different areas of your shade garden receive?

Astilbe at Tonkadale Greenhouse

Astilbe: Deutschland, left, and Maggie Daley

Understand plant tags. Part sun/part shade plants will do best in morning sun or dappled sun. Afternoon sun is often too hot, causing plants to melt and suffer. Part sun to full sun plants will prefer a little more light, so they may do OK in 3 hours but will be happier in 4 or 5. Full sun plants want at least 6 hours to perform their best.

As with all rules there are exceptions, so just ask your garden center professionals about whether a plant will perform in a tough area (such as 3 hours of hot, afternoon sun).

Assess the soil. Dry or wet? Many shade plants want rich soil that is consistently moist. There are a few shade plants that can handle dry soil, though. Irrigation, such as a drip line, may be necessary for some plants to survive and thrive if the area is not naturally damp enough.

Discover the roots. When preparing the soil be sure to consider tree roots. There are some that are simply too large to plant certain perennials by, and in that situation there are a handful of ground covers that will work.

Shade plants at Tonkadale Greenhouse

Clockwise from top left: Ligularia, Bergenia, Japanese Forest Grass, Ajuga

Design tips

Work with your existing landscape. Remember, if you have a shade garden, you don’t have a barren landscape. You have wonderful, mature trees, and that’s a bonus. They are the backdrop and a major feature of you garden.

Contrast foliage color, shape, and texture.

Add a curved path that draws you through the garden in a meandering fashion and offers the promise of something interesting just around the corner. Add a bench or small table and chairs to sit and enjoy the serenity of the shade garden. The stillness of a shade garden is really one of its best features.

Connect the outskirts of the shade garden where there is more sun to the shade garden by planting appropriate plants leading up to the sunny edge. That way it will appear as though there is more color in the shade garden, especially when you’re inside looking out.

Suggested plants

Plants

(*denotes dry shade tolerant plants)

  • Astilbe – Part to full shade. Bloom better with a little light. Evenly moist soil.
  • Aruncus/Goat’s Beard – Full sun to full shade. Moist soil. Variety of heights.
  • Hosta – Try to find a couple you love. Designed well, hosta in the shade garden can be stunning. Empress Wu will grow large enough to look like a shrub.
Hosta and dicentra at Tonkadale Greenhouse

Hosta, left, and Dicentra

  • *Solomon’s Seal – Part sun to shade, moist sun but is also drought tolerant.
  • Hellebores – Part shade, almost full shade. Technically zone 5 but many seasoned zone 4 gardeners grow them.
  • Ligularia – Part sun, likes wet feet.
  • *Tiarella – Full to part shade, likes water but will grow in dry shade.
  • Ferns – Part to full shade, consistently moist or even wet soil.
  • *Oak sedge – Dry shade, can be mowed.
  • Cimicifuga/Snakeroot – Part to full shade, moist soil.
  • *Bleeding heart – Part to full shade, moderate watering but will handle dry soil. Fern-leaf type will bloom all summer.
  • Brunnera – Part sun to shade, wet or constantly moist soil. Deer resistant.
  • Chelone/Turtlehead – Part to full shade, high water, fall to late summer bloomer.
  • Pulmonaria/Lungwort – Part to full shade, regular watering.
  • Polemonium/Jacob’s Ladder – wet or consistently moist soil.
  • Heuchera or Heucherella – Full sun to full shade. Generally, the lighter the leaf, the more shade it requires or it will burn. Requires well-amended soil.
  • Filipendula – Part to full sun, evenly moist soil.
  • *Bergenia – Sun to shade, moist soil, especially in more sun. Large ground cover.
  • Iris (some of them) – Part sun, evenly moist soil.
  • Rodgersia – Full to part sun, medium to wet soil.
  • Daylily – Part sun, drought tolerant, hot afternoon sun OK.
  • *Epimedium – Part to full shade, keep well-watered.
  • *Japanese Forest Grass – Part to full shade; moist, well-drained soil.
  • Woodland Phlox – Part to full shade, moist, well-drained.
  • Lady’s Mantle – Part to full sun, keep well-watered.
Lady's Mantle and Ghost Fern at Tonkadale Greenhouse

Lady’s Mantle, left, and Ghost Fern

  • Beyond Blue Fescue – Part to full sun.
  • Shade clematis – Grow this up a trellis or tree to add interest and height.
  • *Toad Lily – Part sun to shade, drought tolerant.

Groundcovers

Give up on the turf grass – it doesn’t like shade. Go with groundcovers instead.

  • *Lily of the Valley – Vigorous, great in dense shade.
  • *Lamium – Part to full shade, any soil conditions.
  • *Ajuga – Any sun exposure, average soil, deer resistant.
  • Sweet Woodruff – Part to full shade.
  • Vinca/Periwinkle – All sun, all soil, all moisture types.
  • Sempervivum/Hen and chicks – Can tolerate part sun, require very well-drained soil.
  • Pachysandra – Part to full shade, tolerates clay well..

Shrubs

  • Hydrangeas – Some part-sun only, others part to full sun.
  • Rhododendrons and Azaleas – Part sun.
  • Viburnum – Part to full sun.
  • Dogwoods – Part to full sun, wet soil.
  • Yews – Part to full sun.
  • Russian Cypress – Full sun to full shade, dry or moist but no standing water.