I’m really excited about the garden I’ve planned for this year. It’s on a side of the house not visible to us or passersby, so I’m free to experiment and load up the bed with mostly flowers for cutting throughout the season. This is a departure from my typical garden design template, where I try to include plants for interest in every season. As this bed will not be “viewed”, I don’t have to worry about it looking great year-round.

I’ve always wanted a cutting garden and I love that this one will be filled with shade-tolerant plants.

People often think of a shady spot as a detriment, limiting one’s range of pretty plants to use.  This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I love designing shade beds. They tend to be quieter – more subtle – and often quite sophisticated. When done well, spending time in a shade garden can be a lovely, soothing experience. And once you start digging in and doing some research you’ll find that there is an extensive selection of beautiful plants to choose from.

Working for many years in an area filled with large, mature trees (= lots of shade), I’ve cultivated a list of favorite shade-loving plants.

Here are my “top ten”:

False spirea (Astilbe) This plant has so much going for it – lovely, ferny foliage and a wide range of colors (from white to peach, pink, purple and red). It’s as deer resistant as they come, needs no staking or deadheading and is pest and disease-resistant. Oh, and there are varieties as small as 6″ high as well as those that grow to 3′ tall. So what are you waiting for?

astilbe, shade plants, gardening, perennials
Bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) One of the most charming plants around. Bleeding heart appears in early spring, with dangling, two-toned heart-shaped flowers. Although technically a perennial, it can grow to the size of a small shrub – up to 30-36″ high and wide. Once the weather heats up the appearance of this plant diminishes significantly, and you’ll want to cut it back for the season. To avoid a “hole” in the garden, surround it with summer-blooming perennials.

bleeding heart, shade plants, gardening, perennials

bleeding heart, shade plants, gardening, perennials

Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium nipponicum var. “Pictum”) Ferns too often get a bad rap. I think people assume that they are sort of bland, and “one-note”. Not Japanese Painted Fern. The foliage is two-toned silver and green, beautifully lighting up a dark corner. It has a dark burgundy center rib, which I like to accentuate with surrounding plants in complementary colors. Like most ferns, this one is deer resistant and maintenance-free, and is a great alternative to hostas (which are like candy to deer in most areas).

japanese painted fern, shade plants, gardening, perennials
Snakeroot (Cimicifuga) A late bloomer, Snakeroot kicks in when most perennials starts to die down for the season. It grows tall – between 4 and 5 feet – providing great impact at the back of the border. It has a striking, bottle brush flower, and lovely foliage too –  a deep burgundy/chocolate.

snakeroot, shade plants, gardening, perennials
Hakone grass (Hakonechloa var. “Aureola”) I love ornamental grasses. Most varieties, however, need full sun to thrive. Hakone grass is one of the few exceptions. It’s a low grower, perfect for softening the edges of a shady border. The chartreuse foliage is gorgeous and pairs well with most color schemes. And like all other perennial grasses it’s deer-resistant and low maintenance.

Spotted dead nettle (Lamium maculatum) This is a beautiful groundcover that also looks great trailing over the edge of a planter. My favorite variety has silvery foliage and violet blooms. It’s reliably deer-resistant.

Here are Hakone grass and Spotted dead nettle paired together as part of a container arrangement:

lamium, hakone grass, shade plants, gardening, perennials

Peony (Paeonia) Is there a soul who doesn’t love Peonies? I adore them. Though they want some sun, Peonies will do just fine in a partially shaded spot. Be certain to stake your plants as soon as they emerge, or you will lose those top-heavy blooms after the first hard spring rain. You can read more in a post I wrote about staking peonies.

peony, shade plants, gardening, perennials
Windflower (Anemone hupehensis) Another late-season star, Windflower is a floriferous plant that starts blooming in late summer and goes straight through fall. And even before it starts blooming, its grape-leaf foliage is a pretty addition to the garden.

anemone, shade plants, gardening, perennials

anemone, shade plants, gardening, perennials

Coleus (Solenostemon) An annual in my region, Coleus is a must-have in any shady planter or window box. Coleus is valued primarily for its foliage, and provides non-stop interest from late spring right through frost. There are literally hundreds of varieties to choose from, in almost every color and pattern you can imagine. It is quick to establish and grows full and lush with virtually no care.

coleus, shade plants, gardening, perennials

coleus, shade plants, gardening, perennials

coleus, shade plants, gardening, perennials

Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) One of my favorite plants of all.  The flowers appear as early as February, and last for several months. They then slowly fade from a dusky, rosy purple to a soft green. It is reliably deer resistant too. Be forewarned though – all parts of this plant are poisonous, so keep them away from pets and small children, and wash hands thoroughly after handling.

hellebore, shade plants, gardening, perennialsWant more? Take a look at the post I wrote about foliage-plants. Heuchera, Ladies mantle and Leopard plant are three more great choices.

How do you like gardening in the shade? Any favorite plants that you’d add to my list? Share them here!


  1. Leslie on March 13, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    Thank you for this, Sheri. There are just about no plants in our yard. No trees either. But the house itself makes a huge amount of shade. I was wondering what to do!

    • sheri silver on March 14, 2012 at 2:12 pm

      Happy to help! Let me know if you have any questions! 🙂

  2. Justine on April 8, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    Sherri, I love the ideas my shady yard has been a bain for over a decade. I cant get it right…I live in GA and am overrun by the neighboring yard’s out of control wisteria – whicho fth eplants that you listed are native and perremial?

    • sheri silver on April 9, 2012 at 3:29 pm

      Thank you! They are all perennials except the coleus – which, in your zone, may actually be perennial too! Check with your local cooperative extension to see what plants are native to your area. PlantNative is a great resource for finding nurseries that sell native plants too: http://www.plantnative.org/ . Good luck!

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