While it’s true that all plants need at least some amount of sunshine to thrive, some shade plants grow better with less than four hours of direct sunlight each day. While it can be tempting to give up on the shadiest parts of your yard, as long as you find the right plants for your soil and sun coverage, you can foster a vibrant and bright shade garden.
In order to cultivate a healthy and flourishing shade garden, start with organically rich soil to mimic what naturally occurs in tree-dense forests. You can achieve this by adding a thin layer of shredded leaves to your soil or mixing in some nutrient-rich homemade compost.
Once your soil is primed, keep an eye out for plants that do well in low-sun, partial-shade, or full-shade environments. Here are a few that we recommend.
1. Goat’s Beard
Goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus) is a hardy blooming garden plant that can grow up to six feet tall. It boasts long, feathery, plume-like spikes of small white flowers that shoot from the tops of thick clusters of deep-green leaves. Goat’s Beard is one of the best shade plants that can actually tolerate some sun, so it’s perfect for the edge of your shade garden.
This Missouri-native plant can tolerate most climate conditions, but it doesn’t prefer intense humidity, so if you live in the deep south, Goat’s Beard is not an ideal candidate for you. If you’re lucky enough to live in the southern Appalachians, the Ohio River Valley, or central Illinois, Goat’s Beard is a shade garden essential. It’s a natural host for the rare and stunning pale-blue Dusky Azure Butterfly.
Try planting it with an Ostrich Fern, a hearty plant that thrives with consistent moisture and nutrient-rich soil.
Spotted dead nettle
2. Spotted Dead Nettle
Spotted Dead Nettle (Lamium maculatum) is a blooming perennial that grows best in partial to full shade. It is small, ranging only six to eight inches tall. Its leaves are spotted and, depending on the variety, its flowers can be white, yellow, pink, or vibrant purple. Incredibly, as long as it’s planted in a low-light area, it can grow in almost all kinds of soil (sandy, loamy, and even light clay mixtures).
This shade plant can survive throughout most of the United States, but it has a harder time growing in the coastal Southeast and the coastal Northwest (sorry, California and Florida). They grow in the spring, bloom in the summer, and start to die off around mid-August.
Spotted Dead Nettle is one of the most common shade plants and can be found at most hardware stores and nurseries across the country. Try planting them alongside Chinese Brambles, a rose-family shrub that also prefers shade and loamy, moist soil.
Barrenwort (Epimedium) is a remarkably beautiful flowering plant. Native to China, Barrenwort has been one of the most popular shade plants in Japan for centuries and is only recently cropping up in shade gardens across the United States.
Depending on the variety, they range from six inches to two feet tall and produce bright, kaleidoscopic yellow, pink, and lavender flowers. They thrive anywhere that can mimic their native habitat, so mostly anywhere in the US except for the northernmost states (if your state borders Canada, Barrenwort is probably not for you).
Although Barrenwort isn’t the most common plant on this list, it’s one of the most beautiful. You can find this shade plant in specialty nurseries or you can start them from seeds purchased online. Plant them alongside a cluster of Palm Sedge, a grass-like plant that also prefers moist, well-draining soil.
4. Bleeding Heart
Bleeding Heart(Dicentra spectabilis) is a shade-loving perennial that produces beautiful cream-colored and pink flowers that hang from long, elegant stems. They range from six inches to two feet tall. Because they grow best in moist soil, Bleeding Hearts aren’t ideal additions to shade gardens in the Midwest.
These shade plants do well in well-draining, nutrient-rich soil that gets a lot of moisture. They slowly self-propagate, so your garden will grow fuller and lusher over time. Since Bleeding Hearts tend to lose their flowers by mid-August, keep your shade garden in bloom for longer, plant them with Astilbes, which are later-blooming perennials that also favor shade and moist soil conditions. You can find Bleeding Heart at specialty nurseries across the country.
Hosta (Funkia) is an incredibly easy-to-grow perennial that adores the shade. Their leaves are typically green, blue, white, chartreuse, or gold. Be mindful when it comes to choosing which variety to add to your shade garden, though—miniatures grow up to a foot wide, and some Hostas can span as much as five to six feet in width.
Hosta does well across the US—as long as you water them regularly when you initially introduce them to your garden (keeping the roots moist, not sopping wet), once they establish themselves, they are extremely tolerant and forgiving plants.
These shade plants can be found at hardware stores and nurseries across the country and do well if planted with Bleeding Hearts, which bloom early and give their neighbors plenty of time to shine.
6. Bigroot Geranium
Bigroot Geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum) is the hardiest plant on our list. It can be found in shade gardens across the United States. It boasts show-stopping, seven-lobed, grayish-green leaves and produces pink, lavender, or white flowers in the spring (depending on the variation). Bigroot Geraniums are especially sensitive to overwatering, so take care with its water intake and this plant will be the highlight of your shade garden for years.
This variety of Geranium easily survive mild summer droughts and typically grow up to two feet tall. They do well when planted alongside Toad Lilies, a late-blooming fall plant that thrives at the edge of a shade garden.
You can find them at hardware stores and nurseries around the country and in some states, they are so common that you could ask your neighbor for a small cutting and then simply propagate your own.
7. Yellow Corydalis
Yellow Corydalis (Pseudofumaria lutea) is actually native to the Swiss Alps, but it grows particularly well in the US Northwest. It typically grows to be about one foot tall and blooms from late spring until around September. It may look delicate with its small green clusters of leaves and tiny brilliant yellow blooms (the flowers are only about two centimeters long), but Yellow Corydalis is a remarkably tough plant.
The Yellow Corydalis can thrive in both deep shade and full sunlight and can grow almost anywhere in the United States, but has a tough time in northernmost parts of Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. You can find them in specialty nurseries or in seed form online. Plant these bright flowers alongside your deep-green Hosta for an eye-pleasing color combination.