Shade Plants

In a city with so many large trees and heavy rains, there are many difficult, shady planting areas.

Dry Shade

Dry shade often occurs beneath conifers or deciduous trees. In this situation, new plants have to compete for water with an established tree. Dry shade can also occur under the eves of houses.

In dry shade situations, there is usually a period of some moisture in the winter and early spring. Take advantage of this period by planting new starts. This moist time helps the plants settle in. Greatest success comes when the new plants receive some water through the hot summer, so they can establish a good root system. This root system helps the plants to survive drought in coming years. The following list of plants is suitable for dry shade.

Mulch beds to help maintain soil moisture, and promotes healthy soil microbes. We recommend mulching with compost at least once a year in the fall.

If tree roots are too dense, cover planting area with 6-8” of compost and soil mixture. Plant directly into this mix. Lift plants and replenish soil mixture every five years. In addition, you can put down some synthetic or metal screening over the tree roots to prevent them from growing into your new planting. Then put down 6-8” of compost and soil mix. Shallow rooted plants work very well under heavily rooted trees.

Wet Shade

Wet shade can be a poorly drained corner, a stream-side, or truly boggy soils. In these areas the soil is perpetually moist which could be a result of natural water flow, low lying or sunken areas, or spots near down spouts.

An area is often termed as wet shade due to heavy soil and poor drainage. In all cases of shade, mix in compost with the existing soil before planting. Keep in mind that digging in wet soil can lead to compaction, so remember to tread lightly!

In addition to adding compost to your soil, you can also add pumice to improve drainage. Try to avoid walking in areas of wet shade as much as possible. Walking on wet soil can lead to soil compaction.

Provide drainage for rain and run off. You can edge your beds with a trench and backfill with gravel to help create an exit route for excess water. This water will need a destination so you can direct it out of the garden, create a pond, or dry well.

Clean up fallen leaves in autumn so they do not retain too much moisture over the wet winter. If you mulch, go lightly: about 1”. Using compost as mulch can help increase drainage because it will attract worms to aerate the soil.

Combination of degrees of shade

If you have a combination situations, such as dry deep shade under a conifer, look for plants listed in both categories. Cultural tips for establishing new plants are outlined in the tips for tough shade section. Please keep in mind that plants are subject to seasonal availability.

See our page on Underplanting a Tree for suggestions.

Embrace shade! So many books and articles talk as if gardening in the shade is harder than gardening in the sun.

Quite the contrary! Shade gardens often invoke serenity, relaxation, and a retreat from hot summer days. There is a huge diversity of plants to give the shade garden a full and vibrant feel that compares to the sun garden.

Learn how to read the shade in your garden and dip into the plant pallet for shade. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the shade.

Shades of Shade:

Key points to assessing the degrees of shade.

Before determining plant selection, figure out the degree of shade in different parts of your garden by assessing the amount (how many hours) and intensity (time of day) of sunlight for each area. Sometimes this may take some trial and error to truly discover the correct interpretation. Also, one spot in the garden may suddenly receive direct sun at 1PM at the height of summer and be shaded the rest of the year.

Part Sun/Shade: 1-5 hours of direct sun per day.

Morning Sun: direct sun in the garden for 15 hours before 1:00pm.

The ideal situation for most plants sold as shade plants. This setting is usually delineated by a structure or dense trees to the West and South which blocks the hot afternoon sun.

Afternoon Sun: 1-3 hours of sun after 1:00pm.

This type of part shade is a bit trickier. Many shade plants will burn with hot afternoon sun, and luckily many plants sold as sun plants can thrive in morning shade and perform better than shade plants. This setting is usually delineated by structures and/or trees to the east, west, or south.

Filtered Shade/Dappled Shade: Like the light in the forest, the sun twinkles through the trees all day with no large pockets of direct sun.

Woodland plants are often best suited to this situation. Luckily there are woodlands all over the world, so the plant pallet has become quite diverse. This type of shade often has the added situation of tree roots which can compete for nutrients and water.

Deep Shade: less than 1 hour of sun all day.

A little trickier situation with a narrower plant palate. This type of shade is often delineated by dense trees and structures blocking out most of the sun. It commonly occurs between houses close together and patios and porches. Deep or full shade does not receive any direct sun all day, but may have light. For example, the north side of a house, which only receives reflected light, is deep shade.

Areas of deep shade receive no direct sun in the height of the season. In dappled shade, some light filters through and there are more possibilities than listed here. Prepare deep shade areas for planting by first adding compost to the existing soil.

Remove lower limbs of trees or shrubs to help open an area to allow more light through or create planting pockets.

Shade Planting

Want a copy of this article?
Click to print.

Plants for Dry Shade

  • Acer circinatum - Vine Maple. Our native maple which can grow 6-20’ tall.
  • Asarum caudatum - Wild Ginger. A creeping ground cover with secret flowers.
  • Bergenia spp. - Evergreen, white or pink flowers.
  • Crocus species
  • Dicentra formosa - Native Bleeding Heart.
  • Epimedium spp. - A weaving ground cover, shallow rooted.
  • Erythronium spp. - Dog-tooth violet, Fawn lily. Summer dormant.
  • Euphorbia robiae - Evergreen runner.
  • Galanthus spp. - Snowdrops. Summer dormant.
  • Helleborus orientalis. - Water in the first season is crucial.
  • Hosta spp. - Water the first season.
  • Iris douglasiana or I. tenax - Pacific Coast iris. Tolerant of partial shade.
  • Lamium spp. - A shallow rooted ground cover. Great under densely rooted trees.
  • Linnea borealis - Twin flower. A vining native ground cover, evergreen.
  • Liriope spp. - Evergreen. Shallow rooted.
  • Mahonia nervosa and M. repens - Oregon grape. Shallow rooted. Native!
  • Narcissus spp. - Daffodil.
  • Ompheloides spp. - Deciduous ground cover.
  • Ophiopogon japonica - Mondo grass. Low, evergreen ground cover. Shallow roots.
  • Oxalis oregana - Wood sorrel. Native ground cover.
  • Pachysandra terminalis - Shallow rooted.
  • Polystichum munitum - Sword Fern.
  • Native Sarcococca spp. - Small shrubs 6”-3’ tall.
  • Saxifraga stolonifera - Shallow rooted.
  • Smilacina racemosa - False Solomon’s Seal.
  • Symphytum spp. - Comfrey. Can be invasive if dug after planting.
  • Viola labradorica - Readily reseeds.

Plants for Wet Shade

Plant selection is key. Not all shade plants like wet feet. Native forest plants that grow near streams will thrive.

  • Acer circinatum - Vine Maple
  • Acorus spp. - Evergreen, grass-like.
  • Aruncus spp. - Goat’s Beard. Mid spring blooms.
  • Astilbe spp. - Bright summer blooms.
  • Calthea spp. - Early yellow flowers. Spreads readily.
  • Carex - Soft grasses. Some are evergreen.
  • Cornus stolonifera - Red Twig Dogwood. Deciduous shrub. Great by streams.
  • Gunnera manicata - Loves pond edges.
  • Fillipendula spp. - Part shade
  • Juncus effusa - Tolerates standing water.
  • Lamium spp. - ground cover.
  • Ligularia spp. - Fun foliage, late blooms.
  • Lobelia cardinalis - Red summer blooms.
  • Metasequoia glyptostroboides - Dawn Redwood. Deciduous conifer reaching 50-80’ tall. Part shade.
  • Mimulus spp. - Monkey flower.
  • Ompheloides spp. - Deciduous ground cover with blue flowers in spring.
  • Pachysandra terminalis - Evergreen ground cover. Shallow rooted.
  • Petasites spp. - Running plants with large leaves.
  • Polygonatum spp. - Solomon’s seal. Does not tolerate standing water.
  • Rodgersia spp. - Large leaves. Loves stream sides and pond edges.
  • Veratrum spp. - False Hellebore. Excellent foliage plant. Requires at least four hours of direct sun.
  • Zantedeschia - Calla Lily. Large white flowers. Requires at least 4-6 hours of direct sun.

Plants for Deep Shade

Use bright and variegated foliage or gazing balls and mirrors to create the illusion of light. Select a plant palate that includes large leaves and glossy evergreens.

  • Acanthopanax s. ‘Variegata’ - Deciduous shrub 8-10’.
  • Acer palmatum - Variegated varieties.
  • Asarum canadensis - Wild Ginger. A creeping ground cover.
  • Aucuba spp. - Evergreen shrub reaching 8-10’ tall and wide.
  • Corydalis spp. - Blue flowers in spring. Will not tolerate dry or wet shade.
  • Fatshedera spp. - A vining evergreen with large palmate leaves.
  • Fuchsia - Small flowered F. magellanica varieties tolerate deep shade.
  • Hosta spp. - non-variegated varieties.
  • Lamium spp. - Shallow rooted ground cover.
  • Liriope spp. - Evergreen grass like plant with lilac flowers.
  • Lonicera spp. - Evergreen shrubs reaching 3-6’ tall and wide.
  • Mahonia nervosa, M. repens - Oregon grape. Evergreen. 1-3’ tall.
  • Narcissus spp. - Daffodil
  • Sarcococca spp. - Small evergreen shrubs 6”-3’ tall.
  • Tsuga spp. - Hemlock. A large group of conifers that thrive in the shade.
  • Viola spp. - Early spring flowers.