How To Design A Marvelous Shade Garden

How To Design A Marvelous Shade Garden

Shade Garden With Fountain

If your landscape has mature shade trees, faces north, or only receives direct sun a few hours a day, you're on the right blog post! Read on to discover how to design the perfect shade garden and fall in love with your low-light backyard again.

Think shade gardens are colorless and boring? Think again! A carefully planned full shade garden can be just as interesting as a sunny garden, with the added benefit of being enjoyably cool during warm summer days.

Garden design for shady spots can vary quite a bit, depending on the type of shade you have. You'll also need to understand the micro-climates found in your yard.

Types of Shade

Shrub Path

First, determine the quality of your shade. This will determine which plants may be suited to add to your design.

Dense shade is cast by taller, low-branches evergreens like Pine and Hemlock. Smaller, low-branched trees like Dogwood and Redbud allow more light, but the shade they cast on smaller perennials and low shrubs may still be considered deep.

In this situation, you can look for seasonal opportunities to add color. If your trees are deciduous, try planting spring bulbs that can flower before the leaves unfurl. Once the threat of frost is past, bring out your pots of tropical houseplants - or add tender bulbs each year - to add color and interest.

Medium shade is found under trees with high, widely spaced branches. There is still plenty of light nearby, but no direct sun. The same condition can be found on the north side of homes. Lots of skyshine, but no direct sun.

Many sun loving plants will live in medium shade - even roses - but they may not bloom. You may have found this to be the case in your yard, if you have trees that have matured up around older plantings.

You can move your full sun plants and look for perennials and small shrubs that prefer part shade. Landscapes in shade can be improved into a restful oasis.

Another option many people consider is to prune the mature trees to allow more sun to reach the lower levels. Take out a few of the principal branches, or limb them up by removing lower branches.

Partial shade is also partial sun. These are areas that receive direct sunlight at least 3 hours a day. Narrow trees such as Poplars cast intermittent shade, and trees with tiny leaves - such as Shademaster Honeylocust - cast light shade.

Does your yard receive abundant rainfall, or experience dry conditions? Moist soils in shade conditions provide you an opportunity to create shade-filled woodland glens. Dry soils in shade conditions can still provide beauty and ease of maintenance with plants like Fragrant Valley Sweet Box.

The key to success is growing what works for your space. Understanding the light requirements of plants is easy with Nature Hills's Plant Highlights listed on every product page. You can also easily filter your results to find plants that work for your specific Growing Zone.

Shade Garden Design Tips

It can be helpful to start by thinking in terms of layers. Begin with the tall shade canopy of your largest trees, then add an understory layer of smaller accent trees, such as Japanese Maples. Next comes large and smaller shrubs, then non-woody perennials and finally to the ground level groundcovers.

Here are some tried and true tips to achieve a marvelous get-a-way in unexpected places:

Focus on Foliage, Texture and Color


Take your shady garden bed to the next level by incorporating different textures and colors. Ferns and plants with variegated leaves will quickly add interest. Rely on foliage plants that work in shady areas to carry your design through the summer.

Plant textures range from rough to fine. Keep the contrast of textures in mind as you select your plants. Rough textured plants will anchor the design. Open, airy plants will draw the eye along and visually lighten the planting.

Even green has different shades that should be considered when planning the flow of your Shade Garden. Add spring color from bulbs and shrubs, rely on foliage in summer, and enjoy the contrast in texture all winter long.

Cut Back on the Lawn

Even the most shade-tolerant lawn grasses can look patchy and unsightly in a full shade garden. Instead of “forcing it,” replace your lawn in full shade areas with some nice landscaping using pavers, shade tolerant shrubs, or shade-loving groundcovers for a lawn-like look and feel.

Create a Relaxation Zone

What’s the point of designing a shade garden if you can’t sit out and enjoy it? Add another dimension to your shade garden by putting in a hammock or garden bench with some colorful cushions. It will create the perfect space to relax with some iced tea and a good book.

Add a Water Feature

The nice thing about a full shade garden is you don’t have to worry as much about water evaporating or heating up in the sun. Your shady garden is therefore the perfect place to install a water fountain, a small garden pond, or even a simple bird bath. Don’t be surprised if it becomes a magnet for thirsty backyard birds looking to escape the summer heat! Shady water garden are an oasis during the hot summer.

Incorporate Mirrors and Garden Art

A well-placed mirror will brighten up even the shadiest places in your garden and will even make your garden space appear bigger. Add even more interest with some garden art. From urns to orbs, a nice art piece will help draw the eye and fill in any unsightly or bare areas.

Perennials that Thrive in Shade

Perennial PathSome of our favorite plants are made for the shade! Fall in love with your shady garden again by adding a few of these low-light shade plant performers:


Hostas are a shade gardener’s go-to perennial, and for good reason! Their beautiful broad leaves give off a lush, tropical vibe, and they come in a wide array of colors and patterns. They also have some beautiful, often fragrant, pale flowers. Hostas are extremely easy to care for in shady spots, and adaptable to many climates, as long as they’re kept out of the sun. Try varieties like ‘Patriot’ or ‘Halcyon’ for a unique look. Generally hardy in zones 3-9. 

Heuchera (Coral Bells)

Vying for the top “shade garden plant” spot are Heucheras, also known as “Coral Bells.” These shade loving perennials add color in shady areas. They come in an even greater variety of foliage colors and textures, and their delicate bell-shaped flowers are beautiful too! Heucheras are very easy to maintain, and their compact stature makes them perfect for filling in empty spaces. Plant your Heuchera towards the front of your garden beds where you can easily enjoy their pretty colors and flowers. Generally hardy in zones 3-9. 


It’s impossible to describe a shady garden without mentioning Ferns! These plants are known for their tropical appeal, and fortunately many of them are also very cold hardy. Ferns are perfect for adding soft texture to the shady garden, and they thrive in soggy, wet soil. Try the very cold tolerant ‘Ostrich Fern’ (zones 3-9), or the brightly colored ‘Autumn Brilliance’ fern (zones 5-9). 


With their brightly colored, feathery plumed flowers, Astilbe are an ideal choice for shady gardens, wherever you need a pop of color. These flashy perennials bloom all summer long, and come in a wide variety of colors, from pure white to bright orange, pink and even purple. Astilbe are widely adaptable to different soil conditions and can be grown just about any place where they receive enough shade. Hardy in zones 4-8. 

Groundcovers for Shade

Periwinkle (Vinca)

The aptly-named Periwinkle is a pretty vining groundcover that blooms in pretty shades of light blue and purple. They look delicate, but periwinkle are very drought tolerant and cold hardy, and will quickly fill in empty areas where you plant them, like a living mulch. 


A wide array of patterns and textures make these small flowering plants incredibly ornamental. Lamium will thrive even in dry shade and quickly spread to cover ground. You'll appreciate this "living carpet" edging the beds of your shade garden. 

Shrubs for Shade

Azalea and Rhododendrons

Azaleas and other Rhododendrons are the ideal shrub for a shady garden. Unlike most flowering shrubs, these plants thrive in full shade. And when they bloom in early-mid spring, they will dazzle you with their colorful displays of pink and purple flowers. Even when not in bloom, these shrubs are very attractive with dark green, glossy foliage and a rounded habit. Generally hardy in Zones 6-9.

Golden Guinea Kerria

Kerria is a flowering shrub that deserves to be a lot more popular! It is sometimes known as “Japanese Rose” or “Easter Rose.” These shrubs are wonderfully fragrant when they burst into bloom in mid-spring, and their bright yellow flowers will brighten up any garden in full or partial shade. Kerria stems stay green all winter, adding a bit of interest during the cold months. Hardy in Zones 4-9. 

Red Twigged Dogwood

If you are looking for year-round appeal in your shade garden, the Red Twigged Dogwood is the ideal choice. These pretty shrubs show off white flowers in early spring, followed by light green foliage that turns bright yellow in autumn. In winter, they show off with bright red stems that seem to glow against the snow. Dogwood shrubs are very easy to care for, and thrive in full or partial shade. Hardy in Zones 3-9. 


Available in a wide variety of shapes, Yews are a wonderful plant to give balance to your shade garden design. Long-lived and easy care, these workhorses are popular for good reason. Generally hardy in Zones 4 - 7. 

If you have questions, it's always a good idea to try your local Ag Extension office, where they'll know the ins and outs of your local climate. Enjoy!


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