Shrubs for Shade: How to Make the Most of a Shady Garden!

Shrubs for Shade: How to Make the Most of a Shady Garden!

shrubs in shade header

Brighten those shady spots in the landscape with a flowering shrub or the steady verdant hue of evergreens! Large, medium, and small sizes of these woody herbaceous garden standards are available in a dizzying array of flower and leaf colors, plus a wide range of sizes.

Shade can be tricky to find plants that not only survive in shade but also thrive… and look good doing it! Shrubs fill that mid-height range in the landscape, somewhere between trees and perennials. They have all the shade, privacy, wildlife and pollinator perks, plus as much color, blooms and fall color!

Here are Nature Hills Nursery’s top picks for both full shade and that in-between area of partial shade for your garden!

All About Shade Shrubs

Full shade - also known as deep shade - is considered to be 4 or fewer hours of sun a day, or all-day indirect light from larger trees or a structure that blocks the light. light coming through tree

While dappled shade, indirect sun, or filtered light can mean sporadic sunlight all day. Partial shade, part sun can mean direct sun for a few hours a day, with shade the rest of the day. You may have lighting that’s dispersed and not direct, possibly only reflected, throughout the day. All due to a tree canopy, structure or other forms of cover, that block the sun.

There is a distinct difference between shrubs that are ‘shade-loving’ and shrubs that thrive in or need deep shade. Sun is what helps most plants develop strong stems and encourage blossoms and fruit, so it’s rare you’ll see a fruit bush doing well in the shade, with a few exceptions. So the lack of light often leads plants that are not suited for shade to not bloom or grow their best. 

Sometimes the difference between the two is to simply prune away a few large branches from that tree that shades the area, or shear back that hedge blocking the light. But other times, it's unavoidable. damp soil

Another concern gardeners need to watch for is their soil. The lack of sunlight often leads to soil that doesn’t dry out and even stays soggy throughout the year. On the opposite of the spectrum, dense tree cover often keeps rain from reaching the ground, or those large trees have thirsty root systems that lead to a dry shade condition.

Here are some of the best shrubs for shade for all the types of shady conditions you may encounter in your landscape!

Moist to Wet Shade Options dogwood tree

Soggy soil is a challenge, in and of itself! Some wetland shrubs and Hollies are ideal shade and moisture-loving shrubs and many are evergreens with bright red berries. To help dry up these areas, you can plant Willows or Dogwoods that are fast-growing moisture sponges. Plus there’s a wide range of colorful leaves and unique specimens available to brighten your gloomy locations!

A few shrubs like the native Buttonbush and Chokeberry tolerate periodic dry and wet conditions once they’re established. Bright and cheerful Kerria are incredibly versatile shrubs that tolerate full sun, partial shade and even full shade while still maintaining their brilliant golden yellow blossoms to brighten any shady location immensely! buttonbush

This is a tough setting for plants for sure. If you dig a hole in a wet site and the hole fills with water - you should consider adding native soil on top of the existing area to build up that spot where you want to plant - by at least a foot to 18-inches, creating a bermed area and plant in that mound. 

Extra soggy area all the time? Learn to play in the puddles! Create a Rain Garden, water feature, or small pond and plant shrubs around it!

Top Part Shade Shrubs for Moist to Wet Soil

  • Holly Bushes - Inkberry, Winterberry, 
  • Dwarf Blue Leaf Arctic Willow - Fast Growing & Tolerates Heavy Clay Soil
  • Nandina - Also known as Heavenly Bamboo
  • Buttonbush - Native easy-care unique specimen shrub
  • Viburnum - Such as Viburnum lantana - flowers, colorful leaves, and berries for birds
  • Dwarf English Laurel - Great flowering broadleaf-evergreen that’s salt and urban tolerant

part shade wet soil

Top Full Shade Shrubs for Moist to Wet Soil

full shade wet soil

Dry Shade

compost picture

Dry hot and arid weather, or sandy, rocky soil combined with shade can make things very tricky. Perhaps you have a steep slope that sheds water quickly before it can absorb. Maybe it's hard, compacted ground? Either way, you need Xeriscaping and drought-tolerant shrubs in these unique situations. 

Get your plants off on the right foot by adding compost and enriched humusy soil to help absorb and hold more moisture to the site if it’s sandy or rocky, and break up compacted ground. After planting, be sure to top off the area around your plant's root system with 3-4 inches of arborist mulch chips to further hold in more moisture, add humus to the soil as it breaks down, and reduce evaporation, while also insulating the root systems from heat and cold.

Any plant newly installed, whether it is a xeriscape plant or not, will need to be carefully watered in well to get it established before you let them fend for themselves in this dry shade environment.  hostas

Don’t forget to take your lead from nature here and see what is growing well in dry shade where you live and introduce those plants before you give up and turn the area into a gravel bed. 

Often sandy or rocky sites, go ahead and set up a dry stream bed garden or shady Rock garden in these areas and enjoy a water-wise, xeric garden! Skirt them with Hosta which also thrives in these conditions once established.

Top Part Shade Shrubs for Dry Soil

  • Sumac - Great drought and low-moisture tolerant fine texture.
  • Privet - Fast-growing, cold tolerant and Xeric hedges
  • Abelia - Colorful blooming shrubs
  • Elderberry - Lovely foliage and flowers, though reduced blooms and fruit in the shade
  • Red Tip Photinia - Colorful hot climate hedges and flowers

part shade dry soil

Top Full Shade Shrubs for Dry Soil

full shade dry soil

Other Shade Loving Shrubs for Average Soil Conditions Tree providing shade

Not every site is too challenging, so there’s a wide variety of plants that bloom, fruit and just plain look great, in the shade! Locations that are moderately moist, or maybe you are able to provide supplemental moisture, or drainage, where the soil is in good shape, whichever the case may be - all really broaden your choices for those partly sunny locations! 

Remember, the more sun you do have available for your flowering shrubs, the more flowers you’ll enjoy! 

Part Shade/Part Sun

  • Snowberry plants (Symphoricarpos) take shade well. These deciduous flowering shrubs have curious ornamental berries.
  • Bush Honeysuckle (Diervilla) is an interesting, low-growing colonizing deciduous shrub. 
  • Holly varieties love the shade and can perform quite well. Even if you have a variety of Holly that doesn’t fruit, this broadleaved evergreen is a fantastic, handsome shrub!
  • Partial Shade Hydrangeas - Many varieties love the partial shade and do their best in it, especially in hot climates
  • Viburnum dentatum - do very well in part shade, handling more shade in northern climates
  • Compact Oregon Grape Holly - small-sized broadleaf-evergreens with flowers and edible fruit
  • Most Rhododendron and Azalea like Encore® can even tolerate drier shade!

part shade/part sun

Full Shade

  • Full Shade Bush Honeysuckle does well in complete shade producing mostly green leaves (lack of the bronzy color) and sparse flowering but is still a durable
  • Leucothoe has incredibly lovely foliage. Try Girard’s Rainbow or Rainbow Fetterbush for full shade
  • Fothergilla and Witchhazel plants are related, and they are both understory plants that love the cool moist shade. 
  • White Snowberry has gleaming white berries and dramatic foliage
  • Climbing Hydrangea - White blossoms that grow up or as a groundcover
  • Oregon Grape Holly - not only will you enjoy these broadleaf-evergreens year-round but also flowers and edible fruit! 
  • Daphne Marianni® is a gorgeous variegated broadleaf evergreen with fragrant blooms
  • Camellias have incredibly beautiful blossoms and glossy evergreen foliage for hot climates
  • Some Rhododendrons and Azalea

full shade


Use a mix of diverse plants - taller in the back and shorter in the front and include evergreens, and flowering plants for the most attractive border. Let Nature Hills help select plants for your particular climate.

Bird-Friendly bird on shrub

Plant some for the birds! Birds need cover from predators and love the shade as much as you do! So evergreens are important to include in your shrub shade garden, both conifers and broadleaved evergreens. They nest and feast on cones or berries. They also love densely branched plants again for cover. 

They also love flowering plants which attract insects they feed upon. Then the fruiting plants obviously so they have fruit to eat. Viburnums are tops for attracting, sheltering and feeding birds!

Shade and Erosion

Shade-loving erosion control will vary based upon the growing zone you are growing in, and the reason for the erosion. Shallow fibrous-rooted plants that tolerate shade should be mulched well to encourage healthy moisture-retentive soil.  grape holly

Choose groundcover, mat-forming, colonizing and naturalizing plants that thrive in the wet soil erosion or dry soil erosion environments. Using plants with dense surface roots holds soil in place mixed with plants with deeper roots that anchor the soil, work in conjunction to stop eroding soil beautifully! 

A plant like a Diervilla is an incredible, colonizing plant that stays short, has no insect or disease problems, and can flower too! Currants, Oregon Grape, Kinnikinnick and Spicebushes, and even some types of Cotoneaster and Sumac do well in full or partial shade.

Deer Resistant

Oh, Deer! Compounding the already tricky issues that dry or wet shade can hold for your shrubs, adding deer problems can be extra tough! If you don’t fence your whole yard, you can fence individual plants by encasing them in a cylinder of concrete reinforcement wire that is anchored to the ground protecting the trees inside until they are tall enough to be out of reach of deer.  deer rubbing tree with antlers

Remember not only do deer feeding the leaves and twigs can cause damage - but in the fall when the bucks rub their antlers on the trunks of trees they can completely strip the bark from the trunks killing the tree (if the bark is destroyed all around the trunk). Some parts of the north even have to contend with Moose and Elk!

Obviously selecting plants that deer do not prefer is a good idea if you live in an area with many deer. If deer populations are high, and food is scarce, deer may eat just about anything just to survive. Look around your neighborhood and see what deer are sparing in your neighbor's yards for a baseline, and your local County Extension Office is always a great resource!

Once you have planted any plant in your yard, especially those in areas with high deer populations - beginning the very first day need to spray all plants with an inexpensive deer repellent so when that deer saunter into the yard and sample they will be reminded they do not like that plant.

Great Deer Resistant Shade-Loving Shrubs

Nothing is truly deer-proof unfortunately, but these aren’t high on their nibble list.

  • Japanese Pieris
  • Bayberry Bushes
  • Some Holly are resistant and have sharp leaves
  • Barberry has thorns
  • Boxwood - Wintergreen, Pernyi, Nellie Stevens, Japanese Holly & Blue Holly 

deer resistant shade

Happy Planting in the Shade!

Work with your yard's problem areas by choosing plants that naturally fill that niche! These plants not only survive but thrive in the shade! Enlivening the gloom with vivid colorful foliage that more than make up for any lack of flowers. Besides, anything green is a vast improvement to the darkness!

So grab your mosquito repellent and get planting in the shade with the help of!

Happy Planting!

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