Not everyone is blessed with a bright, sunny, south-facing garden. If you’re living in close-quarters with your neighbours, or have an outdoor space that’s mostly sheltered by your home, you might think that growing happy, healthy flowers is off the table. Fortunately, that’s not at all the case, and today we’re going to look at tips for growing a shade garden with a variety of stunning plants.
What counts as a shade garden?
First, here’s a quick reminder that there are three kinds of sun exposure when you’re outside:
- Full sun is when an area gets at least 6 hours of direct sunlight between 10am and 6pm.
- An area in partial shade gets between 3-6 hours of direct sunlight, or 6 hours of indirect sunlight (that might be filtered through a tree canopy or screen).
- Full shade applies to an area that gets less than 3 hours of direct sunlight on a typical day, if any.
The Royal Horticultural Society goes further, differentiating between dappled shade, moderate shade, light shade and deep/heavy shade.
Full shade could be caused by the position of your garden, shelter from taller plants or due to nearby buildings, fences and/or structures.
The challenges of growing a shade garden
The main difficulty of trying to cultivate a beautiful garden in the shade is that most plants need at least some direct sunlight to stay healthy. They’ll compete for any available light, and will often grow slowly, become leggy, or struggle to flower without enough. Gardens that are more or less in full shade aren’t great for growing crops – although there are vegetables that can be grown in partial light.
The other main challenge is that larger plants can monopolise the nutrients in your soil, reducing its quality for anything else. This is something to keep in mind if your garden shade is caused by nearby trees or hedges.
Some general tips to remember for growing a healthy shade garden:
- Improving your soil condition will compensate slightly for lack of light.
- The soil near buildings will be better quality than the soil surrounding trees or hedges.
- Evergreen foliage is too dense for sufficient sunlight to pass through.
- The strongest direct light is around midday – some plants will benefit from this, while others will burn.
- Plants will actively tolerate or try to avoid shade as they grow.
The best plants for growing a shade garden
Which plants should you choose if you want a garden that thrives without full sun? Here are my top picks of plants that deliver great visuals, require relatively low maintenance and won’t sulk on a cloudy, shady day.
- Perennial flowers
Flowers are the fastest way to a beautiful garden, although finding blooms that tolerate the shade can be tricky. Perennial flowers are generally more hardy than annuals, and come with the added benefit of being far less maintenance as they reappear each spring without needing to be replanted. Grow them in fertile soil with plenty of compost to balance out sandiness and dryness, and shelter them from the strongest midday sun. The top perennial flowers when you’re growing a shade garden are yarrow, black-eyed Susan, columbine, bleeding hearts and astilbe.
- Ornamental grasses
Ornamental grasses are a great addition to any garden, fitting a modern aesthetic just as well as a traditional one. They’re perfect for adding texture and volume between your flowers and – most importantly – will tolerate a good degree of shade. Reed canary grass, sedge, sesleria and Korean feather reed grass are beautiful choices.
Hostas come in hundreds of varieties, recognisable by their large, often variegated leaves. Their beautiful foliage can cover shady garden beds in low-forming clumps, and their flowers are great for attracting butterflies, bees and other pollinators.
Caladium is often treated as a houseplant, but their stunning leaves (that come in red, green, pink and white) deserve a cool spot in your shady garden. They’ll grow well in garden borders or in pots on a patio or deck.
Potted shrubs, or shrub borders is a good way to add greenery and foliage to an otherwise modern and minimalist garden. There are lots of varieties that will tolerate partial shade, including classic plants like common box, cherry laurel (a popular choice for replacing fences), rhododendron shrubs, bearberry and firethorn.
- Climbing plants
Climbing plants can be a little touch-and-go when you’re growing a shade garden. Many require at least partial light, but will reach up to find their own sunlight. There are self-clinging climbing plants, as well as wall shrubs that can be manually trained to cover a wall. Clematis, jasmine, ivy, honeysuckle and certain varieties of roses can all look (and smell) stunning in a shady garden.