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Many gardeners complain that they can’t grow any plants in the shade other than hostas and ferns. Not true! Here are 10 beautiful shade plants from my own garden—plus a list of perennial flowers and annual flowers for shade!
Shade gardens bring to mind hostas and ferns and perhaps some astilbe. However, plenty of gorgeous, unique, colorful plants seek shady nooks. Most are also old-hardy and need little maintenance once they are planted correctly.
10 Best Shade Plants for the Garden
1. Heuchera (Coral Bells)
My shade garden is colorful and work-free. I started with heuchera, commonly known as Coral Bells. Foliage color is their strength, ranging from washed amber of ‘Ginger Ale’ to the glossy black-red of ‘Black Beauty’. Add a couple unusual ones like ‘Midnight Rose’ with hot pink-splashed black leaves or the vivid orange of ‘Peach Flambe’, and you don’t need flowers.
They keep the color and same through the year. They’re slug-proof and deer hate them. Plus, their tiny flowers which appear in midspring attract hummingbirds! They turn brown by mid-summer and should be removed along with old leaves. Cut a few flower stalks and three or four leaves for a quick, hi-impact bouquet when blooms are at their peak.
Coral Bells are easy to plant and grow. I only have to add plenty of humus to the soil and mulch thickly with wood chips. Even -27F in the winter doesn’t faze them.
Who needs flowers when brilliantly-colored heuchera leaves supply plenty in the shade year-round with little care. Photo courtesty of Terra Nova Nurseries.
I also found a host of other plants that were just as tough and lit up the north and northeast borders of against my house. They also are unattractive to deer and slugs. Here are the ones in my garden and why I love them.
2. Black Bugbane (also called Black Cohosh and Black Baneberry)
Dark-purple, almost black foliage is gorgeous and retains its color all season. Then tall, furry white flowers grow above the foliage in late summer, adding architectural style. Use dark colored foliage plants to create “shadows” between other plants to provide dimension.
The first buds open, covered with snow, in late winter. Flowers are still on plants in July. But, they brown and tatter. Plan on cleaning up old flowers and leaves from them and heuchera after the Fourth of July.
4. Bleeding Heart
Who doesn’t love the arched sprays of tiny pink hearts that cover plants in early spring. If weather stays cool, the flowers remain for weeks. Lacy foliage goes dormant in early summer, making room for later flowering plants like Bugbane and Thalictrum. See how to grow Bleeding Heart.
5. Hakonechloa & Carex grasses
These grasses pop with color, are tidy in growth and add a different texture to the shade garden filled with big broad leaves.
Hakonechloa creates an appealing bright spot in the shady or woodland garden.
6. Thalictrum (Meadow Rue)
Thalictrum provides floral interest in my shade garden after Bleeding Heart and various primroses have ended their bloom cycles. I love Black-stemmed Thalictrum ‘Black Stockings’ which starts growing and sending up tall stalks (5-6 feet) about the time Bleeding Heart is going into dormancy. Place them nearby so that Thalictrum’s emerging growth covers Bleeding Heart’s dying leaves. Fluffy pink blooms last for weeks.
My calming shade garden. Color is import so are quiet companions.
My favorites are Dre’s Dagger and ‘Silver Falls’, a Japanese painted fern. Ostrich ferns, are great, too, but be mindful that they grow tall and spread. They’re perfect for creating a fern dell, as I have in part of my shade garden.
If you’re looking for ferns with color, look up the “Lady in Red” cultivar which has striking bright red stalks and delicate lacy fronds. Or, check out the autumn fern Brilliance which is coppery pink in spring and then goes to green in summer and colors up again in autumn.
My fern dell is a work in progress. A peony division I planted last summer flowered this spring in the north-northeast exposure.
8. Solomon’s Seal
This shade-loving perennial (Polygonatum odoratum) grows on low, gracefully arching stems with pale green leaves edged in white. In spring, white bell flowers dangle from the stem. It’s rarely bothered by insects or disease, deer-resistant, and grows well under trees.
9. Dianthus (Pinks)
An old-fashioned favorite, perennial dianthus (commonly known as “pinks”) and ignored by deer and attract pollinating insects, butterflies and hummingbirds with their nectar!
There are many many varieties of dianthus including Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), chedder pinks (Dianthus grataniapolitensis), Chinese pinks (Dianthus chinensis), alpine pinks (Dianthus alpinus), and, of course, the one you will see most often, garden pinks (Dianthus plumaris).
Astilbe is a perennial with beautiful, showy flowers atop glossy, fern-like foliage. A deer-resistant plant, astilbe come in many colors and look best when planted in groupings (versus alone). They also offer interesting textures as the seasons change.
Astilbes’ flower clusters vary in size from 6 inches to 2 feet and their height ranges from 6 inches to 5 feet, depending on the variety. If you have a shady area, astilbes are a great way to add color and texture to a place where other flowers won’t thrive.
The hosta, of course, is the quintessential shade plant. For deer, however, hosta plants are like candy. If you do not have deer, hostas are wonderful plants that come in peaceful shades of green, blue, and yellow—with variegated leaves or solid leaves.
While it’s easy to get carried away with fancy colorful flowers, remember that a shade garden’s strength is as a calming place. Keep that comforting feeling by making sure you separated different kinds of showy plants or variegated plants with quieter companions like this quintennsial shade plant.
Here’s a fuller list of perennial plants for shade. Perennials forming the backbone of your garden, coming back year after year.
Asters (blue wood is gorgeous, as is white wood)
Bear’s Breeches (Acanthus mollis)
Bee Balm (Monarda)
Brunnera (aka false forget-me-not)
Hydrangea (some varieties)
Lamium, White Nancy
Lamium Hermann’s Pride
Phlox divaricata, Phlox stolonifera
Annual Plants for Shade
Here’s a short list of great annual shade plants to consider. Annual flowers add color and interest and fun during the gardening season. (Some can be perennials in warmer climates.)
Baby Blue Eyes
Copper plant (Acalypha wilkesiana)
Wishbone Flower (Torenia)
Understanding Shade Definitions
When we speak about “shade plants,” we are generally talking about plants that grow in “partial shade” (a few hours a day) or dappled shade, not “deep shade” where even indirect light rarely penetrates. Take a look at your garden and consider how many hours of light it receives. Of course, your plants will also tell you when they don’t get enough light with weak stems or browned leaves.
Doreen Howard, an award-winning author, is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day. She has gardened in every climate zone from California to Texas to Oklahoma to the Midwest. She’s especially fond of unusual houseplants and heirloom edibles. Read More from Doreen G. Howard