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Shade Gardening

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Some plants thrive in shade. You can still have a garden even if all you have is shade. Just know, plants that thrive in shade are not the same plants that thrive in sunlight.

A shade garden is defined by the outlines of shadows cast by buildings, walls and fences, trees, and shrubs.

Hostas and fern in a full shade garden
Hostas and fern in a full shade garden

Types of sun and shade

Not all shade is the same. There are categories of shade. Here are the basic types of shade gardeners commonly refer to:

  • Full shade. This is ground that gets less than four hours of sun per day. The number of plants that can grow in full shade is limited; they include azaleas, caladium, and lily-of-the-valley.
  • Part shade or part sun. These terms mean the same; you can add partial sun or partial shade. This is ground that gets at least four hours of direct sun a day—usually in the morning or late afternoon. To this category you can add ground that get dappled sun all day—that is sun mixed with shade as you might find under a large tree. In hot summer regions, part shade can be a good thing. The key is that enough light reaches plants that morning dew evaporated before sunset.
  • Full sun. This term applies to ground that gets six or more hours of full, direct sun a day. Plants that need full sun can not get by without at least six hours of direct sun; plants that need partial shade do not want more than six hours of sun direct sun each day.
Flowering plants are absent from a shaded garden
Flowering plants are absent from a shaded garden

Light and shade in your garden

Observing the sun and shade in your garden is important. If your garden is not sunny all day, it’s good to know when and where the shade falls.

Keep in mind, the angle of the sun changes over the course of the day and also over the course of the year. Shadows are longer and deeper in the morning and evening, just as they are even longer and deeper in autumn and winter than in spring and summer.

Make a sun and shadow map or your garden. Note the times of day it is sunny and shady and where. Update this map once a month. If you are planting shrubs and perennials this map can aid your design decisions.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Large, flat surface areas such as the side of a house, driveways, walkways, and patios will reflect light and increase sunlight exposure in adjacent planting beds.
  • The north side of the house is almost always in shadow or part shadow; this is a good spot for shade-loving plants.
  • The south side of the house is almost always in sunlight unless trees grow nearby to shade the area.
  • Morning light is softer than afternoon light. The afternoon light is more intense.
  • Some trees such as conifers and other evergreens create dense shade while other loosely limbed and leaved trees allow sunlight to filter through.
  • Shade under deciduous trees will be less in autumn and winter than in spring and summer.
  • In southern regions sunlight is more intense than in northern regions. In the Southwest, some plants will thrive with more shade than in other parts of the country. Consider the intensity of sunlight and hot temperatures.
  • Sunlight is more intense at higher altitudes. Plants at high elevations receive more intense sunlight.

Shade and sun plant indicators

Keep an eye on the plants in your garden, they will tell you quite a bit about sun and shade:

  • If plants get too much sun, leaves will wilt shortly after watering.
  • If the sun is too intense, leaves will get whitish sunburn spots and even turn brown and crisp.
  • If a spot is too shady, plants will grow tall, spindly, weak, and foliage will be sparse. Plants will lean toward the light.
  • If a spot is too shady, plants may be leafy but will not flower.
  • If plants do not get enough sun they will be susceptible to mildew and fungal diseases.

Sun-shade test

If you are unsure how much sun or shade a spot in the garden gets, try this: plant an impatiens, a red salvia, and a marigold next to each other After about 8 weeks, the marigold will be thriving if it’s sunny; if the salvia is growing better than the other two plants, it’s part sun. If the impatiens is thriving and not wilting, you have full shade.

Bleeding heart flower, Dicentra spectabilis alba, and hostas in full shade garden
Bleeding heart flower, Dicentra spectabilis alba, and hostas in full shade garden

Annuals and perennials that thrive in full shade

Common NameBotanical NameZones
Arum, ItalianArum italicum6-10
AstilbeAstilbe spp.3-8
Bleeding heartDicentra spp.3-9
BugbaneCimicifuga spp.3-8
Cast iron plantAspidistra elatior8-10
Christmas roseHelleborus niger3-9
ColeusSolenostemum scuttellarioidesAnnual
EpimediumEpimedium spp.4-9
HostaHosta cultivars3-8
ImpatiensImpatiens spp.Annual
Lenten roseHelleborus orientalis4-9
LigulariaLigularia spp.Annual
Pigsqueak, BergeniaBergenia spp.3-8
Pulmonaria, LungwortPulmonaria saccharata3-8
Virginia bluebellsMertensia virginica3-7
Hellebore, Helleborus argutifolius in the part shade garden
Hellebore, Helleborus argutifolius in the part shade garden

Annuals and perennials that thrive in part shade

Common NameBotanical NameZones
AgapanthusAgapanthus spp.8-10
AjugaAjuga spp.3-9
Amethyst flowerBrowallia speciosaAnnual
Begonia, hardyBegonia grandis6-10
Begonia, waxBegonia x semperflorens-cultorumAnnual
Brunnera, heart-leafDicentra spp.3-9
Cardinal flowerLobelia spp.2-9
ColumbineAquilegia spp.3-9
Coral bellsHeuchera sanguinea3-9
CorydalisCorydalis spp.4-8
CupflowerNierembergia spp.Annual
Cyclamen, hardyCyclamen hederifolium7-9
DaylilyHemerocallis spp.3-10
Dead nettle, spottedLamium maculatum3-9
Flowering tobaccoNicotiana spp.Annual
Foam Flower, AlleghenyTiarella cordifolia4-9
Forget-me-not, ChineseCynogolssum amabileAnnual
Forget-me-not, WoodlandMyosotis sylvaticaAnnual
FoxgloveDigitalis purpurea4-8
FuchsiaFuchsia spp.8-10
Geranium, hardyGeranium spp.3-8
GoatsbeardAruncus dioicus3-7
GoldenstarChrysogonum virginianum5-9
HelleboreHelleborus spp.5-9
Kafir lily; cliviaClivia miniata9-11
Lady’s mantleAlchemilla mollis4-7
Lily-of-the-valleyConvallaria majalis3-8
LilyturfLiriope muscari7-10
MimulusMimulus x hybridusAnnual
Mondo grassOphiopogon japonicus7-9
Money plant; honestyLunaria annua4-8
MonkshoodAcontium spp.3-7
Obedient plantPhysostegia virginiana2-9
PansyViola x wittrockianaAnnual
Phlox, creepingPhlox stolonifera2-4
PrimrosePrimula spp.3-8
Queen-of-the-prairieFilipendula rubra3-8
Salvia, annual redSalvia splendensAnnual
Sweet alyssumLobularia maritimaAnnual
TrilliumTrillium spp.4-8
Turtlehead, pinkChelone lyonii3-8
Vinca, periwinkleVinca spp.Varies
VioletViola spp.Varies
Wishbone flowerTorenia fournieriAnnual
Shaded border of shrubs and perennials
Shaded border of shrubs and perennials

Shrubs that grow in shade

Common NameBotanical NameZones
Acuba, JapaneseAcuba japonica7-10
BoxwoodBuxus spp.Varies
DaphneDaphne spp.Varies
Euonymous, JapaneseEuonymous japonica7-9
GardeniaGardenia jasminoides8-10
HollyIlex spp.Varies
HoneysuckleLonicera pileata5-9
Laurel, cherryPrunus laurocerasus6-9
Leucothoe, droopingLeucothoe fontanesiana5-8
Magnolia, southernMagnolia grandiflora6-10
MahoniaMahonia spp.Varies
Mountain laurelKalmia latifolia4-9
PierisPieris spp.Varies
Pittosporum, JapanesePittosporum tobira8-10
Rhododendrons and azaleasRhododendron spp. and hybridsVaries
Skimmia, JapaneseSkimmia japonica6-9
Sweet oliveOsmanthus spp.8-9
Viburnum, sweetViburnum odoratissimum8-10
Dwarf Cryptomeria lines long shaded drive
Dwarf Cryptomeria lines long shaded drive

Conifers that grow in shade

Common NameBotanical NameZones
Cryptomeria, JapaneseCryptomeria japonica6-8
False cypressChamaecyparis spp.Varies
Incense cedarCalocedurs decurrens5-8
Hemlock, CanadaTsuga canadensis3-7
Podocarpus; yew pinePodocarpus macrophyllus8-10
Spruce, whitePicea glauca2-6
YewTaxus spp.4-7
Yew, Japanese plumCephalotaxus harringtonia6-9
Climbing hortensia (Hydrangea petiolaris) climbing a tree

Vines that grow in shade

Common NameBotanical NameZones
Clematis, large-floweredClematis x hybrida3-9
Clematis, sweet autumnClematis ternifolia4-9
Cross vineBignonia capreolata6-9
Honeysuckle, goldflameLonicera x heckrottii4-9
Hydrangea, climbingHydrangea petiolaris4-7
Ivy, EnglishHedera helix5-9
Jasmine, MadagascarStephanotis floridunda10-11
Silver lace vinePolygonum aubertii4-9
Trumpet creeperCampsis radicans4-9
Virginia creeperParthenocissus quinquefolia4-9
Naked ladies, Lycoris, in shade
Naked ladies, Lycoris, in shade

Bulbs that grow in shade

Common NameBotanical NameZones
AgapanthusAgapanthus hybrids8-10
Begonia, tuberousBegonia x tuberhybrida10-11
CaladiumCaladium bicolor8-11
CrocusCrocus spp.3-8
Cyclamen, hardyCyclamen hederifolium7-9
DaffodilNarcissus spp.3-8
Naked ladiesLycoris squamigera5-9
SquillScilla spp.2-8

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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