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Shade planting

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last updated May 1, 2013
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Japanese anemone

Gardens shaded by trees and buildings are increasingly common as gardens get smaller. North- or east-facing gardens can be cold and shady for much of the year. These spaces can be challenging to plant. Despite these problems, a dull area can be enriched by careful selection of shade-tolerant plants.

Introduction Back to top

Walls and buildings usually cast a light shade and don’t rob the soil of mosture, unlike the more strenuous conditions found beneath the boughs of trees.

To grow healthy plants in shady areas, it is important to identify the degree of shade that a plant needs or will tolerate. Few shrubs will thrive where shade is very dense, particularly when coupled with a dry impoverished soil. Additional organic matter and a general fertiliser will provide more suitable conditions for plants to grow.

  1. Light shade: A site that is open to the sky, but screened from direct sunlight by an obstacle, such as a high wall or group of trees
  2. Partial shade: A site receiving sunlight for two or three hours either in early morning or late evening.  Midday sun supplies considerably more light
  3. Moderate shade: Mainly reflected or diffused light, for example through tree canopies
  4. Deep shade: Usually under dense deciduous trees, e.g. beech, conifer hedges or overgrown shrubberies

Practical considerations Back to top

Where branches are held high, as with oak, it may be possible to grow various plants well within the branch spread. The most difficult conditions are found under conifers, as these areas are dry and sheltered in summer and winter, often with an accumulation of dead needles and debris creating very acidic conditions.

With plenty of humus and moisture it may be possible to grow spring-flowering bulbs and similar plants, such as snowdrops, anemones, bluebells, lily-of-the-valley and hardy cyclamen, clustered around the base of the trunk itself. Under trees in which the branch canopy is low and spreading, few plants will thrive except along the perimeter of branch spread. Planting may need to be a matter of trial and error, with emphasis placed on low-growing evergreen shrubs, but not the variegated kinds which need good light conditions. Common ivy is worth trying in even the gloomiest conditions.

Mulching improves water retention, and combined with autumn rather than spring planting, allows some plants to establish more effectively over winter.

Suitable plants Back to top

Unfortunately, shade-tolerant plants are in many cases not very colourful in flower, but often there is consolation in attractive or interesting foliage. Plants for shade gather what light there is by large leaves which are rich in chlorophyll and therefore often very green. Variegated plants are less successful in shade than in sun as they lack chlorophyll.

A vast array of plants tolerating shade can be found listed here on the RHS Plant Selector. Below are some additional lists;


With mulch, bulbous plants can thrive under deciduous canopies. Try the following:

  • Anemone blanda AGM – blue/white-pink flowers. Height and spread 15cm (6in)
  • Convallaria majalis AGM (lily-of-the-valley) – scented, white flowers. Height 23cm (9in) and spread 30cm (1ft)
  • Cyclamen hederifolium AGM – spread; pink flowers. Height 15cm (6in) and spread 10-13cm (4-5in)
  • Galanthus (snowdrops) – white flowers. Height: 10-22cm (4-9in) and spread 5-8cm (2-3in)
  • Hyacinthoides non-scripta (bluebell) – blue or white flowers. Height 20-40cm (8-16in)  and spread 8cm (3in)
  • Narcissus bulbocodium AGM – yellow flowers. Height 10-15cm (4-6in) and spread 5-8cm (2-3in)

Shade-tolerant shrubs

Shrubs and perennials can both succeed under high, broken or deciduous canopies. Try the following:

  • Buxus sempervirens AGM – Height and spread up to 5m (15ft)
  • Daphne laureola  – pale yellow-green flowers in late winter and early spring. Height 1m (3ft) and spread 1.5m (5ft)
  • Gaultheria shallon – pinky-white flowers in late spring and early summer; acid to neutral soils only. Height 1.2m(4ft) and spread 1.5m (5ft)
  • Mahonia aquifolium – yellow flowers in spring. Height: 1m (3ft) and spread 1.5m (5ft)
  • Ruscus aculeatus – bright red berries from late summer to winter. Height 75cm (30in) and spread 1m (3ft)

Perennial plants to try

  • Alchemilla mollis AGM – yellow flowers from early summer-early autumn.Height 60cm (2ft) and spread 75cm (30in)
  • Anemone × hybrida – white or pink flowers from late summer to mid autumn. Height: 1.2-1.5m (4-5ft) and spread is indefinite
  • Bergenia – pink or white flowers in spring. Height 20-45cm (8-18in) and spread 30-60cm (1-2ft)
  • Hosta –  grown mainly for foliage, but also have blue or white flowers in late summer. Height 10-60cm (4-24in) and spread 30cm-1m (1-3ft)
  • Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae AGM – greenish-yellow flowers from mid-spring to early summer. Height 60cm (2ft) and spread is indefinite
  • Helleborus × hybridus – variable, coloured flowers from mid winter to late spring. Height and spread 45cm (18in)

Woodland plantings

  • Dryopteris filix-mas AGM – fern grown for foliage. Height and spread 1.2m (4ft)
  • Digitalis (foxglove) – pink, purple, white or yellow flowers in summer. Height: 30cm-1.2m (1-4ft) and spread 30-45cm (1ft-18in)
  • Epimedium – pink, white or yellow flowers in spring. Height 15-60cm (6-24in) and spread 30-60cm (1-2ft)
  • Hedera (ivy) – used as ground cover. Spread up to 10m (30ft)
  • Lamium (dead nettle) – pink, white or yellow flowers in summer. Height 5-20cm (2-8in) and spread of 10cm-1m (4in-3ft)
  • Luzula sylvatica (woodrush) – grass-like. Height 60cm (2ft) in flower with an indefinate spread

Container choices

If conditions are excessively dry, use pots to grow plants in moist, well watered soil. Try the following:


AGM Plants
Plants for under trees


Meconopsis likes a humus-rich soil.

Quick facts

Six really robust plants for shade:

  • Buxus sempervirens (box)
  • Hypericum calycinum
  • Mahonia aquifolium
  • Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’
  • Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis
  • Vinca minor