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How To Create A Colorful, Long-Lasting Shade Garden

by Amanda

Garden filled with Hostas, Geranium and Lamium all in bloom

This shade-loving perennial garden includes Hostas, Geranium and Lamium.

Gardening in shade can sometimes be challenging, but doesn’t have to be frustrating! Turn your shady areas into colorful showpieces by first defining what type of shade you have and choosing varieties that will bloom all season long. There are enough shade-loving perennials and bulbs to fit any gardener’s landscaping needs – we promise!

Defining Shade

A common misnomer among gardeners (myself included at one point) is that all shade is the same. That couldn' be further from the truth – growing a successful shade garden rests upon your ability to accurately define the type of shade you have in your area. That will be integral to deciding which plants will thrive in your garden.

  • Full Sun: Let’s define full sun as the type of light you see in open meadows and areas with no tree cover. This means that the area gets 10 or more hours of sun per day.
  • Partial Sun: This type of light can be found on the edge of trees and woods, but not directly underneath tree cover. This means the area gets 5 to 10 hours of sun per day.
  • Partial Shade (sometimes called Open Shade): Light shining through widespread tree cover produces partial shade, meaning this area gets less than five hours of sun per day. Also found in the shadows cast by tall structures for part of the day, or on the north side of buildings.
  • Full Shade: Heavily wooded forests and woodlands offer up full shade, meaning there is never really any direct sunlight hitting the ground.

Most of us think of partial shade when we think of shade; which means the landscape gets about 5 hours or less per day. Good news: there are plenty of varieties that thrive in this type of sunlight!

Bleeding hearts blooming in a shade garden

Bleeding Hearts are a true conversation-starter in any shade garden.

Perennials For Shade

With dozens of plants to choose from, there is plenty of fun to be had planning your shade garden for this season!

Astilbe is one of our favorite perennials for a creating a colorful display under trees and in shady areas around the border of your garden. Spiky, textured blooms are offset by spectacular foliage. These native beauties offer up color mid-season and come with an exciting bonus: fabulous cut flowers!

Hostas are often the stars of the shade garden, offering up great economic value. Plant just one and in a few years you’ll have several to work with! Hostas are perfect for lining walks, edging gardens and creating dramatic accents in almost any spot.

Bleeding Hearts not only thrive in the shade, but offer up a true conversation piece in the early spring garden. These colorful perennials illuminate any shady setting with their heart-shaped blooms. Pair them with Hostas or ferns for some classic drama.

Ajuga is a shade-loving groundcover that has endless possibilities in the landscape. It spreads easily and offers up evergreen foliage that carpets the garden floor. Tip: don’t plant too near a heavily-watered lawn as it could spread and take over (which could be a good thing, depending on who you’re talking to).

Coral Bells, also known as Heuchera, is another shade-loving foliage favorite. This unique perennial adds year-long interest to the shade garden and comes in a variety of rich colors.

Geranium is an extremely easy-to-grow perennial that only gets to be only about 12" tall, making it perfect for containers and border gardens.

Ferns are a classic shade favorite, often becoming the backdrop for your favorite blooms. Not only do ferns add background and contrast to your shade garden, but also make for fabulous additions to any cut flower arrangement.

Lamium is a low-growing perennial favorite that is extremely adaptable and versatile. Lamium forms a low, spreading mat on the garden floor that blooms in the late spring garden.

Woodland Wildflowers are the perfect choice for gardeners with partial to full shade and moist, rich soil. Trillium, Foam Flower, Virgina Bluebells and Solomon’s Seal are just a few of many show-stopping woodland plants, that will thrive in almost any shady garden.

Bulbs For Shade

anemone in bloom

Anemones offer quick-blooming, unique flowers in the shade garden or containers.

Although there aren’t as many shade-loving bulbs to choose from as perennials, you’d be surprised at the spectacular color you can add to your shady spot (even in containers!).

Caladium Bulbs are some of the easiest bulbs to grow in the shade. Simply drop them into the soil once the ground temperatures are above freezing and in just a few weeks you’ll be experiencing huge, vibrantly-colored foliage. Caladium are also perfect for containers.

Begonias offer huge, spectacular blooms in the summer shade garden. They thrive in containers and can be brought inside as a house plant when frost threatens at the end of the season. Begonias like regular feeding and care, but are definitely worth the effort!

Anemones are an extremely unique-looking flower that can be planted in the fall or spring. Large, velvety blooms create a dramatic statement in any shady spot and are magical in containers.  

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Wildflowers For Shade

Foxglove is a spectacular addition to any meadow or garden and thrives in partial shade.

Wildflowers are a little trickier – most wildflowers prefer full to partial sun (at least 8 hours per day), but there are several varietiesthat thrive in shadier areas.

Sweet Alyssum is a quick-blooming annual that has been a staple of the meadow and garden for centuries. 

Foxglove is a spectacular cottage garden favorite that looks fantastic in shady gardens or cut for spectacular summer bouquets.

Big Leaf Aster is a native wildflower that offers up delicate color in the fall garden, giving pollinators something to feed on after much of the garden has gone dormant for the season.

Blue Columbine’s lacy foliage provides the perfect backdrop for rich, blue and white spurred blooms. This native wildflower blooms in the late spring.

We bring all of our shade-loving wildflower favorites together in our Partial Shade Mix, which includes 26 varieties that can be planted in just 4 or more hours of sunlight per day.

Now that you’ve defined which type of shade you have and browsed through a wide variety of shade-loving plants, all that’s left is the fun part – selecting your plants and getting them into the garden.

Happy Gardening!