Shady Behavior: 20 Great Plants for Shade Gardens

“Ferns are the embodiment of green thoughts in a green shade and if a leafy shadow could take root, moss would surely be the result” –Hugh Johnson ‘Principles of Gardening’

I was always drawn to shady nooks as a child. In my mind, a deep green space spoke of mystery and enclosure with its long shadows and dappled play of light. This fascination has continued into adulthood where my earliest memories now inspire many of my designs, particularly when it comes to creating a shade garden.

It’s a funny thing. In garden design, we often employ hedges, fences and walls to provide a sense of privacy and refuge; yet a shade garden uses none of these devices to evoke exactly the same thing. How is this so? It’s the plants themselves that create the feeling of sanctuary. They do this through their shapes, sizes, textures and most importantly, their contrasting tones.

A grouping of contrasting tones

A great shade garden, just like in painting, draws on contrasting light and dark tones to create a visual sense of depth in the landscape. Dark toned plants (in particular, ones with dense foliage) appear to recede into the garden while light toned plants seem to move forward. The successful combination of these key elements is what gives the shade garden its irresistible allure.

There are so many great shade-loving plants with beautiful flowers. But, if you’re looking to create that feeling of mystery and enclosure, start by


Variegated leaf of Polygonatum odoratum, Solomon’s Seal

In a shade border, plants with variegated foliage act as beacons, lighting up shadowy spaces and helping to create a feeling of breadth. Look for plants with cream, white or lime margins (or spots) and plant them at intervals among drifts of solid green foliage to create a ‘dappled’ look. The effect is alot like the reflection of moonlight on water.

Variegated Dogwood, Cornus alba argenteo-marginata

Hosta ‘Francee’ and Hosta sieboldiana ‘Frances Williams’

Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’

Broad leafed sedge, Carex siderosticha ‘Variegata’

Iris pallida ‘Variegata’

Candidum caladium

Solomon’s Seal


Dark green foliage of Japanese yew, Taxus cuspidata

In painting, artists use dark tones to create the illusion of depth and make lighter colors ‘pop’. The same goes for the shade garden. Dark foliage tends to recede, leading the eye deeper into the garden. It also creates a nice backdrop for lighter-toned plants. If you edge the inner curves of your border with small, dark-leaved plants, it will make them look deeper.

Japanese yew, Taxus cuspidata 

Heuchera ‘Obsidian’

Rhododendron (any)

‘Illustris’, Elephant’s EarColocasia esculenta


Blue hosta

Blue injects the perfect note of calm into a border. The cool shade provides a tranquil contrast to dark or variegated foliage. It’s not an easy color to find, however, as most blues tend towards purple, which produces an altogether different result.

Hosta ‘Blue Angel’

Hosta ‘Fragrant Blue’

Hosta ‘Hadspen Blue’

Fothergilla x intermedia ‘Blue Shadow’


Silver-toned leaves of Brunnera macrophylla

A little touch of silvery foliage in the shade garden acts as a foil to other plants. It also shimmers in the moonlight. Don’t overdo it, though. This tone brings things visually forward. Too much silver and you risk losing that sense of depth.

Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’

Japanese Painted Fern


Chartreuse flowers of bright green Lady’s Mantle

There’s nothing like a splash of lime green to lighten up the shade border. Lime calls attention to itself in a different way than white. More cooling, it brightens softly, like a light bulb on a dimmer.

Hosta ‘Twist of Lime’

Lady’s Mantle, Alchemilla mollis

Heuchera ‘Key Lime Pie’

Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia


Giant leaves of Hardy Begonia, Begonia grandis

If you really want to make an impact, go big with these large-leaved shade lovers. Big-leaved plants placed in the back of the garden attract the eye and increase the sense of depth.

Indian Rhubarb, Darmera Peltata

Giant Leopard Plant, Ligularia tussilaginea ‘Gigantea’

Begonia grandis ‘Alba’


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