Learning about the garden: plants that like shade

It may be the question most often asked by unhappy gardeners: “My yard is nothing but shade. I don’t know what to do. Help!”

That hint of desperation in their tone is born from the mistaken belief that a shady yard or corner is doomed to never hold a garden. In fact, a garden with light or dappled shade has an absolute wealth of plant choices available. Yards with medium to deep shade may face a somewhat more limited selection, but there are still plenty of plant from which to choose. It’s a rare spot that has so much shade that no ornamental plant will grow. Best of all, many plants will also bloom in a shady corner, and it’s the flowers that count for many gardeners.

That said, to find those shade-loving plants that will work best for your own “problem spot,” keep these factors in mind:

First, all shade is not created equal. At its simplest, shade falls into one of these categories:

Light or partial shade is present when plants receive filtered but not direct sun or when areas get direct sun for only a couple of hours in early morning or late afternoon. This shade is where most shade-lovers do best. Darker-colored plants tend to show off to best advantage here, too.

With full shade, plants receive no direct sun during the day but they do receive “reflected light.” This type of shade might be found under the canopy of a mature tree, or at the base of a north-facing wall. Some shade lovers that thrive in partial shade will also grow in full shade, but bloom time or plant size may be affected.

Deep shade is usually characterised by a continuous “dusk-like” quality, even during the height of day. Unfortunately, this is one of the most difficult areas in which to grow plants successfully. Heavy shade is an area that gets almost no direct light (under a low deck, for example). Very little will grow here successfully.

Second, if your shaded situation is caused by large trees or shrubs directly above where you wish to plant, be aware that new research has shown that most of a tree’s root system exists in the top 2 feet of soil. That means that you would not only have to dig through these feeder roots to plant a shade garden (which will probably both stress your tree and aggravate you), your plants will have to compete with the tree for water and. Because the root system on a tree is so large, it’s usually the winner in this sort of competition. Try to locate your garden as far away from the main trunks of any large tree as you can to avoid these problems. Since many shade plants are native to woodlands, where they enjoy the filtered light provided by tree canopies, you’re still in luck if you need to garden near trees.

Third, the sad truth is that almost all vegetables and even most herbs are sun-lovers. Very few do their best in a shady location. If your heart is set on raising veggies but your perfect garden site doesn’t get full sun, try planting bush varieties in containers and place the pots wherever you DO get at least eight hours of sun, even if that means plopping a few down on the front steps.

So with those few hints in mind, check out a few of our favourite shade-loving plants below.

Monkshood or wolfsbane

A relative of the delphinium, wolfsbane or monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii, Zones 3 to 7) has beautiful blue flowers and dark green divided foliage. These flowers bloom in late summer or autumn, adding colour when the garden is short of blue flowers. The wind may tip over monkshood stalks if they are not planted in a protected spot. Stake the flower stalks to prevent this. Note: Monkshood plants are especially poisonous.
Some well-known cultivars include ‘Bressingham Spire’, which has dark violet flowers and ‘Bi-colour’, with both blue and white flowers. Note: Monkshoods are poisonous.
Best in light shade.

Akebia or chocolate vine

A relatively unknown vine, Akebia quinata, Zones 5 to 9, (sometimes called chocolate vine on account of its fragrant flowers) has attractive foliage that may remind you of a tiny tropical umbrella tree. These hardy vines can become large-to 30 feet-and engulf smaller structures in the garden if they’re not firmly anchored. Akebias bloom in early spring with purplish flower clusters that are commonly hidden by the foliage. These flowers give way to edible fruits.
Another species, A. trifoliata, is also sometimes grown. It’s much like its cousin, except it has leaves divided into three leaflets instead of five. There’s also a white-flowering variety.
Best in light shade.


Must-haves for the moist shade garden, astibles (Astilbe spp., Zones 4 to 8) send up beautiful, feathery plumes in summer. The blooms range in colour from red to pink on into white and even lavender. The height ranges from less than a foot tall to more than 5 feet. In addition to their attractive flowers, astilbes have divided foliage that’s often infused with reddish or bronzy tones.
Some especially nice astilbe cultivars include ‘Fanal’ with dark red flowers, ‘Deutschland’ with white flowers, and ‘Rheinland’ with pink flowers.
Best in light to medium shade.


A large group of plants, most bellflowers (Campanula spp.) have bell-shaped flowers in shades of blue, white, or pink. While not every bellflower is well suited to the shade garden, low-growing C. poscharskyana (Zones 4 to 7), C. carpatica (Zones 4 to 7), and C. medium (Zones 5 to 8), are shade tolerant.
Best in light shade.

Bleeding heart

A must-have for the shade garden, bleeding hearts (Dicentra spp.) offer very fine-textured, ferny foliage and delicate, intriguing flowers. There are several different types-the old-fashioned bleeding heart has the largest flowers; unfortunately it goes dormant by midsummer. The fern-leafed types have smaller flowers but bloom through the season.
The old-fashioned bleeding heart. D. spectabilis (Zones 3 to 9), grows to 4 feet tall and has chains of pink or white flowers. There are a number of fern-leafed types (hardy in Zones 4 to 8), including the cultivars ‘Bountiful’, which has pink flowers, ‘Bacchanal’, which blooms red, and ‘Aurora’, which is white. Also, in milder parts of the country, look for the yellow bleeding heart – D. scandens – a vine hardy Zones 6 to 8.
Best in light to medium shade


This lovely annual, Browallia speciosa, bears many star-shaped blue flowers in summer and has appealing foliage. Browallias make great mates for some of the cooler coloured impatiens, or stand well by themselves. The plants also perform well in baskets and containers. (For a stunning combination, combine them in containers with impatiens and trailing lobelia.)
Best in light to medium shade.


Bugbane (previously Cimicifuga spp., now Actaea spp., Zones 4 to 8) is a taller, late-blooming shade garden gem that sends up spikes of white or creamy flowers that look something like wands. Some bugbanes have blooms that smell somewhat unpleasant; be sure not to plant these near your fragrant shade plants. When not in bloom, the plants have attractive astilbe-like foliage, that in some cultivars is deep purplish-green.
Some of the purple-leafed cultivars are ‘Atropurpurea’ and ‘Brunette’. Both have plumes of white flowers and grow to about 4 feet.
Best in light to medium shade.

Christmas rose

The Christmas rose (Helleborus spp.) is the first perennial to bloom in many gardens. If you look close, you might see its resemblance to its cousins-the columbine and clematis. Christmas roses have dark green, leathery foliage that’s evergreen in many areas. The flowers appear in shades of white, pink, green, and red, often before the snow has melted. One of the hardiest species is H. orientalis, the Lenten rose. Another common hellebore is, the Christmas rose. Both are hardy in Zones 4 to 8.
Note: Like its cousin, the monkshood, the hellebores are very poisonous.
Best in light to medium shade.


Few plants are as graceful as the columbine (Aquilegia spp., Zones 3 to 9). These relatives of monkshood and clematis bear odd, spurred flowers in summer. These flowers appear in almost every colour of the rainbow, including white, black, and bicolors. In addition to their beautiful blossoms, columbines have attractive fan-shaped foliage. Columbines are famous for self-seeding in the garden, though the seedlings from hybrids rarely look like their parents.
A. canadensis is a native columbine with red and yellow flowers. A. flabellata, the fan columbine, is a dwarf species with rich blue flowers and especially attractive blue-green foliage.
Best in light to medium shade.


A group of plants related to the bleeding heart, most species of corydalis (Corydalis spp.) have beautiful, ferny foliage and clusters of flowers in shades of yellow, white, pink, red, purple, and even blue. I’ve found C. lutea (Zones 5 to 8) is the easiest shade garden plants to grow-it self-seeds in many gardens and blooms all season long, adding cheerful yellow flowers to the shady border.
Another corydalis that’s gotten a lot of attention is C. flexuosa – which has fragrant blue flowers in spring and sometimes again in autumn. It’s hardy Zones 6 to 8.
Best in light to medium shade.

Dutchman’s pipe

Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla, Zones 5 to 8) produces another of the most distinctive flowers in the shade garden (though the blooms are usually hidden beneath the leaves). These vines usually have heart-shaped foliage and pipe-shaped flowers in shades of white, green, and purple. The plants can become quite large-place them well to prevent any structures from collapsing. It’s hardy Zones 5 to 8.
Best in light shade.


Forget-me-not (Myosotis spp., Zones 5 to 9) is prized ground cover in the shady conditions and has flowers in a rare shade of blue. A biennial, this plant self-seeds readily in many gardens and can become a pest if left unchecked. Given that, it’s well worth growing it for the lovely springtime flowers.
For added variety, be on the lookout for white- and pink-flowering cultivars such as ‘Snowball’ or ‘Victoria Rose’.
Best in light to medium shade.


Another old-fashioned favorite, foxgloves (Digitalis spp.) have spikes of showy flowers in a range of colors from white to purple. The most common species, D. purpurea (Zones 4 to 8), is a biennial that self-seeds happily in many gardens, giving it the appearance of being a perennial.
A true perennial species, the strawberry foxglove (D. x mertonensis) has lovely pinkish flowers and doesn’t grow as tall. Other perennial species of foxglove include D. grandiflora and D. lutea, both of which have yellow flowers and are hardy in Zone 3 to 9.
Best in light to medium shade.


True geraniums (Geranium spp.), not to be confused with their annual cousins, are often overlooked in the shade garden. Most have attractive divided foliage and bloom in a very wide range of colors-from nearly black to white. Some are ground covers, where others grow a couple of feet tall.
One especially well-known cultivar is ‘Johnson’s Blue’ (Zones 4 to 8). It has lavender-blue flowers in summer. One of the longest-blooming species is G. sanguineum (Zones 4 to 8), which blooms much of the season and has foliage that colors nicely in autumn.
Best in light shade.


While many gardeners are most familiar with the showy, fragrant flowers of tall bearded irises, some gems in this group native to woodlands are wonderful additions to the shade garden. One of these is Iris cristata (Zones 4 to 8), a very dwarf species with bluish flowers in spring. Different cultivars bloom in a range of colours, but not to the extent of their taller cousins.
Siberian irises, I. Siberica (Zones 4 to 9), can take a small amount of shade, as well, especially in hot climates.
Best in light shade.


Commonly known as lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis, Zones 2 to 7), this old-fashioned perennial is one of the hardiest plants in the shade garden. Established clumps can go on for years with virtually no care. In spring, lily-of-the-valley sends up small shoots with white, bell-shaped flowers that are wonderfully fragrant. These flowers often give way to red, berry-like fruits. Lily-of-the-valley foliage is also attractive-the leaves are blue-green and oval-shaped. For a twist on the lily-of-the-valley, look for the cultivars ‘Rosea’ which has pink flowers or ‘Albostriata’ which has white-striped leaves.
Two quick cautions: Lily-of-the-valley can be aggressive, and must be watched to keep it from outgrowing its location. Also: All parts of the plant, including the fruits, are poisonous.
Best in light to heavy shade.


When it’s not in bloom, some gardeners mistake lilyturf (Liriope spp., Zones 5 to 10) for an ornamental grass with its dark green, grassy foliage. Spikes of purple or lavender flowers appear in summer. One of the best choices for highly shaded areas, lilyturf withstands a wide range of difficult conditions, including heat and drought.
There are also some white-flowering cultivars-including ‘Monroe White’, as well as cultivars with variegated foliage (‘Variegata’) to help lighten up shady areas.
Best in light to heavy shade.


Called lungworts (Pulmonaria spp., Zones 4 to 8) this group of plants with elegant silvery spotting on their leaves is one of my favourites in the border. Most have lovely blue flowers in early spring that soften to pink and last a surprisingly long time. After the flowers fade, you’re left with the wonderfully variegated foliage that stays attractive through the rest of the season.
There are hundreds of lungwort cultivars on the market-some have blue flowers, others are pink (‘Redstart’) or white (‘Sissinghurst White’). Some species have plain green foliage; other cultivars are variegated in streaks instead of spots.
Best in light shade.


Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata, Zones 4 to 8) is native to woodland areas of North America. The plant stays small-only growing about a foot or so tall, and has lovely lavender-blue flowers in spring. It’s a great companion for other spring-blooming ground covers such as forget-me-nots.
There are a number of cultivars of woodland phlox with flowers in shades of blue, lilac-blue, and nearly white.
Best in light to medium shade.


Primroses (Primula spp., Zones 3 to 10, depending on species) lend an English garden feeling to any area with their clusters of colourful flowers and flat, hairy leaves. There are several hundred different species of these plants, and hundreds of hybrids on top of that; the colour range is nearly endless. Many of the shade-loving species prefer a slightly acidic soil that has plenty of organic matter. Primroses also like cooler summers and may not do well in areas where temperatures rise dramatically.
Best in light shade.

Toad lily

Toad lilies (Tricyrtis spp., Zones 4 to 9, depending on species) are a late-blooming, overlooked shade plant. These perennials are good for adding height-they often reach about 3 feet tall in the garden. Their flowers, though somewhat lily-like, are often curiously spotted with purple, giving them a very exotic look.
There are a number of cultivars available that bloom in shades of purple, white, and even yellow. T. ‘Variegata’ has variegated foliage.
Best in light to medium shade.


Sometimes called wakerobins (Trillium spp., Zones 3 to 8, depending on species) because of their early bloom time, trilliums are woodland plants with three showy petals in shades of red, white, and yellow. Curiously, the plants send up three leaves in the spring-and these are the only leaves the plants have for the season. White-flowered T. grandiflorum is the most common garden trillium
Best in light to medium shade.

Learning in the garden: drink water to stay fresh

Water enables your body to operate at peak efficiency. It also serves as a natural air-conditioning system: When you sweat, the perspiration cools your body and prevents it from building up excessive internal heat. Your muscles become weak and fatigued when you don’t give your body enough water, so it’s essential to stay well hydrated.

Thirst is an automatic signal that our bodies are deprived of water. However, if you perspire profusely while gardening, particularly on hot, humid days, you may lose water so quickly that your thirst mechanism can’t keep up; you’ll lose essential fluids before your body warns you to replenish them.

Your body will utilise water more effectively if you give it moderate amounts periodically instead of excessive amounts all at once. So while you’re gardening, drink a few ounces of water every 15 to 20 minutes. Keep a supply of cool water (your body absorbs cool drinks more quickly than lukewarm ones) close at hand so you don’t have to go back into the house every time you need a drink.

If plain water isn’t your cup of tea (actually, iced herbal tea is another good option), add a few squirts of fresh lemon or lime juice or some fresh shredded mint leaves. Spearmint, applemint, or peppermint leaves give ordinary tap water a fresh, cool taste and make it easier to swallow, so to speak. Because plastic can impart an unpleasant taste to water, particularly if the bottle sits in the sun, use a glass bottle or thermos. If you prefer ice-cold water, drink it slowly to avoid upsetting your stomach.

Gardening Guzzlers

Although good-quality water is by far the best source of hydration, it doesn’t have to be your only one. Blend cut-up fruits and vegetables with yogurt, milk, or ice to make energy-boosting drinks you can sip while you snip and clip. Because fruit and vegetable drinks provide a highly concentrated source of nutrients, these liquid snacks are also ideal before or after you garden.

Experiment by using different fruit nectars and juices, tofu instead of yogurt, soy or rice milk instead of low-fat milk. You can also thicken your drink with soy powder for additional protein. Add flavour with vanilla extract, freshly grated ginger, or grated citrus peels. Or turn your fruit-filled beverages into luscious, slushy snacks to slowly savour while you work at your gardening chores. Just pour the contents into a glass bowl, cover, and freeze for about one hour, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thickened but not solid.

When making frozen fruit drinks:

Scrub all fruits and vegetables (even if they’re peeled or have a rind), since slicing can transfer germs to the flesh of the fruit).
Spread diced fruit on a cookie sheet and freeze for two to four hours, then add to your beverage for a thicker drink.
Opt for unsweetened frozen fruit to keep calories low.
Use small ice cubes for blending.
Shake all drinks before pouring, since some ingredients may separate.
Great Guzzlers

Berry Banana Smoothie

2 cups low-fat milk or frozen vanilla low-fat yogurt
1 ripe banana, quartered
1 cup mixed fresh berries (raspberries, blueberries, and/or blackberries) or unsweetened frozen mixed berries Combine all ingredients and blend until smooth. Serves 2.

Melon Mixer

2 cups cantaloupe, diced
1 cup honeydew melon, diced
1 cup seedless watermelon, diced
1/2 cup mango nectar
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
8 mint leaves, chopped
4 ice cubes
Combine all ingredients and blend until smooth. Serves 2.

Tropical Bliss

2 cups papaya, peeled and chopped
1 cup mango, peeled and chopped
1 cup pear nectar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Place papaya and mango in a single layer on a jellyroll pan. Freeze at least 1 hour. Place frozen fruit, nectar, and lemon juice in a blender; process until smooth. Serves 2.

Time saving garden tips

No matter how much we love gardening, most of us would rather admire our gardens than pull weeds or fight pests in July and August. Unfortunately, the hottest part of summer is when many garden problems are at their worst. If you’re feeling overwhelmed this season, here are some simple steps you can take now and next year to reduce your gardening chores and spend more time relaxing.

1. Go native
Choosing native plants is one way to reduce your summer garden chores. Because they’ve evolved in a climate similar to your garden’s, most native plants require less watering, fertilising, and staking than their exotic counterparts.

2. Cut back on edibles
As much as we love the taste of homegrown tomatoes and sweet corn, no group of plants demands more care than vegetables and fruits. Unlike most ornamentals, which can be planted at almost any time in the growing season, vegetables must be sown or planted at a specific time to produce a successful crop. And when those green beans are ready for harvest, they won’t wait.

If you don’t have time to tend veggies but you’re not ready to abandon the taste of vine-ripened tomatoes and crisp cucumbers, grow a few of your favourite vegetables in large containers. You’ll spend less time planting, weeding, fertilising, and watering. Any large pot with drainage holes will work, including those 10- to 15-gallon black plastic containers used for nursery-grown trees. To help retain moisture and reduce watering time, group large containers together and mix water-retaining crystals into the soil mix before planting.

3. Replace perennials with shrubs
Replace high-maintenance perennials with shrubs and small trees. Shrubs require less dividing, deadheading, watering, and fertilising than perennials and annuals. Three to five medium-sized shrubs planted in a border will fill a space that was once devoted to many more higher-maintenance perennials. While you’re at it, reduce pruning time by choosing a suitable dwarf variety. It’s much easier to keep a shrub or tree in line if it’s already bred to be small. Avoid fast-growing hedging plants.

4. Avoid aggressive plants
These quick-growing “wonders” seem like a good idea when you have a large space to fill, but the long-term effects are usually not worth it. You’ll spend hours weeding out these bullies once they start crowding their less-aggressive neighbours. A better approach is to cover the bare soil with mulch until you can afford more plants or until the surrounding plants have a chance to fill in.

5. Stake plants early
Stake tall or fragile plants early in the season when the foliage is still emerging so shoots will grow through the supports and conceal the staking. If you stake a plant that’s already flopped over, the supports will look unnatural and obtrusive. Instead of installing several individual stakes that require a lot of tying, use inexpensive tomato cages to support bushy perennials such as delphiniums and yarrows.

6. Water in the morning
Encourage healthier plants and reduce your chances of fungal diseases by watering early in the day. Plants need water to face the day, but they should be dry—mulch, leaves, and all—before they go into the cooler evening hours.

7. Master the art of mulching
A properly mulched garden not only adds organic material to your soil, but also discourages weeds from germinating and conserves moisture so you don’t have to water as frequently.
For best results, use the right mulch at the right time. Spread organic mulches such as shredded bark, leaves, or well-rotted compost onto weed-free soil.

If weeds have already sprouted, mulch creates an ideal environment for their growth. Also, spread mulch at the right depth—if it’s too shallow it won’t smother the weed seeds effectively, and if it’s too deep your plants may develop stem and root rots. Two to four inches is a good depth for most mulches, although lighter materials such as pine straw and salt marsh hay can be spread a little thicker. Keep moisture-rich grass clippings, which mat down easily, to 2 inches or less.

8. Use the right tools
Pruning a small tree or shrub with the wrong tool can take twice as long as when you use loppers or a pruning saw. Make sure your tools are in good working order. A dull hand pruner makes an unclean cut that can damage branches, and you’ll end up making two or three cuts instead of one.

Don’t overlook unconventional tools. Instead of using a wheelbarrow to make several trips to the garden, invest in a tarp. You can use it to move heavy bags of soil amendments and haul leaves off the lawn.

9. Look for trouble
Spend 15 minutes once or twice a week walking around your garden looking for insect and disease infestations. They require less aggressive treatment when spotted early. Carry a plastic grocery bag so you can collect damaged leaves and fruits. To be sure you get an accurate assessment, get down to the plant’s level. Most diseases start on lower leaves and work their way up. Insects, which tend to prefer young, tender leaves, often hide on the undersides of leaves. Because insects and diseases are more common when you have rotten vegetables and fruits lying on the ground and hanging on the plants, dispose of these on your weekly walk.

10. Stay on top of weeding
Do a little weeding every day (or every other day). You can destroy most young weeds by simply scraping the soil with the side of a hoe or trowel—a technique much less time-consuming than digging. If you’re facing large crops of healthy weeds, pick off the flower heads of annual weeds before they go to seed. This will reduce your chances of facing the same problem next year.

11. Research plants
Research growing conditions and care requirements before you purchase a plant. For example, if you love the look of high-maintenance hybrid tea roses but don’t have time to care for them, choose shrub roses, which thrive with minimal care. Instead of fussing with floppy peonies, consider single or Japanese types. Their open flowers tolerate rain much better than the many-petaled, heavy-headed varieties.

12. Reduce mowing time
Cut mowing time by keeping the lawn shape simple—convert sharp-cornered, linear garden beds into smooth, shallow-curved beds. Avoid island beds in the lawn so you don’t have to mow around them. Place sundials and birdbaths on a patio or in a border instead of on the lawn. To eliminate edge trimming, add a mowing strip (a narrow edge of brick, gravel, or similar material set just below the level of the lawn to allow the mower to pass over it without damage to either).

Replace parts of your lawn—especially hard-to-reach strips of grass between sidewalks and buildings or grass in shady areas—with low-maintenance ground covers or shrubs.