Gardening Tip ~ Finding Perennials for Shaded Gardens

4 min to read

Submitted by Doreen Coyne, a member of the Richmond Hill Garden & Horticultural Society

I have three areas around my house that just don’t get a lot of sun. You’ve read last week’s Gardening Tip on Perennials for Semi-Shaded areas which work well in my front semi-shaded garden.  Now we’ll look to help out the two areas that are in all but complete shade.

My North-West facing side garden.  You’d think this area should get a lot of sun from the west; but, the shape of the house prevents that and leaves this little garden in the shade all of the time.  A few years ago I found that hostas do quite well in semi-shaded areas so I added a couple of hosta here as well. I put one beside the walkway to my backyard which is in this shaded areas and surrounded by 6 foot high fences. The hosta is now something to behold spreading its medium-green leaves out so that the plant’s diameter is some four feet across.  I tried some coleus; they work well but are annuals and I do prefer perennials.

My South facing side yard. That area is my biggest problem. I haven’t had a solution to date so it is filled with black mulch which looks great and many visitors don’t even know the area exists. Why?  Because it is bordered on the south by a 6 foot tall fence with my neighbours’ tree branches overhead. And another 6 foot fence divides the yard into two sections with one half in the front yard and the other in the backyard. Needless to say, the area is almost 100% shaded by the neighbour’s house, the fences, and the overhanging tree branches. My interim solution of covering the soil with black mulch works and minimizes weeds.  But I wouldn’t mind a few actual plants in those 2 areas.

My gardens each need plants that like “the dark”; so, I’ve been reading a lot to find some more plants – especially perennials – that would love a home in a garden that may never have full sun.  I found a few to consider – here’s what I’ve learned to date.

  • Astilbe flowers can be recognized by their tall, fluffy plumes that tower above frilly, fern-like foliage in the shade garden. Although the plants grow in shade, their flowers are more productive in an area where gentle morning or dappled sun can reach them for about an hour or two. So at the east and south most ends of that area may be ok for these as the ends do get a couple of hours of sunlight each.
  • Bee balm plants prefer moist, rich soil, and a sunny location but can tolerate shade, particularly in hot-summer areas. Plant it in any protected spot where colour is a bonus. These may not work for me, but perhaps you have an area with moist, rich soil and a bit more sun.
  • Bleeding Heart plants like to be planted in organic soil in shady or partially shaded areas. You need to work compost into the area before planting the bleeding heart plant in the fall or spring. An herbaceous perennial, the bleeding heart plant dies back to the ground as the heat of summer arrives. As the plant begins to yellow and wither away, foliage may be cut back to the ground as a part of care for a Bleeding Heart. Do not remove the foliage before it turns yellow or brown; this is the time when your bleeding heart plant is storing food reserves for next year’s growing bleeding hearts. I didn’t know so when mine “died” last year, I threw it out. It had been a test plant so I know it did fine until August.  This year, I’ll remember it is a perennial and not remove when it dies back.
  • Bellflowers are said to be shade plants but it seems there are so many varieties, that one needs to determine the best type for their garden as the bellflower is quite diverse. Some cultivars (a specific cultivation of a variety) will bloom all summer long, some will make excellent cutting flowers, and others can get invasive and take over the garden.  A trip to the nursery should help me select one variety that may serve my south northwest garden.
  • Begonias love shade or morning light with afternoon shade.  I’ll add some to my hanging baskets at the front of the house that is in a shaded area. Begonias add a wonderful splash of colour to the greenery. To these baskets, I’ve also added coleus.
  • Coleus with darker leaves are great in hanging flower baskets in shaded areas as well. 
  • Delphiniums like a gentle morning sun with afternoon shade. They don’t tolerate extreme differences in temperatures. Last fall I purchased 3 of these and planted each one if a different spot that I thought would provide them with the sunlight they preferred. It was September when I planted them and they continued to grow and bloom. So that was a good sign.  This spring only two of them grew again and they look good.  The one I put in the front yard has wonderful light purple flowers and the one in the back has blue and white flowers. Each has needed “something to lean on” to keep them tall and elegant which is expected with Delphiniums.  But they are more of a semi-shaded area plant and luckily they are getting enough sun in the areas I  planted them in!
  • Ferns are woodland plants that loves to grow under the trees in shade.  I’ve started to use baskets of these on my front porch as 2 of 4 shaded hanging flower baskets this year. They are doing very well.
  • Foxglove flowers grow on stems which may reach 6 feet (2 m.) in height, depending on the variety. Foxglove flowers are clusters of tubular-shaped blooms in colours of white, lavender, yellow, pink, red, and purple. Growing foxgloves thrive in full sun to partial shade to full shade, depending on the summer heat. I don’t have these this year but will try them next year.
  • Hellebores can bloom in late winter to early spring, sometimes while the ground is still covered with snow. Different varieties come in a range of flower colours, from white to black. Note, all parts of the hellebore plant are poisonous, so take care to keep children and pets away; but, they do prefer to grow in filtered sun or a shady location.
  • The Forget-Me-Not flower grows on tall, hairy stems which sometimes reach 2 feet (61 cm.) in height. The flowers have 5 petals and typically blue blooms with a yellow centre.  They bloom from May to October which to me means it is a keeper. They like moisture and are self-seeding. That translates to ensuring you remove them from areas where do not want them each year. But they do grow well in a damp, shady area. I’m going to try these in my south side garden this summer. But just not sure they can be in complete shade.  So I’ll try one in my shaded areas and one in my semi-shaded areas.
  • I wrote about Jacob’s Ladder in last week’s article.  They don’t mind a fully shady area. I will be looking for some of these to plant in the south side gardens to see how well they do in complete shade.

Likely a lot of us have areas of shade, some semi-shaded/partial-sun areas, and some full sun areas.  When you are searching for plants for a specific garden area, take note of its sun conditions.

Then test that against what you see on websites. Many list lots of plants as shade-loving plants but in researching each one, many of them need at least partial sun to survive. So not for you if you have full sun or full shade garden spot. Bottom line, be sure you know how much sun each area of your garden gets so you can select the right plants for it.