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Best Plants for a Wooded Shade Garden

Updated on December 10, 2016
A big shade tree might seem like a problem if you're trying to grow grass. Change your thinking to plants that love shade and create a lovely spot like this.
A big shade tree might seem like a problem if you're trying to grow grass. Change your thinking to plants that love shade and create a lovely spot like this. | Source

Plants for a Wooded, Shady Garden

I delight in the huge trees that shade my yard in New Hampshire. It does make planting a bit tricky until you learn the right plants for a wooded area. Here are my recommendations after five years of shade gardening.

Big trees give welcome, cooling shade on hot summer days, but it doesn't have to be gloomy. With the addition of shade loving plants with variegated foliage or some flowers that prefer shady or semi-shady areas, it can delight the eye as well.

This image, is available on a card from Zazzle.
The Shade Garden by rdemuth

All Photos Below By Virginia Allain

Suitable Plants for Shady Areas - Photos by Virginia Allain

Great hosta grouping. I saw these at an RV park. The taller, flowering plants at the back are white astilbe.  Placing these in front of the feature rock makes a dramatic focal point.
Great hosta grouping. I saw these at an RV park. The taller, flowering plants at the back are white astilbe. Placing these in front of the feature rock makes a dramatic focal point. | Source
Hosta with white edges on the leaves. Hosta comes in many sizes and leaf colors. If you have a lot of deer in your woods, they might eat the hosta leaves. My neighbor has a problem, but they don't seem to venture far enough into my yard for the hosta
Hosta with white edges on the leaves. Hosta comes in many sizes and leaf colors. If you have a lot of deer in your woods, they might eat the hosta leaves. My neighbor has a problem, but they don't seem to venture far enough into my yard for the hosta
Variegated ivy leaves. Plain green ivy looks great but I like that touch of light around the edge of the leaves like this one.
Variegated ivy leaves. Plain green ivy looks great but I like that touch of light around the edge of the leaves like this one.
Hosta and snow-on-the-mountain in my shade garden. It's important not to let snow-on-the-mountain dry out too much. The leaves turn brown and it dies back, so keep an eye on it.
Hosta and snow-on-the-mountain in my shade garden. It's important not to let snow-on-the-mountain dry out too much. The leaves turn brown and it dies back, so keep an eye on it.
Plantings under a tree with a rock border at my neighbor's place. They've used begonia which work fine under a tree like this.
Plantings under a tree with a rock border at my neighbor's place. They've used begonia which work fine under a tree like this.
Ferns and the white bark of a birch tree. Ferns like moisture so I mist mine and water regularly if there isn't much rain. Sometimes rain doesn't reach the plants when there's a big tree canopy, so they need extra attention.
Ferns and the white bark of a birch tree. Ferns like moisture so I mist mine and water regularly if there isn't much rain. Sometimes rain doesn't reach the plants when there's a big tree canopy, so they need extra attention.

Things You'll Need:

variegated perennials

variegated ground covers

colorful annuals (optional)

azaleas and rhododendrons (optional)

Variegated Hosta Loves Shady Areas - and adds some brightness

You'll find a wide variety of hosta from large to small, plain leaves to green/white variegated. All of them work great in a shady area! They come up each year and the clump gets a little bigger each time.

My friend has hers near the road and the deer will munch on them when they first come up. I must be lucky, as they leave mine alone.

A Variety of Hosta Plants

Mixed Hosta Value Bag
Mixed Hosta Value Bag

Hosta love shade and come in all sizes and variations of leaf patterns. These will thrive in your shady spot. Look at the photo below to see how dramatic these look grouped together.

 

The Lily of the Valley Growing in My New Hampshire Garden

The leaves of the plant stay green through the summer, but the tiny white bell-shaped flowers are only seen in the spring. It is one of the earliest bloomers.
The leaves of the plant stay green through the summer, but the tiny white bell-shaped flowers are only seen in the spring. It is one of the earliest bloomers. | Source

Lily of the Valley Blooms in the Spring

Keep your eye out for them. They are a delight after a long, snowy winter.
Keep your eye out for them. They are a delight after a long, snowy winter. | Source

Lily of the Valley Blooms in the Shade - Order plants from Amazon

White Lily of the Valley 10 Pips - Convallaria - Great for Shade!
White Lily of the Valley 10 Pips - Convallaria - Great for Shade!

Luckily the former owner of my woods had planted lily of the valley. These sweet bell-shaped flowers delight me each spring as they continue to spread under the shade of the trees.

 

Astilbe Is Perfect for a Shade Garden - Trees protect the astilbe from the hot sun

These come back year-after-year. Don't let them get too dry. If you notice the leaves drooping, give them a soaking. If you have a wooded spot that is slightly soggy to start, then these are perfect for you.

Remember when it rains lightly that a solid tree canopy can deflect a lot of the moisture. You may still need to supplement these plants with some watering from your hose.

My Astilbe in Bloom

This astilbe is the palest of pinks. Nearby, I have one that's more of a coral pink. Makes a nice contrast.
This astilbe is the palest of pinks. Nearby, I have one that's more of a coral pink. Makes a nice contrast. | Source
I also have several white ones.
I also have several white ones.

For Lush Shade Plantings, Add Ferns

Nothing looks as lush as ferns in the wooded garden. These are so easy to care for.

Wander through your woods and it's likely that you'll find some ferns already growing. If it is your own land, go ahead and transplant a few to the area you are calling your shade garden.

Pick a smaller one to dig up and take a good-sized root ball. I find them easier to move in the spring before they have a lot of fronds.

Of course, you must not gather fern plants from parks or private property.

Japanese Painted Fern

Regal Red Japanese Painted Fern - Athyrium - Shade Lover - Live Plant - Gallon Pot
Regal Red Japanese Painted Fern - Athyrium - Shade Lover - Live Plant - Gallon Pot

This one adds some subtle color to your planting area under some trees. I like the deep purple of the stem then the silvery purple tinged leaves.

 

Ferns Next to an Old Stone Wall - What Could Be Prettier?

My friend Judy created this shady bower. The contrast of the texture of the stones with the lacy look of the ferns really appeals to me. This come back year-after-year so are easy to care for.
My friend Judy created this shady bower. The contrast of the texture of the stones with the lacy look of the ferns really appeals to me. This come back year-after-year so are easy to care for. | Source

Learn More about Ferns for Your Garden

Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns
Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns

It's amazing the many kinds of fern from dainty maidenhair fern to giant tree ferns. Ferns are so easy to care for. I just plant them, and keep them watered well until their roots are settled. Then they pretty much take care of themselves.

 

Native Trees and Shrubs to Use in Shade - For Dry Soil Areas

These plantings were recommended by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. You can request their fact sheets for using native plants in different situations.

For trees that were shade tolerant, they suggested hemlocks and ironwood. Two summers ago, we planted 2 very small hemlocks in the back part of our woods. I see some growth this spring and gave them cow manure and also some Miracle Gro. I just need to be patient. Hemlocks make a good screen with their thick branches.

For bushes, they mentioned bush honeysuckle, also called American Fly Honeysuckle. Another shrub is the mapleleaf viburnum which grows up to 4 to 6 feet high.

Here's What the Needles on a Hemlock Look Like

The lighter green indicates new growth, usually seen in the spring.
The lighter green indicates new growth, usually seen in the spring. | Source

Find the Right Plants for Your Shaded Areas

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How Much Shade Is in Your Garden?

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Step-By-Step Planting a Shade Garden

  1. If the area is real, honest-to-goodness woods, then tackle just the edge adjacent to your lawn. Rake back the top layer of heavy leaves and push those further into the woods.

  2. Despite the layers of leaf mold, the soil is probably deficient for good plantings. Mix some topsoil into the spots where you plan to plant. Add compost and dry cow manure if you have it.

  3. Plant some good-sized plants that tolerate shade and have some color to their leaves. Variegated hosta is perfect for this situation. (variegated just means multi-colored like white and green together)

  4. Fill in around your larger plants with some ground cover. They need to be shade lovers and hopefully, have variegated leaves. Use variegated ivy and variegated ajuga. You can also use the purple leaved ajuga though it won't have the brightening effect of the white and green leaves.

  5. At first. you'll need to water the new plants until they get properly rooted. Sometimes the tree canopy is so thick that light rains don't benefit the plants under the trees. Check now and then to see if they need watering.

  6. Allow the plants time to fill out and creep around. You can take more cuttings from the ground covers and help it spread and cover more area.

  7. Each spring you'll need to gently remove the leaves that cover your shade garden. I do this by hand, as a rake will tear up the plants too much.

  8. Also in the spring, plant some flowering annuals if you want more than just the green and white patterned look. Great ones for this are impatiens and begonias which handle shade well and come in bright colors like red. Actually, I like to use the white impatiens to go with the variegated foliage already there.

  9. If you have room and want something bigger and very showy, plant azaleas and the large rhododendron beyond where you have the hosta and ground cover. Again, I'm partial to white in a shady area, but these come in wonderful pinks and oranges too.

I Love Bleeding Heart - for a shady spot

These bloom in the spring, then you can enjoy the lacy foliage for most of the summer. I saw a white one for sale online but they were out of stock. The old-fashioned ones were pink. You'll enjoy the delicate looking heart-shaped flowers.

After dicentra finishes blooming, the foliage dies back. Don't remove it, as it is storing up energy to the roots.

Dicentra or Bleeding Heart in My New Hampshire Garden

I have the pink but would love to try the white version of this.
I have the pink but would love to try the white version of this. | Source

Roll Out Planting Strip for the Shady Flower Garden

Garden Innovations SG1000 10-Inch by 10-Foot Roll Out Flowers, Shady Garden
Garden Innovations SG1000 10-Inch by 10-Foot Roll Out Flowers, Shady Garden

Look at the variety you get with this pre-planted mat. Loosen your soil, roll out this mat, don't let it dry out and you'll have lots of plants.

 

Native Perennials for the Shade Garden

These native plants return reliably year-after-year. The Maine DEP suggested Foamflower, Appalachian Barren Strawberry, Creeping Phlox and Bowman's Root

The strawberries are not edible ones. If you don't live in the northeast, consult your local extension office for plants suitable to your area.

Groundcovers and Vines:

Try bunchberry, checkerberry or wintergreen or teaberry, woodbine/Virginia Creeper, and lindonberry.


Wild Plants as Ground Cover

Source

Come Back Soon

To see all the plants I'll be adding. I'll have photos from my very own garden too.

These Native Plants Are Naturally in My Shady Wooded Area

Source
A violet - these bloom in the early spring.
A violet - these bloom in the early spring. | Source

© 2012 Virginia Allain

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    • Gloriousconfusion profile image

      Diana Grant 15 months ago from United Kingdom

      I have nearly all the plants you mention in my garden (we must be twins!). Isn't it a satisfying feeling when your shade garden is flourishing.

    • Virginia Allain profile image
      Author

      Virginia Allain 2 years ago from Central Florida

      Thank you for these kind words. Sure made me feel good. I love gardening.

    • Barbara Kay profile image

      Barbara Badder 2 years ago from USA

      We've got some trees in the back of our yard that need something more than hostas. Thanks for some new ideas.

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 2 years ago from San Francisco

      Oh, Virginia, sometimes I come to your garden pages just to get a virtual garden hit. These are some of my favorite plants, many of whom (well, plants are spirits, aren't they?) grow abundantly in my mother's woods, where she tends her shade gardens lovingly. Thank you for this. It showed up in my feed today just when I needed a reminder of the beauty in our world.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Beautiful hub, Virginia. I love those photos of your garden. Just gorgeous and lovely! Lily of the valley is my birth month flowers. Voted up for useful!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Beautiful photos and great tips, Virginia. Well done.

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image

      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      What beautiful shady places to rest on a warm summer day! I'm fascinated at the variety of plants that we don't normally see out here in California. The leaves on the Hosta are stunning. Your photos really highlight the beauty.

    • jptanabe profile image

      Jennifer P Tanabe 2 years ago from Red Hook, NY

      I have to try Lily of the Valley in a shady part of my yard again - previous attempt failed!

    • Virginia Allain profile image
      Author

      Virginia Allain 2 years ago from Central Florida

      Wow, that's pretty special, to have jack in the pulpit plants. I do have some pink ladyslippers that come up naturally in the woods. I love those.

    • Lee Hansen profile image

      Lee Hansen 2 years ago from Vermont

      I have many of the shade plants you recommend. I recently also discovered Jack in the Pulpit plants in our shady back yard so I'm protecting them and helping them to propagate.

    • profile image

      MarcellaCarlton 3 years ago

      I wish I had more shade in my garden because shade plants are lovely. I love hostas and astilbes. Nice lens.

    • DreamsBloom profile image

      DreamsBloom 4 years ago

      Oh this makes me wish for some shade and a not quite so desert climate. It is beautiful and I love the Lily of the Valley especially.

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      I miss these kinds of plants, since they are ones I grew up with. Now that I'm located in a hot, dry, sunshiny spot, and don't garden any more, I miss them more than ever. I love Hostas, and Lilies of the Valley, and got to see both of those in abundance on my trip to Wisconsin recently. This is a beautiful, informative lens, one of my favorites that you have done.

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 4 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      We have several varieties of Hosta and I really do like them. I enjoyed this visit to your shade Garden

    • Virginia Allain profile image
      Author

      Virginia Allain 4 years ago from Central Florida

      @ecogranny: Sounds truly delightful.

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 4 years ago from San Francisco

      One of my favorite shade gardens ever was an ingenious back yard planting of Bishops Weed, Sweet Woodruff and Hostas under enormous elm trees. Each of these invasive plants tried to choke the others out, but none could succeed, and the result was a charming undulation of light and dark plants throughout the garden.

    • Virginia Allain profile image
      Author

      Virginia Allain 4 years ago from Central Florida

      @AlleyCatLane: I haven't tried them in Florida but they grow great in New Hampshire until the deer discover them.

    • profile image

      AlleyCatLane 4 years ago

      I am so envious of the hostas people grow up North. I love them, but they just don't tolerate the heat well here in Florida even when planted in the shade.

    • LisaDH profile image

      LisaDH 4 years ago

      Ferns have always been my favorite shade garden plant. Unfortunately, they don't care much for my sunny yard.

    • CrossCreations profile image

      Carolan Ross 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      I've grown all of these shade plants except bleeding heart. Hasta is a staple and have grown them everywhere I've ever lived. Astilbe take awhile to get going, but are so worth the wait.

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 5 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      I'd love to have a shade garden. Here the sun blares down just about all the time. I do have an umbrella that provides a bit of shade. I love the lush look of your shade garden pictured.

    • HealthfulMD profile image

      Kirsti A. Dyer 5 years ago from Northern California

      I should try the lilies of the valley in our shady spot. Love the look of the flowers.