Designing Shade Perennial Gardens

Tips for planning shade perennial gardens. Manipulating light levels in shady beds. Planting under trees without harming them. Getting plants to bloom in low light.


What Type of Shade Do You Have?

Hydrangeas provide reliable color in the high shade beneath tall trees.

In the broadest sense of the term, any garden enjoying fewer than six hours of sunlight per day during the growing season is a shade garden.

That said, the word shade encompasses a range of light conditions from high to dense. 

High or light shade is the brightest.  This is the kind of shade a south-facing garden beneath very tall trees or trees with open canopies would most likely enjoy.  This is sometimes also referred to as dappled or filtered shade because you can see where the sun's rays are penetrating the overhead canopy and making their way to the ground.  This is the easiest type of shade to work with. 

Dense shade is the dimmest exposure and the most difficult to plant as it severely restricts the variety of species you can work with.  This is the type of shade found in a north-facing garden filled with broad leaved, evergreens.  Precious little sun makes its way to ground level here.

Part shade is the designation for an area that receives four hours of  sun each day during the growing season.  A garden which receives six hours or more of daily sunlight is sited in full sun.

To determine the type of shade you have, note the number of hours of sun exposure and the degree to which it penetrates the overhead canopy.


Making the Shade in Your Garden Brighter

White peonies illuminate a seating area in part shade.

There is only one way to permanently alter the natural light level in a garden.  You have to remove whatever is blocking the sun.

Usually, this means either removing a tree or two or thinning their crowns.

Last spring, I noticed that a portion of our back yard had become much more heavily shaded. Our mature oaks had done quite a bit of growing while I was busy with other things.  One was encroaching on the crown space of a prized red maple.  Another was about to shade a star fruit tree to death.  Add to this an out-of-control passion vine and you can imagine what was going on.

Thankfully, my husband knows a guy who does excellent tree work. He and his power saw put the whole mess right in the space of three hours.

Trees trimmed and vines removed, the back yard is much brighter and prettier.  My star fruit tree has rebounded and my maple has space to develop.  My fears of someone doing a hatchet job on my trees were completely unfounded.

A good tree man (or woman) is worth his asking price.

Tiny's friend didn't change the trees' natural shapes, just improved them.  A year on, you wouldn't know they had been trimmed if I hadn't told you.


Planting Beneath Trees

Hosta is a perennial plant which performs beautifully in shade.

Tall pine or hardwood trees may be underplanted with smaller trees like dogwoods or redbuds.  Small deciduous trees may be underplanted with flowering shrubs like azeleas or Hydrangeas.  These plants not only provide desired color but add structure to the design.

For even more color, place bulbs beneath the flowering shrubs. 

Concentrate your flowering perennials toward the front edges of the garden beds where the light will be strongest and they will face less competition with tree roots for food and water.

Add organic matter to the planting hole whenever you install a new plant, but avoid raising the soil level when planting above tree roots.

Landscaping Under Trees


Inducing Bloom in the Shade Perennial Garden

The tree-shaded spot at the end of this grass path is the perfect place for a garden bench.

  1. Choose plants that are known to bloom profusely under shady conditions like the aforementioned azaleas and HydrangeasAstilbe is also one of the best perennial shade flowers you can grow.
  2. Sprinkle a bit of super or triple phosphate around the flowering plants in your shade garden each spring.  Do this in addition to whatever you normally feed them.  It promotes bloom in flowering plants like nothing else I've ever tried.
  3. Avoid the overuse of high nitrogen fertilizers as these tend to inhibit flowering.
  4. Rely more on colorful foliage and less on flowers to add excitement to shady beds.  Plants with variegated or bright foliage contribute season-long color to the shade perennial garden.

Perennials for Shade

Drumstick Primula and daffodils make a lively display in this woodland garden.

Plants for Light Shade

Deep Shade Perennials



Related Pages:

Perennial Garden Design

Perennials Listed by Height

Perennial Flowering Vines

Perennials with Pink Flowers

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Shade Loving Perennials

Hosta - Loyalist
Hosta - Climax
Astilbe - Maggie Daley
Bugbane - Black Negligee
Brunnera - Emerald Mist
Hosta - Elegans
Violet - Rebecca

Garden Design

Swimming Pool Landscape Design

Ideas for Dressing Walls

See How Beautiful Raised Beds Can Be

Landscaping with Shrubs

River Rock Water Features

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Selina and Tiny