10 shady garden corner ideas to love – and two to avoid!

January 24th, 2021
Posted In: Garden trends & design

Do you have a forgotten garden corner? Does your eye glide over it, because you’ve been meaning to sort it out for months? Or even years?

Maybe it’s turned into a dumping ground? Or just one or two large gloomy shrubs just sit there, adding nothing to the garden’s joy?

Reader, I have one of those garden corners. I no longer notice that there is a pile of old wood, an upturned table, a chicken wire incinerator, a pile of weeds, some upturned pots…you get the picture.

There was a pergola in this corner, almost completely concealed by an overgrown Kiftsgate rose and a mix of other climbers. However, due to a misunderstanding with a man with a chain saw, all the climbers were cut down. Find out how that happened here, if you want to be reminded of the importance of good communication in gardening.

Mr Middlesize says he needs a storage area in the garden. So the bare terrace left after the pergola collapsed has been colonised by stuff. My garden designer friends point out that a cluttered, storage area should not be the first thing you see when you step onto the upper lawn. Our garden corner may be forgotten, but it is far from hidden.

The first step towards turning this into a delightful and useful part of the garden is to make a list of the options.

The top 10 options to transform a forgotten garden corner

I’ll go into the pros and cons of each further down the post.

  1. A garden shed
  2. A pergola or gazebo
  3. A seating area or table and chairs
  4. A fireplace
  5. A sculpture
  6. A flower border
  7. A tree
  8. A greenhouse
  9. A compost heap
  10. A wildlife corner

Put a shed in the corner

I’ve looked back over the pictures I’ve taken of gardens over the past seven years. If you have a small or middle-sized garden, then ‘shed’ is definitely the most popular option for a corner of the garden.

I would love a grand garden shed – or at least something creative and wonderful.

The Potting shed

This shed was adapted from an old swimming pool changing room by Charlotte Molesworth. It’s in a wonderful, topiary-based garden in Kent. You can stay overnight in the garden in The Potting Shed.

But as we already have a potting shed and a tool shed,  I don’t need another shed. Nor can we afford to buy an unnecessary shed.

Sheds for a garden corner

Sheds in the corners of gardens. The top shed was an ordinary shed, painted by a muralist (the open door, the cat, the chair and the fork are all painted!). The shed below was built by Posy Gentles and friends out of reclaimed and new materials. Find out how here.

You can, in fact, move a shed, but we are quite happy with the location of our current sheds. The Middlesized Garden is an L shape, so we have six corners. And we have our practical sheds round the side of the L, where they can’t be seen from the house.

Moving your shed could be a good option, though, if it’s not in the right place.

If you need a home office or a home gym, then a shed is a good way of creating an extra room. But this kind of shed will come with a price tag. You will need to insulate, heat and light it. It’s also important to have a good base. See this post to find out what you need to know before buying a shed.

A pergola or gazebo

When we first moved into this house, our predecessors told us that this corner of the garden ‘never really worked, so we put up a pergola.’ I always wondered what they meant.

It’s only after living here for seventeen years that I understand. The corner is north-east facing and is bordered by two high garden walls. It is in shade for all but an hour or so a day.

And we already have a pergola/gazebo in the other corner of the garden. It is a much better location, because it’s on a sunny facing wall. It feels lighter and warmer.

There are several ways of defining the difference between a pergola and a gazebo. I accept the definition that says that a pergola has an open roof and a gazebo has weather protection on the roof.

Gazebo or pergola

The top gazebo is a traditional building at Gravetye Manor in Sussex. The seat below is under a pergola, with no protection from the weather.

The pergola in the south facing corner of the garden used to be open, but my brother-in-law added a roof a few years ago. So we now call it a gazebo. It only cost a few hundred pounds, so was a low-cost way of getting an all-weather entertaining area. Find out how we did it in How to turn a pergola into a simple gazebo.

Gazebo for a garden corner

This was a standard pergola. My brother-in-law gave it a corrugated iron roof. It’s a cost-effective way of giving yourself an ‘outdoor room’ but you need to be good at DIY.

So a pergola or gazebo is definitely an option.

A seating or entertaining area in the corner of the garden

This overlaps with the pergola/gazebo idea. You often need some protection from the sun or weather in a seating area.

However, I’ve seen several garden corners with benches that don’t have any protection. Looking at them carefully, I feel that these work best in gardens that are either very small or quite large.

A corner seating area is delightful if you have acres of garden and want to be able to sit somewhere in each ‘garden room.’ A corner bench is also good in a small, urban garden because it will be near to the house. It’s a good use of space.

In my middle-sized garden, this corner is 100ft from the back door. That’s just a bit too far, yet a bit too near. It’s not immediately convenient if you want to take cushions, cups of tea and books out. But it’s not far enough away from the house to be interestingly different.

But we can try out some open seating, and see if we use it.

Garden corner seating options

The top photo shows a pretty bench in one of the garden areas in Doddington Place Gardens – a perfect place to rest when walking round a beautiful 10 acre garden. And the picture below shows an informal seating area in a small courtyard garden – it’s secluded and convenient.

This is the option we finally went for. I bought some second hand chairs from a friend and had outdoor cushions made for them. We have let some flowers self-seed themselves amongst the pavers and have planted two new silver birch trees. And we’ve also added some nesting boxes on the wall.

Turn a difficult shady corner into a relaxed seating area.

It’s now a pleasure to sit in this little relaxed space.

A wild corner for seating

We’ve deliberately allowed it to be a little more wild than other seating areas in the garden, but we had cushions made for the second-hand vintage furniture.

A fireplace in a garden corner…

I would really love a fireplace in that corner. There would have to be seating too, of course, and maybe a gazebo…

But it is not necessarily a simple job to construct a garden fireplace. What with brickwork, chimney and design costs, it’s likely to cost several thousand pounds (or dollars). Award-winning garden designer Charlotte Rowe has designed many gorgeous urban gardens with fireplaces, including her own (below). A fireplace is definitely high on my wish list. In the meantime, I may look at using a small free-standing fire.

Garden designer Charlotte Rowe

This outdoor fireplace is in the corner of garden designer Charlotte Rowe’s garden because it lines up visually with the back door. Charlotte says that it is important to design a garden – or any element of the garden – ‘from the house’. Having the fireplace to one side also allows a large raised bed. The wide border edges are exactly the right height for informal seating. See more of her brilliant garden design tips in 12 tips for a stunning urban garden.

Or a tree for a shady corner…

A tree is always a good addition to the garden. I would like one with spring blossom and autumn colour.

It’s vitally important to think about the aspect when you’re choosing a tree. This is a north-facing corner, so the tree won’t get much sun when it’s growing. And many trees and shrubs with good late season colour get their best hues when they grow in sunny spots. They will still look nice in shady spots, but it’s not an ideal position to get the best display.

Rowan, hawthorn, cornus and field maple (acer campestre) are all recommended for north facing walls and have good autumn colour. The rowan, hawthorn and cornus should have good spring blossom too. However, not all have both, so check the variety and labelling carefully.

There’s more about the best trees for a smaller garden here, with advice from award winning garden designer, Jamie Butterworth.

You could also consider a stumpery. This is a Victorian garden design fashion which re-uses fallen tree stumps instead of discarding them. It’s an unusual and charming option for shade, so find out how to create a stumpery here.

Cornus Norman Haddon for a shady garden corner

Cornus ‘Norman Haddon’ grows well in a shady spot and has very pretty flowers in spring. It also has good autumn colour, and only reaches about 5 metres/20ft high in 20 years. Always check the eventual height when planting a tree or shrub.

If you’re interested in plants for shade, then Stephen Ryan and Matthew Lucas of The Horti-Culturalists YouTube channel have a very good video with trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses for shade. See it here.

I also asked their advice on choosing plants for shade in this post. Read it to find out what sort of shade you have in your garden.

Is a garden corner a good place for a sculpture?

Sculpture is a good focal point in a garden, so think about the lines of sight. Where will you see this sculpture from?

In my case, I’m not sure that sculpture makes a great deal of sense for this corner, but it can work very well. Here are more tips on how to place sculpture in your garden.

Especially think about whether your sculpture needs to be seen from all angles or whether just viewing it from two sides is enough.

Sculpture in a garden corner

This garden designed by Dan McGeoghegan and Ryan Bell for BBC Gardeners World Live shows a great use of sculpture in a garden corner.

Or continue the border around the corner?

This would be the simplest option, but still requires thought. Do I just carry the border straight up, then turn right to marry it up with the border along the back wall? Or should we curve the shape round? Does the new border area need its own focal point or is it just a continuation?

It’s important to remember that this is a shady, north facing garden corner, so that will limit the choice of plants. See this post for more tips and ideas on planting a shady border.

And ask what time of year you want the colour? Taking that there is good summer colour elsewhere in the garden, I think that it would be good to consider shrubs with spring blossom and autumn colour. I saw some beautiful winged spindle (Euonymus alatus) when I visited Gravetye Manor Gardens last year.  The RHS tells me it is suitable for north-facing walls, although once again it may not have the best display in this position.

Eunonymus alatus

Euonymus alatus, also known as ‘burning bush’ is a striking and easy-going shrub for difficult situations. However it is considered invasive in some parts of the United States, so check this if you live in the US.

What about a shady corner for the compost bins?

The RHS says that shady areas are good for compost bins. The micro-organisms that turn garden waste into compost like fairly steady temperatures, rather than heating up, then cooling down.

We already have a compost bin corner out of view of the house, so that isn’t an option for us. But it may suit your shady garden corner. See here to find out how to make easy compost. 

And a garden corner for wildlife?

Don’t position bug hotels or bat boxes in a shady north-facing position, say all the wildlife charities. It’s too cold. A wildlife pond, too, needs some sunshine and warmth. See here for how to make a mini wildlife pond.

However, bird feeders could be placed in a shady or north facing position. The RSPB says that the most important thing to think of when placing bird feeders is that it should be a quiet spot, and safe from cats.

Wildlife garden specialist Joel Ashton thought that this shady corner would be a good place for a bird box. He also recommended growing a hop as a climber, because it doesn’t mind the shade.  (See his other suggestions in 5 easy wildlife garden tips.)

But you should NOT use your shady garden corner for…

Don’t put a greenhouse in a shady garden corner. There is quite a lot of debate on where to position a greenhouse and whether it should face east-west or north-south. But everyone advises against placing it on a north-facing wall. Even though the corner is technically facing north-east, the high walls mean that there is very little direct sun so the greenhouse is unlikely to warm up.

And don’t let the corner of your garden turn into a dumping ground.

As soon as the old pergola was cleared away, leaving a small area of stone paving, we started using it for any odd thing that had nowhere to go. Mr Middlesize is very keen on having somewhere to dump things. Garden designer friends have pointed out that this is a very visible corner. A pile of clutter looks unattractive. I may have to get them to explain this to Mr M in some kind of garden design intervention.

Not all difficult corners are shady, so here are some ideas for other neglected areas.

There are always some extra views of the gardens in the video:

See more of the garden in the video!

Inspiration for your shady corner!

More shady garden tips and ideas

Find out how Richard and Jacqui Drew have made the most of their north-facing garden to create a charming, wildlife-friendly garden.

And if I decide simply to plant up my shady corner, I will be re-visiting this post on how to choose the best plants for dry shade.

Shop my favourite gardening books, products and tools…

I’m often asked for recommendations, so I’ve put together my favourite gardening books, products and tools in lists on the Middlesized Garden Amazon shop. Note that links to Amazon are affiliate so I may get a fee if you buy, but it doesn’t affect the price you pay. And I only recommend things I use myself or which have been recommended by people I trust!

For example, here’s my list of recommended books on plants, including Beth Chatto’s Shade Garden on shade loving plants for year-round interest.

Pin to remember shady garden corner tips

And if you’d like more tips, ideas and inspiration for your garden, enter your email address here to get a free weekly email from the Middlesized Garden. You can unsubscribe at any time and we’ll never share your address with anyone!

10 clever ideas for your shady garden corner

8 comments on "10 shady garden corner ideas to love – and two to avoid!"

  1. Jane Grimshaw says:

    Very realistic view of the average UK garcen-for a pleasant change! Fed up of huge gardens referred to as’small’ I have small and it’s a nightmare! Faces east in shadow of the house.sun for 4hrs maybe in high summer freezing by 3pm yet blisteringly hot at West facing front garden! Keep threatening to sunbathe and hang washing AND erect greenhouse in large front garden……..

    1. Thank you – and that does sound quite challenging!

  2. Tracey says:

    I’d plant a fernery with a tree fern as the focal point and some mouse ear hostas at the front.

  3. Jane says:

    I hope you keep us informed on what you decide here. I’m very curious.

  4. Christine Longstaff says:

    Love the blog! We too had a dumping ground near the shed. I’ve now got two super compost bins that my husband made.

    1. Thank you! We’re still dithering…

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