A shady border – the best (and easiest) part of your garden?

May 6th, 2018
Posted In: Gardening know how

My shady border looks good for longer than anywhere else in the garden. And it’s less work!

A shady border doesn’t get as many weeds. And when plants flower in a shade, they stay in flower for longer.

Plus, of course, there’s much less watering in a hot, dry summer. I have never watered any plant in my shady border and they have all survived some exceptionally hot dry spells without wilting or scorching.

Hyndrangea 'Annabelle' and cotoneaster in a shady border

A spray of cotoneaster, hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ and an evergreen cyprus in my north-facing shady border.

If you look up ‘plants for shade’, you usually will see barely repressed pity for those with shady gardens or borders. The implication is usually that this is the ‘difficult’ part of your garden, and that you will struggle to make it even look acceptable…if only all borders could be in full sun, our gardens would be perfect…

But there are thousands of plants which are happy in shade or partial shade. And the bonus of less work is hard to ignore.

I’ve spent 10+ hours weeding the sunny border this year, and it’s still bursting with weeds. They come back vigorously to enjoy the sunshine. The shady border does have weeds in it, but they are slower growing.

Foxgloves are shade-loving plants

This shady patch in one of my borders hosts shade-loving foxgloves, smyrnium perfoliatum, angelica archangelica and hydrangeas. I basically leave it to get on with it.

In which border do flowers last longer? While my sunny border flowers go over at astonishing speed, the shade garden side offers a long, leisurely season of enjoyment. At the moment, the shady border has Solomon’s seal, saxifrage ‘London Pride’ and lily of the valley in flower, while the last hellebores are just going over.

And which border is best all-year round? Definitely the shady one, as far as I’m concerned.

Shady border in winter

The north facing border in winter…

Plants for shade

But aren’t you restricted in choice when it comes to plants for a shady border?

I was originally going to call this ‘the best plants for a shade garden’ or some such, but the more research I did on plants that were suitable for shady gardens, the longer the list grew. It’s much, much too long for one post.

Persicaria grows well in shade

A friend with a woodland garden grows several varieties of persicaria.

But, just for starters: lamium, hydrangeas, tiarellas, astilbe, Japanese Anemone (esp Honorine Joubert), skimmia, cyclamen, alchemilla mollis, acanthus mollis, hardy geraniums, ferns, hellebores, persicaria, eupatorium…

Shade loving anemones

Anenome Honorine Joubert is another shade-lover

Box and tree ferns for shade

Box and tree ferns are two plants that do well in shade, seen here at Le Jardin Agapanthe in France

The fact is that some plants do better in full sun and others in shade or part-shade. Either way, your choice of plant is restricted by aspect.  You will generally see more plants for ‘full sun’ in plant brochures, but a friend of mine thinks that’s a bit like the label on clothes that says ‘dry clean only.’ It’s generally ‘safer’ advice.

Hydrangeas for shady borders

Hydrangeas are good ‘shady border’ plants and come in a wide range of shapes and colours.

I’ve got a group of Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ who absolutely adore my ‘full shade’ border. I’ve tried to relocate them to where they’re supposed to be – in full sun – but they keep coming back. Oddly enough, however, they don’t like either of the semi-shady beds. I think plants just don’t read their own labels sometimes…

Shady terrace

The north-facing shady border…

There are some more excellent plants for shade here in this video from The Horti-Culturalists YouTube channel. And there’s more about different kinds of shade and how to choose plants for each one in this post.

Do you actually need MORE shade in your garden?

As two friends and I were going round the wonderful Jardin Agapanthe in Northern France, we all mused that we needed more shade in our garden.

Le Jardin Agapanthe is an example of a garden where the owner deliberately created shade – it could have been an open expanse of sunny and colourful borders.

But the owner has deliberately planted a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees to create a mysterious and magical effect. It’s a layered plantaholic’s delight and one of the most romantic gardens I’ve ever seen.

Le Jardin Agapanthe is a shady garden

Le Jardin Agapanthe in Northern France is a largely shady garden because of the layers of trees planted by the owner. But it’s still lush.

Shady courtyard

This courtyard at Le Jardin Agapanthe is surrounded by trees and vegetation – it feels charming and private.

Garden design inspiration for a shady border

There are several garden design themes you can use for a shady border or area of your garden. Or even your whole garden if it’s in the shade.

Many exotic plants are shade-loving because a jungle is quite a shady place. There’s a growing fashion for ‘exotic’ or jungle gardens, particularly in city gardens which are often surrounded by houses and quite shady.

If you want a jungle garden and don’t have lots of shade, you’ll need to think about creating more shade. A jungle is layered, with only the tallest trees getting full sun.

Those who create exotic gardens in temperate climates make excellent use of shade-loving plants to create a lush atmosphere.

Exotic gardens are often shady

Stephen Edney and Lou Dowle’s exotic garden in Kent is another garden where the owners have deliberately created more shade with lavish planting in layers, and lots of height.

Coleus prefers shade

Many exotic-leaved plants, such as coleus, prefer shade. In Stephen Edney and Lou Dowle’s garden (often open for the NGS)

Create a jungle effect with shade loving plants

This jungle courtyard garden belongs to  head gardener Philip Oostenbrink, author of The Jungle Garden. It’s a wonderful style for small, shady gardens – Philip’s own garden is a small courtyard but it is so lush and full of plants that it seems endless and mysterious. Note that links to Amazon are affiliate, see disclosure.

Stumperies are another design feature you could use in a shady border or area. A stumpery is a group of tree stumps, logs and associated wood, set out in a sculptural way to show off the beauty of the roots, bark or other aspects of a dead tree.

A stumpery is brilliant for wildlife. And if you have a part of the garden that really does seem too shady for a border, it’s worth considering a stumpery. They can work in both small and large gardens. Find out more about how to create a stumpery here.

A range of stumperies in small and large gardens

These stumperies are (clockwise from top left) in a small front garden, Doddington Place Gardens in Kent, a show garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and in a small urban garden.

Use leaf contrast instead of colour in a shady border

There is a much wider range of brightly coloured flowers suitable for a sunny border. But there are still plenty of plants which flower in shade. See this short video for 8 good examples.

However, you can achieve a wonderful effect by focusing on leaf contrast. Plant different shades of green side by side.

Make sure that long thin leaves sit beside rounded or heart-shaped ones. Combine spikes and spheres, soft foliage and striking shapes.

Although some leaves fall off in winter, many shady borders look just as good in winter as they do in summer. (Meanwhile that super-sunny flowering border is often nearly empty in winter!)

Shape in a shady border

Leaf and plant shape is important in my north-facing border.

Shade-loving fatsia

Fatsia has a strong, exotic leaf shape and loves shade.

So before cutting down that tree, think about how much easier a shady garden is. Weeds don’t grow so fast. It’s more private. Plants that do flower often last longer. There’s a huge range in leaf shape and colour. And because it’s often more reliant on plant shape than colour, a shady border is more likely to look good all year round.

But if you really do want more light, don’t cut the trees down. Have them properly pruned and shaped. But don’t just let anyone hack at it. See what you need to know before pruning your trees.

Find out more about choosing the best plants for shady places in this video:

This interview with Stephen Ryan of the Horti-Culturalists YouTube channel will help you understand more about how to choose plants for the shady parts of the garden. And every garden has shade or partial shade!

Find out what kind of shade your garden has.

Pin to remember why a shady border is wonderful!

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5 comments on "A shady border – the best (and easiest) part of your garden?"

  1. What a beautiful post! Thanks.

  2. A great reminder that the shady places keep a garden going while the hot sunny plants come in a blaze of glory and then go. I love shady areas and love shade-loving plants. I hugely recommend https://plantsforshade.co.uk who sell every plant you need for shade.

    1. oh, I’ll definitely check that out, thank you

  3. Chris B says:

    I’ve noticed during the hot bank holiday weekend that some of the sunnier parts kf the garden are looking a bit shocked by the sudden jump in temperatures, but the shady side looks the same as it always does. You’re definitely right that it needs very little irrigation and weeding by comparison.

    Moderate shade definitely leaves you lots of options, although dense shade (below a completely closed canopy) is very difficult. I’ve been surprised over the years how successful many supposedly sun-loving plants can be with only indirect light (e.g. against a north facing wall). Now my approach is if in doubt, try it.

    1. Absolutely. And I’ve also found that the plant doesn’t necessarily die if it’s not happy, it just doesn’t do very well, so we can move it. Nothing to lose!

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