Choosing shady plants

Think thrive, not survive

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In Failures Tell Tales, a gardener is frustrated to have had only 2 or 3 of 20 or more species "take" in his new shady garden. He sees it as a dismal plant success rate. However, we're not surprised. In fact, we think 2 or 3 self-selected thrivers is a great start. The trick is to use more of those and keep trying others.

We're not being flippant - we know that losing plants puts the hurt on a gardener, spiritually if not economically. What we write here is what works.

Best plants for this dry shade (a subset of our complete Shade Gardening Plant Lists)

It's what we've done since 1995 in 1,000 square feet of our big Adopt-A-Garden perennial area at the Detroit Zoo. It's all fast-draining, alkaline sandy soil under mulberries and oaks, with no irrigation system other than one beleaguered volunteer per week, given a hose and bucket and charged to try to "keep the new things and annuals going."


In that space we began with about 50 species...  ZooShadePrepB4Aftr164s.jpg


...and after a few years settled on 8 that stood the test... ZShad1stB4Aft165s.jpg


...tried another 20 over several more years, netting 3 more winners. We play all winners to their limit. (More details below.) ZooShade2543as.jpg


It summarizes this way:

  • Choose plants as best you can. Use books, surf the Internet, take a walk at a wooded nature center and use a wildflower guide. As you search, avoid plants said to "tolerate shade." We don't want tolerant plants, we want exuberant players - shade lovers.
  • Give the garden a year or three. Then cull the first herd, propagating those that thrived so they can cover more ground. Trial more species and so on until you have 8 or 10 winners.
  • Never expect it to look like a sun garden. In the woods, a bare handful of species may thrive under trees. Scattered about will be what appear to be bare spaces. These are actually fully occupied by tree parts under and below -- the land is at carrying capacity. Fill these necessary voids with paths, stone, artsy fallen logs, a bigger bird bath. 

Below: This is a rich, moist woods with relatively few bare spaces at ground level, yet there are still relatively few species. (For those with moist shade: The most visible herbaceous perennial visible here is the August-blooming wildflower, richweed Collinsonia canadensis).


Below: This is a dry shady area under young serviceberries (Amelanchier canadensis) and mature oaks where we want things to take care of themselves as they do in a woods. We've tucked divisions and seedlings in, let them be and allowed plants to self-select. Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis and hybrids) have done well. A few Hosta cultivars made it despite heavy rabbit feeding, among them 'GoldenTiara.' Big leaf forget me not (Brunnera macrophylla) opted in -- here, its big leaves may look like hostas to you. A third success is fairy candle or snakeroot (Cimicifuga racemosa, a.k.a. Actaea racemosa). We're happy with three "winners."


Best perennials in dry shade

Our winners may not be yours, or right for your next garden

Rejoice in every perennial that signs on for the long haul in a shady garden. However, don't expect it to transfer to every other shade garden. You may move it into the same light situation (same number of hours and times of day) but the soil type is a bit different, so that it has occasional damp roots, or too little of a given nutrient, and it struggles. The trees above it may be a different species, with roots formed differently or exuding a different chemical cocktail. We don't get frustrated over this. It's a living, immortal jigsaw puzzle.

Even ferns have specific favorite places. Japanese painted fern (Athyrium japonicum 'Pictum', below, right) is normally on our list for performing well in dry shade and heat. Yet it has not thrived in the garden we've used as an example for this article. Why? Maybe one day we'll identify the critical element that's missing in this environment, or maybe it will remain a mystery. Either way, we love the plant!PntdFernShad65s.jpg

That said, the most successful perennials so far in our dry, shady garden mentioned above, have been:

Here they are, just planted and a few years later when  it was obvious which had prospered.  (B - bigleaf forget me not; bbc - blue bush clematis; F - fringecups; G - goatsbeard; gbh - golden bleeding heart; S - sweet Solomon's seal; W - woody poppy.) We removed those that had waned or only held their own (red x's). Although there are a lot of red x's we don't let that get us down. Overall, the garden's thriving so we're happy, too.



Bigleaf forget me not (Brunnera macrophylla); this variety is 'Variegata'


Blue bush clematis (C. heracleifolia davidiana)


Fringecups (Tellima grandiflora)


Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus)


Golden bleeding heart (Corydalis lutea)


Sweet Solomon's seal, variegated form (Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum')


Wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum)

CeladinePoppy0564.jpgYellow lamium (Lamium maculatum 'Aureum') Shown here in the sun where we never expected it to do so well. We thought it would scorch. We knew it would grow faster than in the shade but the reality was shocking -- this was a 12" x 12" division three months before this photo was taken. We'll be taking it out and putting the pieces back into the shade where it's more sedate.


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