Updated date:

Best Plants for a Wooded Shade Garden

Virginia enjoys her cottage in the NH woods near a lake. It's a beautiful area that attracts weekenders and summer folk.

Have Lots of Trees?

Lots of trees may 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.

Lots of trees may 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.

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. Don't get discouraged. You just need to find the right plants for the conditions you have. Here are my recommendations after ten years of shade gardening.

Obviously, you don't want to get rid of your trees. 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.


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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

The plumes of the astilbe are quite colorful and eye-catching. When not in bloom, they form a nice clump of foliage.

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.

the-shade-garden
the-shade-garden
I also have several white ones in addition to the pink and wine colored ones.

I also have several white ones in addition to the pink and wine colored 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.

Warning:

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

Japanese Painted Fern

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. As you can see, this is an old stone wall with lichen.

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. As you can see, this is an old stone wall with lichen.

Learn More about Ferns for Your Garden

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.

Recommended Trees

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 aged cow manure (worked into the soil) and also some Miracle-Gro. I just need to be patient. Hemlocks make a good screen with their thick branches.

I should have checked their advice before we planted a red maple in the edge of our woods. We wanted that splash of color against the deep greens of the pine, beech, oaks, and regular maples. Unfortunately, the red maple is having a hard time getting enough sun with all the bigger trees around it. That makes it lean towards the deck seeking light.


Bushes

For bushes, they mentioned bush honeysuckle, also called American Fly Honeysuckle. Another shrub is the maple-leaf 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.

Find the Right Plants for Your Shaded Areas

the-shade-garden

How Much Shade Is in Your Garden?

Use Native Plants for Your Wooded Area

the-shade-garden

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.

Here's a Plant That Demands Shade

Dicentra or Bleeding Heart comes in pink or white. It will only grow in shade.

Dicentra or Bleeding Heart comes in pink or white. It will only grow in shade.

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.

the-shade-garden

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:

  • bunchberry
  • checkerberry or wintergreen or teaberry
  • woodbine/Virginia Creeper
  • lindonberry.


Wild Plants as Ground Cover

This wildflower is called foam flower. I love the delicate bloom.

This wildflower is called foam flower. I love the delicate bloom.

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

the-shade-garden
A violet - these bloom in the early spring.

A violet - these bloom in the early spring.

Additional Resources for Planning Your Shade Garden

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Virginia Allain

Let Me Know You Stopped By... - Sign the guestbook, please

Makwana bhavesh from Delhi on July 04, 2020:

Good

Deb Dick on June 13, 2019:

When you get here id like to discuss growing some of these shaded plants.

Thanks

Diana Grant from United Kingdom on May 31, 2016:

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 (author) from Central Florida on August 12, 2015:

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

Barbara Badder from USA on August 11, 2015:

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

Kathryn Grace from San Francisco on August 11, 2015:

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 from Northeast Ohio on August 11, 2015:

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 Burns from High desert of Nevada. on August 10, 2015:

Beautiful photos and great tips, Virginia. Well done.

Melody Lassalle from California on August 10, 2015:

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.

Jennifer P Tanabe from Red Hook, NY on August 03, 2015:

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

Virginia Allain (author) from Central Florida on July 09, 2015:

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 from Vermont on July 09, 2015:

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.

MarcellaCarlton on April 22, 2014:

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

DreamsBloom on June 21, 2013:

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 Carol Brown Hardin from Las Vegas, NV on June 21, 2013:

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.

Nancy Tate Hellams from Pendleton, SC on April 11, 2013:

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

Virginia Allain (author) from Central Florida on February 17, 2013:

@ecogranny: Sounds truly delightful.

Kathryn Grace from San Francisco on February 17, 2013:

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 (author) from Central Florida on November 16, 2012:

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

AlleyCatLane on November 13, 2012:

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 on November 13, 2012:

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

Carolan Ross from St. Louis, MO on November 13, 2012:

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.

Peggy Hazelwood from Desert Southwest, U.S.A. on April 17, 2012:

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.

Kirsti A. Dyer from Northern California on April 17, 2012:

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