How to plant a shady border

By Andy McIndoe

Planting shady borders
Andy: As RHS Chelsea Flower Show approaches I thought it would be great to get Gold Medal winning garden designer Kate Gould to share her thoughts on planting shady gardens. Most gardens have shady situations to deal with and many small urban gardens are in shade for much of the time. We all want a beautiful outdoor space to live with so it is useful to get a designer’s view on how to go about creating it.

Kate: Right plant, right place is what I was taught when I studied garden design and planting design. It is so easy to get swept up in in the bright summer displays in garden centres and nurseries and tempting to plant impulse purchases in difficult and challenging spaces. Although hope over experience can get you so far, with conditions such as those of a shady border it is much wiser to select your plants with planning and care.

shade loving plants

What to plant in shade

A shady border need never be dull. Texture is the key to adding interest, but before we consider plants we should evaluate the aspect. There is shade; gentle and dappled with shafts of bright light at different times of the day as the sun moves across the sky and then there is shade; dry, dark, dense and unforgiving. Needless to say if you have the conditions of the latter then that is rather unfortunate and establishing any planting will be a labour of love. The former, though it too has its challenges is far simpler to achieve and is perhaps the level of shade many of us have in our gardens.

Shady borders

What to plant under a shady tree

Most often shady gardens are shady because of overhead tree cover and so not only are they shady but dry too. Preparing your ground is vital for any new scheme but especially so with a shady border. Well rotted organic matter, pH appropriate to your site should be incorporated in and around the generous planting hole (twice the size of the pot at least) and prior to planting deluge two or three full two gallon watering cans of water into each hole before you put the plant in to soak the surrounding earth. Let the water drain away and then place the plant in the hole, backfill with the original soil mixed with new organic matter, top soil, fertiliser and compost and then a final water and a mulch over the top to prevent water loss through transpiration are all well worth the effort. While the plants are young watering will be vital throughout the drier months. If you have an overhead canopy of evergreen trees then you may need to water even in wet weather as the canopy will shade out the ground underneath and the rain my never get through in sufficient quantities.

Shade from trees

It is tempting to buy larger specimen plants to start a scheme for instant impact and gratification but in shady spaces starting small (2-3L) is more likely to produce better and quicker results than planting a mature shrub. Smaller plants establish better and will attune themselves to the location and conditions much more easily.

The colours that work best in the shade are not surprisingly whites, pale blues and pinks. These light shades help to brighten a dull space and work well against the foliage shades of dark green supplied by most shade loving shrubs. Yellow is also a good colour for early or late in the season and always works well with blues and purples.

Some plants to consider for a successful partly shady border:
Hydrangea varieties:

These deciduous shrubs vary in size, some grow to 6ft x 6ft (1.8m x 1.8m) with white, pink or blue flowers. Do not let them dry out at any time though as their leaves become papery and see through and flower-heads will not develop. Blue and pink Hydrangea flowers generally depend on the pH of the soil to set the colour but for an easier approach stick to white varieties which are reliably white regardless of soil pH.

Sarcococca varieties:

Evergreen shrubs up to 4ft x 4ft (1.2m x 1.2m) with white, although a little inconspicuous flowers. Highly scented in the winter so plant where you will appreciate the scent. Sarcococca and daphne varieties with deutzia make a great combination that covers a lot of ground.

Mahonia eurybracteata 'Soft Caress':

Evergreen shrub up to 3ft x 3ft (90cm x 90cm)with fern-like leaves and yellow flowers

A soft foliage Mahonia that flowers earlier than most; a new introduction. Carpeting hypericum, vinca or pachysandra would all make good planting companions.

Mahonia Soft Caress 1

Dicksonia Antarctica:

Depending on your climate tree ferns, Dicksonia can hold their leaves all year or they will require winter protection. Dicksonia are purchased by “feet” relating to the trunk height so a mixture of different height plants make a good combination. Great for a tropical looking scheme with other ferns, hosta and low growing bamboo.

Rhododendron varieties:

Evergreen or deciduous forms with a wide variety of flower colours. From small shrubs to almost tree-like forms. There must be a Rhododendron for every taste. From huge flamboyant blooms to delicate scented varieties. All appreciate the shade and will add colour to spring and early summer borders. Acidic soil is important but if your soil is pH neutral then the acidic ratio can be added via specific fertilizer. Rhododendrons look best with other acid lovers such as camellia and pieris.


There will be a fern to suit most sites and situation; Dryopteris affinis, Asplenium scolopendrium and Polypodium vulgare are easy and reliable. Athyrium nipponicum var. pictum is a silver coloured fern that requires more care and attention but its foliage is a bright highlight to greens in the shade.

Hosta varieties:

OK, so they are martyrs to slugs and snails but hostas compliment so many other plants that the attention they require is worth the effort. Paeonia, polygonatum, lamprocapnos, helleborus, ferns and hydrangea are all reliable companions.

Anemone varieties:

(particularly A. x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ White saucer shaped blooms with a fluffy golden centre are held on nodding stems in late summer and autumn. Try with Phlox paniculata ‘David’, Pachysandra terminalis and Anemanthele lessoniana which is a coppery coloured grass that will add texture.


Euphorbia amydaloides var. robbiae:

It is a spreader but its acid blooms in the spring are so bright and cheery especially when combined with colours at the opposite end of the spectrum. Try with Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’ or Geranium phaeum vars.

Vinca minor varieties:

A great range of carpeting evergreen plants with saucer shaped flowers. Vinca will cope with most sites and situations but very dry soil does slow them down. Try vinca vars. With Liripoe muscari, ferns and low growing spring bulbs.

Convallaria majalis:

Lily of the Valley will spread to form wide clumps, if allowed and their scented blooms are an added bonus in the spring. Best planted at the edge of a border, under shrubs where they can be easily kept in check and their scent appreciated in late spring.

Convallaria majalis

These are of course only a few of the plants that will grow happily in shade but there are many, many more. In order for your shady area to be successful the key is in the preparation and research. Prepare your ground well and chose plants that the Royal Horticultural Society’s A-Z of Garden Plants states as shade tolerant. Taking the time to plan your border and planting appropriate plants means that a once difficult space could be transformed into a colourful border that provides interest throughout the seasons.

Kate Gould is an award winning garden designer with more than a decade’s hands-on experience transforming gardens of all sizes and a regular exhibitor at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show where she has been awarded three Gold medals.

Andy McIndoe

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