Top 5 Plants for Shade

Having a sheltered garden is quite a gift, especially in Scotland. When we add shelter though, we often create shade, and shade can seem like something we want to avoid. Lawns turn to moss, and plants can struggle to thrive, especially when planted in between roots of large trees and shrubs, and, let’s face it, we all prefer sitting in the sun on that odd day that we can have our dinner al fresco. Shade, though, can add another magical dimension to your garden. 


Our perception of colour changes when it is darker. Bright colours such as white and yellow really pop in the shade. The white bark of birch stands out a lot better in the shade. Lime coloured euphorbia has a real zest when there is less light. 

Another reason to love shade is because, when cast by planting, it gives a feeling of being enclosed, of being safe. Most animals prefer to spend their time in shaded, covered spaces, away from predator eyes. 

Dappled Shade

While large areas of full shade are something to avoid when designing gardens, I almost always add dappled shade. I love canopies that are broken by the odd opening, providing a range of growing conditions which make the understory planting more diverse. Multi-stemmed trees which let through the winter light are very attractive. 

Woodland Planting

Most plants which thrive in shaded conditions have dark green foliage. The green colour we see is chlorophyll – a pigment that absorbs sunlight and turns it into energy. Lots of chlorophyll means efficient conversion of sunlight, which is exactly what woodland plants need, and this sets the palette of the foliage of your planting scheme for shady borders. 

In spring, most canopies are less dense, letting more light through than in the height of summer. Spring bulbs and corms are therefore very effective for woodland planting. With their energy stored, they are ready to spring into action as soon as their time is right. By the time the leaves on the surrounding trees start to unfold, they have flowered and set seed. We see a similar pattern at the end of autumn and early winter, when nerines and autumn crocus give a late flush of colour. 

When adding colour to a woodland border, large carpets, just like we find in nature, are very pleasing. Rather than having a clump of 6 plants, go bold and plant 50. In my designs, I tend to work with plant mixtures and expect them to weave into each other over time rather than for them to stay separate. My favourite woodland carpets include edibles that are great to forage when fresh. Wood sorrel, ramson, and sweet woodruff love to colonise shaded areas, even those with dry soil. 

Moss Border

Another type of plant that is becoming more popular is moss. A moss border is something that is instantly reminiscent of Asian style gardens. Combining it with local wild grasses such as woodrushes and native ferns, and common wildflowers like wood anemone and foxglove, will result in an entirely new look though there is a lot of scope to experiment.

Top 5 Plants for Shade

Woodrush, Luzula sylvatica, and the more ornamental snowy woodrush, Luzula nivea, as a structural plant in between other flowers on the woodland floor covers the ground nicely, surpresses weeds, and keeps carbon and water in the soil, even in winter.

Wood avens, Geum urbanum, is a native wildflower that loves growing in woodlands. It is unassuming and low growing, but when planted in drifts adds a wonderful dimension to a shady part of the garden.

Lily turf, Liriope muscari, will tolerate dry shade. The foliage looks like grass, but in autumn the purple flower spikes add an unexpected flush of colour. 

Red guelder rose, Viburnum opulus Roseum, has wonderful white flowers in early summer that really brighten up a shaded area before the leaves turn red in autumn.

Lily of the valley, Convallaria majalis, is a really strong grower once established, with nodding white flowers that make amazing cut flowers. The red seeds later in the year make it an interesting addition to the border. 

Katrina Flad runs her sustainable garden design and landscaping business frock n wellies from her home in Aberdeenshire. Passionate about the planet and all things that live on it, she wanted to make a real difference to her environment ever since she can remember. In her regular column, Katrina will bring you design solutions for your garden which are sustainable, practical and beautiful. Follow Katrina at frock n wellies on Instagram and Facebook

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