Light in the Shade Garden


A thriving garden in the shade is not only possible, it could become the highlight of your landscape with careful planning, preparation, and plant selection.

Planning–How Much light?

It is important to know how much sunlight areas receive and when they receive it. Look at your garden during different times of the day to determine exactly how much light your plants will receive throughout the day. Draw a rough sketch of your bed, noting which areas receive more/less light and timing of light throughout the day. Mapping out variations in light gives you a wider variety of plant choices and allows you to choose the right plant for the right location. Often you have more light than you had originally thought.


Part Shade is defined as 2-4 hours of direct sunlight or filtered sun (25% or less) all day. Full Shade occurs with only indirect light and NO direct sunlight or filtered sunlight. Dense Shade involves NO sunlight at all.

Don’t forget to include shadows cast upon your garden by structures and shrubs. Shade comes from more than just trees.


It is important to know when light hits various parts of your garden. Sunlight in the morning may allow you to choose a part-sun perennial. Conversely, afternoon sun is more intense, meaning that you need to choose plants that can tolerate more sun.

Observe when your trees get their leaves in the spring. You may choose to plant bulbs to bloom under the tree canopy before the leaves appear.

Degrees of Moisture

Shade is sometimes thought to be synonymous with darkness and moisture. However, many shady sites have dry soil, because rain cannot penetrate the tree canopy, or tree roots consume the moisture. Plants like hydrangeas that do well in shade also need a great deal of water. The name “hydrangea’” comes from the Greek words “hydor” meaning “water” and “angos” meaning “vessel.” The gardener who does not fight nature tends to be more successful. Planting a hydrangea at the base of a pine tree, for example, might be a losing battle, so it’s important to know how much moisture you have in your garden. Keep in mind that tree roots often expand horizontally more than they expand vertically, so that giant tree in your yard may affect water conditions from distant garden beds.

Another factor to consider is that dew dries faster with morning sunlight, so that light allows a wider variety of plants, also may be affecting moisture levels in the garden.

Design Principles to Keep in Mind

Structure: Use larger shrubs to create a backdrop to create a framework for your garden.

Scale: Consider the relative size of one plant to another. You want to vary the heights of the plants with the shorter plants in front.

Texture: Select plants with different kinds of texture for visual interest.

Form: Vary round plants, vertical plants, and accent plants (such as weeping plants/trees) to provide architectural interest. With accent plants, less is more. Avoid an entire bed of accent plants. With shade gardening, art pieces can be important. Consider adding a sculpture, brightly colored container, birdbath, bench, or trellis to add visual interest, a backdrop, or structure to your garden. You can use this space to unleash your creativity!


Contrast, Color, and Light: The shade garden is a great place to use foliage as color. Foliage can also create a bit of light or contrast to an otherwise dark area with limited choices for bloom. Grasses such as Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold' or ‘Aureola,’ Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold,’ and Aralia ‘Sun King’ are bright shades of green and gold to add pizzazz to the shade garden. You can have a great deal of fun choosing your favorite Heuchera with varieties in many different colors and blooms too!


Variety and Unity: Vary colors and structures, but ultimately you must bring your entire design together (unity) so it all makes sense. It important to have repeat color thought the bed (rhythm). If your chosen color is white, include white throughout the garden. Remember that it is especially important in shade gardening to get color from foliage as well as blooms. White can come from plant bloom but also from variegated foliage that includes white. Silver also can appear white. Plants like Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ or 'Alexander the Great,' Japanese Painted ferns, Lungwort, and Lamium can carry the white throughout your garden.



The key to successful gardening is in the preparation. Poor soil can be more detrimental than lack of light, so add organic matter to your soil prior to planting. It is important not to disturb tree roots by burying them in too much amended soil or mulch. If tree roots are an issue in your garden bed, try amending the soil as you dig the hole for each plant.

Plant Selection

Now you are ready to select the right plant for your conditions. You can use The Growing Place free plant search tool by clicking on the following link: TGP Plant Search, or join us on July 8th at 1pm for free Shade Garden Design class at our Aurora location where you will learn to create a shade sanctuary in your yard. We are always glad to have you stop by and ask questions.

Aurora Location

2000 Montgomery Road,

Aurora, IL 60504

Phone. 630-820-8088

Naperville Location

25w471 Plank Road,

Naperville, IL 60563

Phone. 630-355-4000

Spring Hours

March 30-June 30

Monday-Friday: 9am-7pm

Saturday: 9am-5pm

Sunday: 11am-5pm

Memorial Day Hours

Monday, May 27


Growing for the future with
right plantsĀ in right places.