Shade gardens that shine

Beautiful ways to use shade plants in mountain or woodland settings

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The Therrells filled their entry garden with azaleas, rhododendrons, Japanese maples, and other shade-tolerant exotics, but left most of the rest of their property as woodland.

The ground is carpeted with moss and a generous array of ferns. Spring-blooming woodland flowers, including bleeding hearts, trilliums, and violas, dot the forest floor from March through May; red-flowering currants and bunchberries pop out in April; and native azaleas and rhododendrons light up the woods in May. Ocean spray and twinflowers close out the season in June. After that, the exotics, including hostas and impatiens, carry on the floral show.

Shade plants in general and native plants in particular tend to have an open, informal look--a characteristic that leads many gardeners to think of them as plants suitable only for the wild garden. But Nita Therrell calls them rambunctious plants that simply want a little training. Therrell shears her huckleberry, ocean spray, Oregon boxwood, and salal plants close, and and she even maintains a perfectly sheared rhododendron hedge in the entry garden.


Ironically, although shade plants usually cannot tolerate full sun during the hottest part of the day, most grow and flower best when they get plenty of light. They love the light shade cast by high-arching tree canopies, as well as the shade common in gardens that are shaded to the south but open to sky on the north. Generally, they don't perform as well in full shade.

Experiment to see what works for your garden: If your plants grow too leggy and fail to flower, they're probably getting too much shade. Transplant them in a brighter spot (or thin out any overhead branches that are casting shadows).

Because so many shade plants come from woodlands, they thrive in the kind of porous, humusy soil typically found in the forest. If you have this kind of soil, maintain it by mulching with compost or leaf mold twice a year. If you don't, create your own by tilling a 3- to 4-inch layer of composted organic matter into your soil. Or combine 2 parts organic amendment (compost or peat moss) with 1 part sand and 1 part garden loam to form a layer of soil at least 8 inches deep to spread over the ground.

 Next: Ground covers & perennials



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