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The Best Plants For A Shady Border

Published on June 7th 2020
A close up of a flower
In the early 2000s, I moved into my first garden. It was cramped and shaded throughout most of the day by a mature hazel tree in the bottom corner of the plot.
In an attempt to banish the gloom, I planted some of my favourite flowers - salvias, alliums and sunflowers and then watched, perplexed, as they became spindly and sickly.
Sunflowers require a lot of sun!
I had made a common mistake – planting sun-lovers that were never destined to thrive in my dark garden.
Over the years, I’ve come to see shady areas as wonderful places to use a wide range of plants that don't mind less light.
Whether your border is situated in deep shade or in the dappled light under deciduous trees, there are many fabulous planting combinations that will rival any display of sun-loving plants.
These plants add a range of special qualities to borders – spring interest, attractive foliage, subtly different shades of green, evergreen structure and even highlights of vivid colour.

Shady border

As with all border designs, it is helpful to consider evergreen structure first.
Shade-tolerant evergreen shrubs include Fatsia japonica - happy in the deepest shade - and butcher’s broom – a plant that has glossy red berries throughout summer and autumn.
Butcher's broom
Year-round foliage can also be added with shade-loving perennials such as the strap-like leaves of Liriope muscari, the dark greens and deep purples of bergenia foliage (Bergenia ‘Overture’ and Bergenia cordifolia ‘Purpurea’.
My favourite is the cream-veined, variegated foliage of Arum italicum subsp. italicum ‘Marmoratum’ – great for shady ground cover.
Arum italicum
For a border that delights all year round, you can include spring-flowering perennials such as lungwort (I love Pulmonaria rubra), lily-of-the-valley, bleeding heart and Forget-Me-Not.
Bleeding heart 'Alba'
As the days get longer, granny’s bonnet, foxgloves, lady’s mantle, hardy geraniums and masterwort really come into their own, adding structure and colour to the border.
A close up of some Alchemilla mollis leaves and yellow flowers

Lady's Mantle

Alchemilla mollis

A close up of some white Astrantia major flowers


Astrantia major


Aquilegia vulgaris


Digitalis purpurea

For autumn interest I often use Japanese anemone (the white flowers of Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ lighten any dark spot).
I also use asters that tolerate partial shade like Aster 'Little Carlow' and Symphyotrichum novi-belgii 'Snowsprite', as well as ornamental tobacco.
Ornamental grasses such as Anemanthele lessoniana and Luzula nivea are also good choices.
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Edible border

Many edible plants require six hours of sunlight to crop successfully, but there are others that can be grown in partial shade and still produce a good harvest.
Morello cherries are ideal for training up a north-facing wall and blackberries, raspberries and currants will also fruit in the shade.
Mint loves to grow in containers in a shady spot alongside parsley, chervil and sorrel.
For vegetables, try salad leaves and rocket – and in semi-shade you can grow potatoes, beetroot, spring onions, leeks and broad beans.

Container combinations

If your garden has a shady area on a patio or in courtyard, try growing low-growing hardy geraniums in pots like Geranium pratense ‘Midnight Ghost’ or Geranium sanguineum var. striatum.
They create a naturalistic atmosphere with soft foliage and months of blooms.
Hostas are also ideal in containers (it’s easier to keep the slugs at bay) and grouping different varieties together work really well.
Heucheras, heucherellas and tiarellas look good in containers, although we find it’s worth treating pots with nematodes to prevent vine weevil grub damage to the roots. They thrive in partial shade and pair well with sedges like Carex buchananii or Carex elata ‘Aurea’.
Finally, for a burst of hot colour in a shady spot, fill pots with Begonia ‘Illumination Orange’, ‘Inferno’ and ‘Funky Orange’. With plants as dazzling and resplendent as these, shady areas will never be dull again!

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