Shady Behavior: 20 Great Plants for the Shade Garden

As a child, I was always drawn to shady nooks. In my mind, a deep green space spoke of mystery with its long shadows and dappled play of light. This fascination has continued into my adulthood. Only now, these same sensations inspire my designs, particularly when it comes to creating a shade garden.


It’s a funny thing. In garden design, we often use hedges, fences and walls to provide a sense of enclosure. Yet, a shade garden needs none of these devices to conjure up exactly the same thing. How is this so? It’s the plants themselves that create the feeling of sanctuary. They do this through their shapes, sizes, textures and most importantly, their contrasting tones.

A grouping of contrasting tones

Indeed, a great shade garden uses contrasting light and dark tones to create a sense of depth in the landscape. Dark toned plants appear to recede into the garden, while light toned plants seem to move forward. The successful combination of both is what gives shade gardens their irresistible allure.

There are so many great shade-loving plants with beautiful flowers. But, if you’re looking to create that feeling of warmth and enclosure, start with the foliage. Below are six different types of foliage and the role each plays in enriching a shade garden. 


Variegated leaf of Solomon’s Seal

In a shade border, plants with variegated foliage act as beacons, lighting up shadowy spaces and helping to create a feeling of expanse. Choose plants with cream, white or lime margins (or spots) and plant them at intervals among drifts of solid green foliage to create a ‘dappled’ look. The effect is a lot like the reflection of moonlight on water.

Variegated Dogwood, Cornus alba argenteo-marginata

Hosta ‘Francee’ and Hosta sieboldiana ‘Frances Williams’

Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’

Broad leafed sedge, Carex siderosticha ‘Variegata’

Iris pallida ‘Variegata’

Candidum caladium

Solomon’s Seal


Dark green foliage of Japanese yew

In painting, artists use dark tones to create the illusion of depth and to make lighter colors ‘pop’. Shade gardens use the same devices. Dark leaves tend to recede when you look at them, leading the eye deeper into the garden. And dark foliage creates a nice backdrop for lighter-toned plants. 

Japanese yew, Taxus cuspidata 

Heuchera ‘Obsidian’

Rhododendron (any)

‘Illustris’, Elephant’s EarColocasia esculenta


Blue hosta

Blue injects the perfect note of calm into a shade garden. The cool tone provides a tranquil contrast to dark or variegated foliage. It’s not an easy color to find, however, as most blues tend towards purple, which produces an altogether different effect.

Hosta ‘Blue Angel’

Hosta ‘Fragrant Blue’

Hosta ‘Hadspen Blue’

Fothergilla x intermedia ‘Blue Shadow’


Silver-toned leaves of Brunnera macrophylla

A little touch of silver foliage in the shade garden acts as a foil to other plants. It also shimmers in the moonlight. Don’t overdo it, though. This tone brings things visually forward. If you add too much silver, you risk losing that sense of depth.

Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’

Japanese Painted Fern


Chartreuse flowers of bright green Lady’s Mantle

There’s nothing like a splash of lime green to lighten up the shade border. Lime calls attention to itself in a different way than white. More cooling, it brightens softly, like a light bulb on a dimmer.

Hosta ‘Twist of Lime’

Lady’s Mantle, Alchemilla mollis

Heuchera ‘Key Lime Pie’

Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia


Giant leaves of Hardy Begonia, Begonia grandis

If you really want to make an impact, go big with big leaves. Big-leaved plants placed in the back of the garden attract the eye and increase the sense of depth.

Indian Rhubarb, Darmera Peltata

Giant Leopard Plant, Ligularia tussilaginea ‘Gigantea’

Begonia grandis ‘Alba’