Design a Low Maintenance Perennial Shade Garden

A well-planned perennial garden in a shady spot stays attractive year after year with just a little attention. As well as selecting shade-tolerant perennial plants, ensure they thrive in the existing soil, which may be loam, clay or sand. Most plants grow well in freely draining, moist loam. Clay soil is thick, heavy and retains moisture well but usually drains poorly. Sandy soil is light and drains freely but can become dry. Most soils benefit from the addition of organic matter, such as aged manure or garden compost.

Light Level

A shade garden can receive up to six hours of full sunlight per day, or it may receive no direct sunlight. Check plant labels when selecting perennials for your shade garden. Some shade-tolerant perennials grow well in full shade, but many thrive in partially shaded spots, which means they need a few hours of direct sunlight every day.

Size and Shape

Drawing a map of your shade garden to scale on graph paper will help you select plants that will grow to fill the available space without crowding it. Measure the garden area with a tape measure, and measure permanent features, such as trees and paths that won't be removed. Draw a map of the garden on graph paper, converting the measurements to fit. For example, 1 foot could equal 1 square on the graph paper.

Plant Placement

Select shade-tolerant perennials of varying heights and blooming seasons and that look good when grouped. The tallest plants should be placed toward the back of a border garden or in center of an island bed. A border garden is along an object, such as a house's foundation; an island bed is surrounded by lawn, paths or other features. Plants between 1 and 3 feet tall should be between the tallest plants, and the shortest plants should grow at the edge of the border or island bed.

Group plants in odd numbers, such as three or five, for a naturalistic look. Select two or three complementary flower colors, and evenly spread plants that bloom in different seasons across the border or bed to provide an even display year round.

Shade-Tolerant Perennials

Many perennials grow in either partially shaded or full-shade spots.

'White Pearl' Bugbane
The bugbane cultivar 'White Pearl' (Actaea matsumurae 'White Pearl') features arching spikes of fragrant, white, late-summer flowers above clumps of fernlike leaves. Hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 9, 'White Pearl' grows 3 to 4 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide, and prefers moist soil.

'Variegatum' Solomon's Seal
'Variegatum' Solomon's seal (Polygonatum odoratum var. pluriflorum 'Variegatum'), growing 2 to 3 feet tall and 3/4 to 1 foot wide, offers white-edged, light-green leaves and greenish-white, tubular, fragrant spring flowers on arching stems. In fall, its leaves turn yellow. 'Variegatum' is hardy in USDA zones 3 through 8 and grows best in organically rich, freely draining soil.

Lenten Rose
Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), hardy in USDA zones 4 through 9, bears cup-shaped, nodding, pinkish-purple, pink or white blooms in spring. Growing 12 to 18 inches tall and wide, Lenten rose is evergreen in mild climates and thrives in organically rich soil but tolerates dry, shallow and rocky soil.

Dragon Wing Red Begonia
Dragon Wing Red begonia (Begonia 'Bepared' Dragon Wing Red), which is hardy in USDA zones 10 through 11, features large, scarlet, drooping blooms from late spring through fall and shiny, green leaves. Dragon Wing Red can be grown as an annual in climates that experience frosts, and it tolerates dry soil.

'Sulphureum' Bishop's Hat
The Bishop's hat cultivar 'Sulphureum' (Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphureum') provides spurred, yellow, spring flowers and mounds of heart-shaped leaflets on wiry stems. Its leaves are red-tinged in spring, green in summer and reddish in fall. 'Sulphureum' grows 9 to 12 inches tall and 9 to 18 inches wide, and tolerates drought and shallow, rocky soil. It is hardy in USDA zones 5 through 9.


Spread a layer of organic mulch, such as garden compost or aged manure, 3 to 4 inches thick around the perennials after planting. Avoid the plant stems because mulch can cause them to rot.
Water the perennial shade garden when its soil is dry to a depth of 1 to 2 inches, applying water to moisten the soil to the depth of the plants' root balls.
Check the garden for weeds every week during the growing season, and remove them.
Install a drip-irrigation system or soaker hoses in your perennial shade garden to reduce watering chores.


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