Do you live in a shady neighborhood, and aren’t sure how to cope? No, it doesn’t mean living in a sketchy part of town — it means being puzzled about what to plant because trees or buildings are casting shade.

Shade gardening is a popular trend, being viewed as an opportunity, not an obstacle. Instead of searching for shrubs and flowers that merely tolerate shade, we can select plant types that thrive, creating a cool, peaceful yard oasis.

Try these suggestions for successful shaded landscapes and flower plantings.

  • Shade varies in depth, and plants differ in their preference. On the north side of a building, shade is often light or moderate, with the area receiving angled sun in early morning and late afternoon. Small, decorative trees cast light, filtered or dappled shade, while large trees give moderate to full shade. If caused by a combination of large trees over a home’s north side, shade may be very deep.
  • Decide how many hours of sunshine, if any, the areas receive by observing your yard morning, noon and evening. Plant descriptions vary, but full sun is usually considered more than six hours of direct sunshine. Light to part shade, sometimes called part sun, is about three to six hours of sunshine. Dappled shade is caused by light filtering through tree canopy. Full shade is less than three hours of sunlight, and deep shade means almost no sunlight.
  • Low light is not the only challenging factor in shade gardening. Soil may be very dry, with moisture sapped by tree roots, or soil may stay too moist if air circulation and drainage are limited. Tree roots may also be robbing soil of fertility, creating areas starved of nutrients.
  • Most shade-loving plants prefer soil rich in organics, amended by adding compost, peat moss or manure.
  • Annual and perennial flowers growing in shade can be fertilized every two to four weeks during the first half of the growing season to compensate for nutrients being heavily mined by large trees.
  • If areas underneath trees, especially evergreens, seem impossible, try container gardening beneath. You can control moisture and provide good potting soil for colorful shade-loving annuals for a flower bed appearance in otherwise difficult spots.
  • For successful lawns in shaded areas, check the ingredient label on grass seed mixtures. Creeping red fescue and shade-tolerant Kentucky bluegrass varieties should predominate the blend.

Plant picks

The following are plants that thrive in shade:

  • Annual flowers provide important season-long color. Experiment to select the right combination for your shade level. Try coleus, begonias, impatiens, browallia, lobelia, pansies, alyssum, torenia, fuchsia, heliotrope, balsam, cleome and caladium.
    Begonias bloom brightly in containers in full or part shade. Forum file photo
    Begonias bloom brightly in containers in full or part shade. Forum file photo
  • Spring flowering bulbs like tulips, daffodils and crocus can be planted in shade if treated as annuals. When planted in the fall, the bulbs already have the flower bud preformed inside. After their winter cold treatment, they’ll bloom in spring. But for yearly repeated bloom, full sun is best.
  • Herbs and vegetables grown for edible leaves, like lettuce, spinach, kale and herbs, are more shade-tolerant than plants grown for root crops or fruit, such as tomatoes, which need full sun.
  • Houseplants love a summer vacation outdoors. Shade or filtered shade is ideal. Foliage plants in groupings can decorate a backyard space under a tree.
  • Shrubs that grow well in shade include red twig dogwood, viburnum, alpine currant, yew, arborvitae, aronia, sorbaria false-spirea, hydrangea, tiger eye sumac and diervilla.
  • Groundcovers that thrive include ajuga, lamium, snow on the mountain, lily of the valley and wild ginger and ferns.
  • Perennial flowers are best used in combinations, selecting types that bloom at different times through the growing season for extended color. In light shade, try astilbe, platycodon, baptisia, monarda, campanula, heuchera, day lilies, polemonium, alchemilla, aconitum, physostegia, tiarella, lobelia cardinalis and thalictrum. In full shade, try bergenia, bleeding heart, columbine, foxglove, arunculus, chelone and actaea. In deep shade, try tradescantia, pulmonaria, epimedium, athyrium and polygonatum.

Bleeding heart is a winter-hardy perennial that thrives in shade flower gardens. Forum file photo
Bleeding heart is a winter-hardy perennial that thrives in shade flower gardens. Forum file photo

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Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at or call 701-241-5707.