Shades of Shade

Dealing with potentially difficult shade conditions is easy if you have the right plants.

In gardening, the term ‘shade’ is generally used to refer to the conditions that result when sunlight is prevented from reaching an area. As plants grow taller and trees mature they screen out the sunlight and change the micro-climate and atmosphere in a garden, making it darker and cooler.

Buildings and high boundary walls can have the same effect, only it is immediate, and, depending on their aspect, they may cause shady spots at different times of the day.

Understanding shade

Most gardening books will use the terms deep or full shade, semi-shade or dappled shade and full sun when discussing what quantities of sunlight a species of plant requires. In addition to being shady an area will also be predominantly either wet or dry depending on the climate and natural factors like soil structure. Let’s look at the different types of shade and the plants that are suited to these areas.

Shade in nature

Deep shade, in nature, will be created by the topography or the established vegetation and so we find areas like forest floors, rock faces and very steep hillsides tend to be fully shaded. The climate and soil type determine whether it is dry or wet shade. Endemic plants, adapted to those specific conditions, populate the forest floors and cling precariously to the rock faces and steep hillsides, which can either be moist or bone dry.

Deep or Full Shade

A fully shaded area or an area that is described as being in deep shade is one that gets no direct sunlight at all. You would normally find areas that fit this description under the canopy of huge evergreen trees or on the southern side of buildings or high walls.

Suggestions to make every gardener’s life easier:

1. Cut away the low, overhanging branches of evergreen trees to let in more light and increase the airflow, this helps to dry off very wet soil too.

2. Create areas that you and your family can use to enjoy the beauty and the shade of trees in summer. Pave the area under ‘troublesome’ trees using stepping-stones and gravel and add pretty garden furniture. This is an especially good option in dry shade where the soil is poor and compacted.

3. Install a proper irrigation system. This will ensure that shade-loving shrubs, perennials and ground covers that usually have to compete with water hungry root systems will receive enough water.

4. For attractive focal points plant shade-loving flowering plants and colourful foliage plants in large pots, in high-quality potting soil, and place them in strategic spots under trees. Use organic mulches, like bark nuggets, or plant tough, shade compatible ground covers in the pots around the feature plants.

5. For a low maintenance option construct meandering pathways between the trees and place weathered rock, stone sculptures or wooden or steel obelisks amongst the trees. Add a lovely garden bench or two from which you can view the park-like effect in comfort.

6. Use solar-powered garden lights to illuminate the trunks of the trees at night; this can go a long way to turning a gloomy shade garden into an intriguing glade. There are lights that are connected to a separate solar panel by a substantial length of cord so that the panels can be placed a distance away in the sunlight.

7. Divert attention away from the areas under trees that are not yet looking their best by hanging interesting objects at eye level. Hanging baskets planted up with shade loving annuals; orchids and Bromeliads that appreciate shade from the branches; dream catchers; musical chimes and pretty bird feeders are all options depending on the style of the garden.

Plants for full shade and wet soil

If the shade is deep, the drainage bad and the soil always boggy use coarse compost mixed with gritty river sand to improve the drainage. Walking in these areas is unpleasant and overuse can lead to soil compaction so consider installing a wooden walkway or even one or two small bridges over the boggiest areas. The following plants will generally do best in these areas:

Chlorophytum Comosum ‘Vittatum’ (Hen-and-Chickens), an indigenous ground cover, loves deep, moist shade. It is easy-to-grow and looks lovely planted en masse.

The Plectranthus species are fast spreading, indigenous and lovely when in full flower, which is mostly in autumn. Good species to try in mass plantings are Plectranthus Ecklonii (large Spurflower Bush), Plectranthus Fruticosus (forest Spurflower) and Plectranthus Verticillatus (Gossip Plant). The latter can handle very wet soils and loves to be close to a stream or pool.

Cyrtomium Falcatum (Holly Fern) will grow happily in deep, moist shade. This indigenous fern reaches a height of 60cm and a width of 1m and has glossy, dark green leaves. Plant it in bold groups.

Blechnum Punctulatum (pinkleaved Blechnum) is a graceful, fern-like plant that grows to a height and a width of 60cm.  

Adiantum Capillus-Veneris (Maiden Hair Fern) will cover a moist forest floor in no time. It likes high humidity and warmth.

Mackaya Bella (Forest Bell bush) is a large shrub (3m x 2m) that provides height and density in deep and dappled shade. It loves lots of water in summer, but requires drier conditions in winter.

Alocasia Cucullata ‘Spear Queen’ (Elephant’s Ear) is an evergreen compact grower that has pointed, light green leaves. It grows to a height of 1.2 metres.

READ MORE: Learn about Plectranthus, real masters of shade

Plants for full shade and dry soil

Dry shade normally occurs beneath evergreen trees and dense shrubs. When these trees and shrubs were young there would have been lots of light filtering through them, however, as their crowns grew and blocked out the light the area would have become more and more heavily shaded.

The trees’ root systems would then spread accordingly in their search for water and nutrients. The top tip here is to take advantage of the wettest period of the year to establish new, deep-rooted plants in these areas. The following plants are amongst the best performers in deeply shaded dry areas:

Clivia Miniata (Bush Lily) can handle dry periods and overcrowding, but you will have to give it lots of compost and leaf mould to grow in and it will require regular watering in summer.

Dracaena Aletriformis (Dragon Tree) is a lovely focal plant for dry, warm gardens. Its big, strap-like leaves are arranged in lush rosettes on its tall, slender stems that can grow to a height of 2m.

Aspidistra Eliator is not called the ‘cast iron’ plant for nothing! This foliage plant, which is so popular with florists, will cope with very deep shade and fairly dry soil.

Mahonia Lomariifolia (Chinese Holly Grape) is a decorative but very tough shrub that will do fine in these conditions and it is cold hardy as well. It grows to about 2m tall and carries bright yellow flower sprays in winter.

Beaucarnea Recurvata (Bottle Palm) has thin curving leaves and a thick stem with a bulbous base. Along with deep shade this dramatic character also copes with dry, shallow soil.

Vinca Major (Periwinkle) and its variegated form Vinca Major ‘Variegata’ will brighten up the deep shade with their bright blue flowers in spring and summer.

Some Good Advice

Before planting any of these plants improve the growing conditions by incorporating loads of coarse compost into the soil. Once planted put down organic mulch and follow a regular feeding regime using slow release fertilisers. If possible water frequently.

Dappled shade

Although the areas beneath deciduous trees and large shrubs with lacy foliage may be in deep shade in summer, some sunlight or bright light reaches the plants beneath them in the other seasons.

Many shade-loving plants, including Azaleas, Camellias, Hydrangeas, Brunfelsias (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow) and Philodendrons along with the spring flowering bulbs like Daffodils, Lachenalias and Freesias are suitable for these areas because their flowering times and active growth cycles correspond with the dormant, leafless stages of the trees.

For annual colour in the foreground in winter and spring plant primulas, violas and pansies, in summer and autumn plant impatiens, begonias and lobelias.


An area that is shaded for parts of the day is said to be in semi-shade. Semi-shade occurs most often in courtyards and the narrow spaces between a house and a boundary wall. Luckily most plants, both shade- and sun-loving, will happily grow and flower in these conditions. Plants specifically recommended for semi-shade do not typically enjoy hot afternoon sun, but they do not mind a few hours of morning sun.

The secret to success in these areas (especially when they occur under the overhang of a roof) is regular watering, soil prepared with lots of good compost, mulching to keep the roots cool and the soil moist and regular feeding with a balanced fertilizer.

Along with most of the shade lovers already mentioned these good all rounders are also worth planting in semi-shaded areas: Duranta ‘Sheena’s Gold’, Muraya Exotica, Dianella Tasmanica ‘Variegata’, Nandina Domestica and Trachelospermum Jasminoides (Star Jasmine).

Top tip: In summer take note of which large deciduous trees are causing too much shade. When winter arrives and the branches are bare call in a professional tree surgeon to ‘feather’ their crowns by pruning away some of the inner branches.

Give your shade garden a ‘professional ’ look:

  • Use different foliage textures and shapes.
  • Mass plant sweeping borders around trees and in large beds.
  • Add focal points like pots and cement sculptures in light or pastel colours.
  • Use good plant combinations of only two or three
The Gardener