A shade garden can be full of color and brightness even though there is no bright sun on it.

To plan a shade garden, you need to understand the three kinds of shade-light shade, dappled shade, and full shade. First, you must determine where these three kinds of shade are in the summer, winter, spring, and fall. If you have deciduous trees, you will have more sun in the winter and early spring; therefore, you will be able to grow more kinds of spring plants.

After you determine where your sun and shade are during each season, you can begin to make your plans. Start with well prepared beds. Most shade plants like well drained, acid soil with lots of humus. Next, draw an outline of your lot, including house, trees, sidewalks, and driveway. Then draw the planting beds. You can have them curve or wind around objects and make pathways and hidden spots if you have room.

Start with the large plants such as camellia, azalea, dogwood, Japanese maple, and hydrangea. These will give you color almost all year. For small plants, try hellebores, hostas, jack-in-the-pulpit, lilies, potentilla, dianthus, hardy geranium, foxglove, flowering maple, fern, cone flower, clematis, bleeding heart, astilbe, narcissus, pansy, and English daisy. Groundcovers for shade include Spotted Dead Nettle ‘Anne Greenaway’ (Lamium maculatum), Kraus’ spike moss, and coral bell.

If you watch carefully, you may find some sun and can use more types of plants. Also, there are many flowers that need morning sun only. Plan carefully, and you will have color year around.

Joan Cook, Smith County Master Gardener
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service


Shady areas under trees and between houses can be a source of bare landscape. And while there are several plants that can grow in shade, such as English Ivy, Asian Jasmine, and Mondo grass, most offer no color other than green. If you think that’s boring, why not try a couple of eye openers.

Turks Cap, a native Texas perennial, is named for its scarlet, cap-shaped blossoms. It will grow in any type of soil and in sun or all-day shade. In fact, its leaves grow bigger and broader in shade and tend to sag in full sun. Turks Cap grows three to four feet tall, forming a shrub-like plant that dies to the ground in winter and reappears in spring. Its bright red flowers bloom from July to frost and attract hummingbirds. It’s best to start from a potted nursery transplant (or a division from a friend’s garden); plant in early spring.

Columbine is another plant that loves shade or dappled shade. It has beautiful blue-green foliage and buttery yellow, blue, purple, pink or white flowers. It grows 12 to 24 inches tall and blooms from March to mid-May. Columbine’s foliage may need to be clipped during the heat of summer but it will return to bloom in the cooler fall weather.

Pat Kashouty, former Smith County Master Gardener
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service


One of the challenges of landscaping in East Texas occurs when you live in an area that has lots of beautiful oak and pine trees on your lot (or surrounding lots). Trying to find colorful shrubs that tolerate shade is not always so easy for the novice gardener.

Two plants that we have in our backyard at Hideaway Lake appear to do well in the partial shade areas. The first is the Rose of Sharon shrub (Hibiscus syrianus). A member of the mallow family, it has done well in a raised bed where it gets filtered sun most of the day. We keep it pruned to about 4-5′. It is a deciduous shrub that produces bright pink blooms during the summer months. A potential pest problem is scale insect.

The second plant is a forsythia (Forsythia intermedia). This is a small, deciduous shrub that is about 5′ tall in our backyard. It does well in the filtered sun and produces bright yellow blooms in the spring. It is in a raised bed that has good drainage. We have not had any insect or disease issues with this plant.

Jerry D. Mullins, former Smith County Master Gardener
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service


A shade garden can be serene and beautiful. Here are some tips to keep your shade garden looking its best.

  • Most shade plants compete with trees and shrubs for food and water. To compensate, routinely work aged compost into the soil around shade plants and water deeply as needed.
  • Remove leaf litter from low-growing shade plants with a light-weight rake in the fall. Compost the leaves to replenish the soil later.
  • Early spring-flowering bulbs are right at home beneath deciduous trees. Drifts of anemone blanda, crocus, daffodils, dogtooth violets, grape hyacinths, iris reticulata or snow drops can provide a sunlit show before the shade curtain falls.
  • Shade varies from light to partial to dense. Observe the movement and density of shade over your planting site and choose plants that will adapt to the specific conditions.
  • Sunlight intensity varies with latitude. Plants that need “full sun” up North may prefer “partial shade” in our hotter climate.
  • Choose shade trees carefully. The roots of a few trees, like black walnuts, exude a compound that stunts the growth of neighboring plants. Elms, silver maples, cottonwoods and some other trees produce voracious surface roots.
  • You don’t need a forest for a shade garden. Arbors, fast-growing plants, fences, garden walls, hedges, lattice screens, and trellises can create shade, too.

Kathy Uncapher, former Smith County Master Gardener
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service


The trees in East Texas can be breathtaking in the fall, especially when sunshine brings out their brightest colors. But what can we plant in beds under those shade trees that will color our world through all the seasons of the year? A few well-chosen shrubs can do that, and many will feed the birds as well. They require almost no work when they are established.

Planting some of the following shrubs will provide a variety of color, texture, and size in your beds. Although most do well in partial shade, some do not tolerate any sun.

  • Aucuba: needs full shade, has large green and yellow variegated leaves. Other varieties are also available.
  • Camellia: has glossy dark green foliage. Produces showy flowers late fall through early spring, depending upon the variety. It needs a rich acid soil.
  • Dwarf Nandina: is grown for its brilliant red winter color. It is excellent for low mass planting.
  • Dwarf Osmanthus: prefers full shade but will tolerate some dappled sun. It adds color and texture with its free-form variegated foliage.
  • Japanese Aralia: an unusual tropical-looking shrub with large dark green leaves and thick stems. It is an attention getter in the garden.
  • Hollies: four hollies that are compact and provide a variety of texture and color in the shade garden are Dwarf Burford, Carissa, Dwarf Chinese, and Dwarf Yaupon.
  • Loropetalum: is known locally as Chinese Fringe flower. The leaves are mostly burgundy throughout, and always on the new growth. It has spider-like pink flowers in the spring and will tolerate any amount of pruning, which encourages new growth and reblooming. The more sunlight it gets, the better the foliage coloration.
  • Mahonia: glossy green holly-like leaves. It has yellow flowers in spring followed by bluish black fruit that lasts through winter. Some mahonias turn bronze or nearly yellow in fall.

Mary Wilkerson, former Smith County Master Gardener
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service


To add interest to a shade garden, select a variety of shade-loving plants that have contrasting foliage, colors and textures.

Many perennials, such as hostas, will grow in filtered light and are dependable shade plants. Hostas have varied foliage in several colors and patterns. “Sugar and Cream’ is one of the best suited hostas for our area (3 ft X 3 ft) Other hosta varieties with varying tints of green are: ‘Guacamole’ (dark green and lime foliage that grows up to 3 feet), ‘Francis Williams’ (blue-green foliage with yellow borders, 2-3 feet) and ‘Francee’ (green heart shaped leaves with narrow white margins.) Hostas should be spaced about 18-24” apart in organic soil (compost and mulch.)

The broad leaves of hostas contrast with delicate ferns. Ferns are easy to establish and grow in moist, well-drained shade. Evergreen ferns include Cyrtomium falcatum (Holly fern), Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern) with glossy, green fronds and Dryopteris erythrosora (Autumn fern) which produces coppery-red new fronds that adds color to the older green frond. Deciduous ferns to add color and texture are Anthurium niponicum (Japanese painted fern) with silvery to purple fronds and Adiantum capillus-veneris (Common Maidenhair), a delicate, lacy fern that grows from 6 inches to 1 foot.

Flowing plants add another dimension to the shade garden. A must have for the shade garden is Helleborous orientalis (Lenten Rose), an evergreen with varieties with red, white, pink or purple flowers. Other flowering plants to consider for shady areas are: Polygonatum odoratum (Variegated Solomon’s Seal) that produces small white bells in spring and Dicentra spectabilis (Pink-flowered bleeding heart) that blossom throughout the growing season.

For height, although it is slow growing (2 ft tall, 2 to 3 ft wide), Aspidistra elatior (Cast iron plant) is a sturdy, long lasting plant that thrives in heavy shade. Cast iron plant combined with perennials such as Aquilegia chrysantha (Texas Gold Columbine) or Malvaviscus aboreus var.drummondii (Turks’ Cap) that planted in mass, produce a striking display. Other shade plants to add height are Aucuba japonica (Aucuba), and hydrangeas such as Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snowflake’ (Oakleaf hydrangea) or Hydrangea macrophylla (for example, Endless Summer Blushing Bride) with showy flowers and striking foliage.

Careful planning will provide interest year long to your shade garden.

Peggi Canant, former Smith County Master Gardener
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service

Posted in Shade Gardening