Shady Garden Plants
This shady garden plan — about 300 square feet in area — is perfect for a site in the shade of tall trees, where dappled sunlight reaches the ground. These shady garden plants were selected for their outstanding ornamental character and for their ability to attract pollinators, including native bees, butterflies, and birds. This collection of plants creates a garden for all seasons.
1. Pagoda Dogwood
(Cornus alternifolia) N, P, B
From late spring to early summer, this dogwood brightens a shady nook of the garden with large, flat clusters of creamy-white flowers. In late summer, birds feast on its purple-black berries. In autumn, its leaves are painted yellow, red, and purple. Through the winter, the plant’s tiered horizontal branching gives the tree a pagoda-like habit.
(Tiarella cordifolia) N
Foamflower is a spreading groundcover, with slightly hairy heart-shaped leaves often marked with maroon patches. Spring brings spikes of starry white or pink flowers that move in a gentle breeze like foam on a sea of green.
3. False Spirea
(Astilbe x arendsii) P
Clump-forming plants with plumes of midsummer flowers rising above graceful fern-like leaves, false spireas thrive in dappled shade. Flower colors include pink, lavender, red, and white. In late summer, the dried brown seedheads give the garden an autumnal look.
4. Meadow Rue
Growing up to 6 feet in height, meadow rue’s tiny, pendulous, lavender flowers, with contrasting yellow stamens, form a cloud of soft color and texture that floats above the late-summer garden bed, an effect that’s enhanced in groups of three or more plants. Meadow rue’s blue-green foliage is attractive throughout the growing season.
5. Eastern Redbud
(Cercis canadensis) N
Eastern redbud is a multitrunked small tree with rosy-pink pea-like flowers covering leafless branches in early spring. From late spring through summer, lustrous heart-shaped leaves form an umbrella-like canopy. In southern New England and farther south, the leaves turn lemon-yellow in autumn.
6. Lady’s Mantle
(Alchemilla mollis) P
In spring through early summer, the chartreuse flowers of lady’s mantle are held in loose spreading clusters above a mound of light-green leaves. The leaves retain drops of water that sparkle like jewels after a summer rain.
7. Maidenhair Fern
(Adiantum pedatum) N
This species’ pink crosiers (fiddleheads), true harbingers of spring, quickly develop into soft, lacy, blue-green fronds on thin black stems. The result is a delicate summerlong groundcover reaching 2 feet in height.
8. Common Bleeding Heart
These nodding heart-shaped flowers are a harbinger of spring in the shady garden. Rose-pink and white blossoms hang in a row on arching stems rising above the leaves. The foliage goes dormant by midsummer.
All of the recommended plants can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 7. Most, including some of the non-natives, provide food and shelter to insects and birds. (The few non-native plants in these designs aren’t considered invasive.) In our description of each plant, “N” stands for plants that are native to the the eastern United States, “P” for plants that attract pollinators and other beneficial insects, and “B” for plants that provide food for birds.