Ways to Embrace Shade in Your Garden

With the right attitude, inspiration, and ideas, even the shadiest garden can become a beautiful and abundant space.

Hostas growing in shade
Grace Cary / Getty Images.

Many people imagine that shade in a garden is a problem to be overcome. But I believe with the right attitude, inspiration, and ideas, even the shadiest garden can become a beautiful and abundant space. In my professional opinion, the key lies in embracing shade in your garden—working with what you have rather than trying to fight a lack of light. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to create stunning and productive planting schemes, even in north-facing or shady spaces. Here are my tips:

Growing Food in Shade

In light shade, you may well still be able to grow a range of common vegetable crops. Members of the brassica family, lettuces, spinach, and other leafy greens, for example, can cope with moderately shaded conditions on many sites—as can certain root crops and a range of herbs.

If, however, your garden is more deeply shaded, you may struggle to grow a traditional vegetable plot. But this does not mean that you cannot grow food at all. In fact, there are more edible plants that grow well in shade than you might imagine. You may just have to rethink the types of plants you grow and the things you eat. 

Of course, your precise location and the conditions to be found there will determine which plants are best for you to grow. However, here are some useful plants for partial shade and full shade that I recommend:

Edible Plants for Partial Shade

There are plenty of edible plants for partial shade which can be wonderful in a forest garden, under the canopy. Or which can work well in a shaded bed or border. Some options I would recommend include:

  • Gooseberries
  • Currants
  • Blueberries
  • Rubus (raspberry or blackberry ssp.)
  • Elderberry
  • Huckleberry
  • Goumi
  • Honeyberry
  • Mahonia (Oregon grape)
  • Wild/ woodland strawberries
  • Alliums (wild garlic, wild onions, etc.)
  • Hostas
  • Good King Henry
  • Sorrels
  • Chicory
  • Dandelions
  • Mints
  • Alexanders
  • Claytonia (Miner's Lettuce)
  • Apios americana (Groundnuts)

Of course, these are just a few examples. 

Edibles for Full Shade

Extremely deep shade does not typically offer as many options. But there are still a number of edible crops which you could grow. Some edibles can cope with more deeply shaded conditions. I suggest these:

  • Creeping raspberry
  • Ferns (e.g. Ostrich fern, licorice fern, etc.)
  • Ramps/ ramsons
  • Wild Ginger
  • Mushrooms

Understanding Shade

Remember, when choosing edibles for a shade garden, you will need to think about your specific location and the conditions to be found there. I suggest thinking about the climate and microclimate where you live more broadly–not just about the level of light. 

You also need to think about the soil: its type, characteristics, and pH level. And also about moisture levels. Is the area you are trying to populate an area or damp shade? Or is it dry shade beneath some trees? Is it deep, dark shade, partial shade, or light, dappled shade?

Not all shade areas are the same. And it is important to understand the level and type of shade that you are dealing with to make the right choices in your garden. 

Remember, a shade garden can have a range of advantages. It may be much cooler and retain moisture much better than a full-sun area. And it may feel more private and peaceful than a very open space. Trees or other structures which cast shade can also offer some privacy in your garden.

Beautiful Shade Garden Ideas

As well as growing food in a shade garden, you can also make it a beautiful space, which can attract a wide range of beneficial wildlife throughout the year. Here are a few tips I recommend to create an aesthetically appealing shade garden:

  • Select plants for as much diversity as possible in color, shape, form, and hue.
  • Choose shade-tolerant plants with variegated foliage to break up the green. 
  • Go for plants with lighter foliage and bright, light flowers to alleviate the gloom.
  • Try to choose a range of flowering plants to attract pollinators and beneficial insects to the space throughout the year, and to provide visual appeal over as much of the year as possible.
  • Consider creating a beautiful seating area in a shaded spot to enjoy on hot summer days. 

Designing a shade garden does require some careful thought. But by creating the right layout and choosing the right plants, shade can become an opportunity, rather than a disadvantage.