Welcome to the Dark Side – Gardening for Shade

Successful gardening always begins with choosing the right plant for the right location.  Of course, gardening involves trying new things, trial and error, a willingness to be creative but in the end, we can’t force mother nature to respond in a manner that is inconsistent with evolution.  No matter how much we would like our favorite sun-loving geranium, petunia, rose, salvia or sedum to grow in the north side of the house or under a tree it’s not going to work.  What’s a gardener to do?  Embrace the dark side!

Don’t fight mother nature but learn to embrace and enjoy shade loving plants.  Choose a shade lover that will occupy the same design niche as what you are more familiar with, and they will flourish in big, bold, colorful ways that our sun-loving plants do.

Because of the way shady plants evolved, often growing on the forest floor beneath their taller cousins, shady plants often are known for their colorful foliage in place of colorful flowers.  So shady plants may not offer quite the colorful palette as sunny plants, but with a little creativity, shady plant designs can be quite bright.

What is shade?

Shade-loving plants may receive just 4 to 6 hours of direct sunlight per day or less. In fact, too much sun may damage their flowers or foliage. For best results, grow them under the dappled light of shade trees, or in a spot that gets only morning or afternoon sun or the north side of the house.

In our hot, dry Colorado growing climate, some of the plants we choose for shade may prefer higher light levels but will not tolerate the extremely high temperatures that accompany the direct sun.  This is somewhat true for both annuals and perennials.

Annuals for Shade

Think about the thriller, filler, spiller design concept then begin with the big 3 shade annual choices: begonias, coleus and impatiens.  Within each group is offered a selection of heights and colors based on each plant variety.  For taller shady annuals consider using begonias and coleus in the place of taller annuals like geraniums and marigolds.  For filler shade annuals use impatiens, heliotrope, upright fuchsia.  For cascading or trailing plants use ipomoea, ivy or vinca.

Mix and match colors and texture to create a colorful, pleasing design that will not only grow well in the shade but flourish!

Annual shade plant selections:

Begonia – Varieties vary from low growing Wax Begonias to tall and draping Dragon Wing Begonias.  Tuberous begonias have a rose like flower in stunning colors.

Coleus – many varieties to choose from.  With rich colors and various growth heights.

Impatiens – They are colorful, long blooming, and great for shade or minimal sun.

Lobelia – this primarily has deep blue flowers that pop in any pot.  Some varieties are good for trailing while others ae compact.

Torenia – This is a short compact plant that is perfect for containers and filling in holes in pots

Scaevola – ordinarily a sun loving plant but this gem does very well with minimal sun and is a great trailing plant

Perennials for Shade

Design considerations for a shady perennial garden are similar to what was covered for annuals.  Start with the top  3 choices: hosta, brunnera and coral bells and work through many of the other choices based on needs for height etc.

Most shade perennial plants grow best in in soil amended with organic compost. This will help the soil retain some moisture throughout the growing season. Mulching around plants and along pathways helps to encourage these growing conditions. If possible, apply several inches of mulch.

Perennial Shade plant selections


Coral Bells



Bleeding Hearts


Lady’s Mantel

Jacobs Ladder