When you walk through our garden centre, you’ll see that almost all of our plants are designated with certain light requirements: full sun, part shade, full shade, or any combination therein. These serve as a quick and convenient way to understand which plants will do well with what amount of sunlight.

However, inspect your yard in the spring or summer and you will find that there are many lighting scenarios that don’t necessarily fit these three archetypes. This document attempts to address some of these situations and will provide you with advice on what to grow in such areas.

No Light

It is important to distinguish between low light and no light. Even locations we describe as “Full Shade” still receive a measure of sun at some point, even if it is reflected off of a window or appears late in the day as the sun sets. No-light locations include basements, garages, or any place where physical barriers completely block the sun. With the exception of a couple species of mushrooms, most plants will die in no-light areas. Light gives the plants the energy to grow via photosynthesis and without it, they cannot grow at all.

Deep or Dense Shade

This is usually what we think of when we talk about “Full Shade.” Deep shade means permanent, year-round shade from buildings, large evergreens, and shade trees. Usually this is found in older residential areas. Grass will not grow well in deep shade, but ferns, mosses, and anything denoted as a “Full Shade” plant will thrive.

Open Shade

This is a type of shade commonly found on the north side of a house where the building provides cover from the sun for the bulk of the day but the location is open to the sky. These areas rarely receive direct sunlight but do get a high degree of something referred to as incidental light – light that is reflected off of other nearby surfaces. Plants listed for part shade as well as certain full shade plants such as Leucothoe will do quite well here.

Light or Filtered Shade

Trees such as honey-locusts or birches have very open canopies that let a high degree of light through them even when in full leaf. These areas receive little direct sun but receive the highest degree of incidental light of any shade category. This allows for many part shade and some full sun plants to grow even under the tree canopy. Lawns do well, along with most other plants, but this type of shade is not dark enough for true shade-loving plants.

Spring and Summer Are Different

In the spring, a plant located on the east or north-east side of a house would need to be part shade-tolerant. But the same area in the summer would receive six hours of sun in the morning, making it a full sun location! As the season changes, lighting does too.

At our latitude in the summer, even certain areas on the north side of the house will receive sun. Rising in the far north-east in the morning, the sun catches the north side once, and then catches the north side again from the north-west as it sets, which allows just about any full sun plant (even roses, if you’re lucky) to grow there.

As well, a shrub or perennial planted under a deciduous tree will receive full sun in early spring and late fall when the canopy is bare, but may well be full shade in for the rest of the season once the leaves of the tree appear.

Dry and Wet Shade

Shady areas are usually moist, but under a large, mature tree it can be dry because the roots of the tree take up all of the available moisture. There are many plants for moist shade, but dry shade is more difficult – be aware of the challenges associated with an area that has little water and little light. For more information, consult our document on growing plants in dry shade.

Trees for Shade

Large trees are planted to provide shade and are usually not planted close to the house. Trees for shade are smaller trees than in nature would be in the shade of taller varieties.

Evergreen Trees Junipers for Light Shade
Austrian Pine Blue Rug
Douglas Fir Buffalo, Calgary Carpet etc.
Hemlock Effusa
Other False Cypress Japanese Garden Juniper
Scot’s Pine Mountbatten, Skyrocket and Spartan
Weeping False Cypress Savin & the Savina Group-Tamarix
White Pine

 

Evergreen Shrubs – Needled and Broadleaf
Alberta Spruce *Dwf Hemlocks Mugho Pine
*Boxwood Dwf Serbian Spruce *Oregon Grape Holly
Burkwood Viburnum *Euonymus varieties *Pieris
Cedars, particularly dwarf varieties Firethorn *Rhododendron & Azalea
Daphne cneorum Holly(many varieties) *Yew (all varieties)
Dwf False Cypress *Mountain Laurel (Kalmia)

 

Deciduous Trees
Dawn Redwood Katsura Tree Red Bud
Flowering Dogwood Laburnum Saucer Magnolia
Halesia (Silverbell) Mountain Ash Star Magnolia
Ivory Silk Lilac Pagoda Dogwood

 

Deciduous Shrubs
All Viburnums including Dogwoods Mock Orange
Azaleas, Exbury types Elders Other Hazels
Bayberry Flowering Almond Potentilla
*Bottlebush Buckeye *Flowering Currants Serviceberry
*Burning Bush Honeysuckle Snowball and Fragrant Snowball
Carolina Allspice Hydrangeas *Snowberry & Coralberry
Cork Screw Hazel Japanese Maple Tree Peony
Cotoneasters *Kerria Winterberry
Deutzias Manchu Cherry Witch Hazel

* Are plants that will thrive in deep shade

Perennials for Shade
Aconitum Columbines *Hosta Purple Coneflower
Anchusa Coral Bells Jacob’s Ladder Purple Loosestrife
Arabis Cranesbills Japanese Anemone *Saxifrage
*Astilbe *Creeping Jenny Leopard’s Bane Shasta Daisy
Balloon Flower Day Lily Lupins Siberian Iris
Bergenia Feverfew Macleaya *Solomon’s Seal
*Bethlehem Sage Fillipendula Marsh Marigold *Spiderwort
Bleeding Heart Foxglove Meadowrue Tall Phlox
Brunnera Garlic Chives Monarda (Bergamot) Trillium
Cardinal Flower Gas plant Nepata Trollius
Carpathian Harebell Geum Obedient Plant Veronica
Chives Globe Thistle Oriental Poppy Viola
Christmas Rose Goatsbeard Painted Daisy –light shade *Virginia Bluebells
Chrysanthemum Gold Moss Peony Yellow Loosestrife
Cimcifuga Gooseneck Primrose

 

Perennial Groundcovers
Ajuga English Ivy Lily-of-the-Valley
*All Ferns *Epimedium Many Ornamental Grasses
Creeping Potentilla Euonymus *Pachysandra
Cotoneasters *Goutweed Periwinkle
Crown Vetch Hall’s Honeysuckle Virginia Creeper

 

Annuals for Shade
Begonias Fuchsia Nicotiana
Bells-of-Ireland *Goutweed Pansies
Black-eyed-Susan Vine *Impatiens Salvia
Caladium Iresine Schizanthus
Clarkia/Godetia Martha Washington Geranium Snow-on-the Mountain
*Coleus Mimulus Sweet William
Forget-me-not Neirembergia *Torenia

 

Vines
Bittersweet *English Ivy
*Boston Ivy *Euonymus
Climbing Honesuckle Some Clematis varieties
*Climbing Hydrangea *Virginia Creeper
* Are plants that will thrive in deep shade

Dry shade is one of the more difficult sites to plant in. There are many plants that tolerate wet shade, wet sun, and dry sun, but when you combine insufficient water and insufficient light, a gardener is presented with a real challenge.

Most of the time, dry shady areas are located directly underneath the canopy of large mature trees, especially those with shallower root systems such as sycamores, poplars, some willows, and certain non-native maples. The canopies of these trees will block the sun while the roots suck up every last iota of surface moisture to feed the beast above.

Thankfully, there are a few shrubs and perennials that will tolerate these areas (with your help, of course) and there are some simple things that can be done to make the area more hospitable.

Planting Your Shrub

Usually, you do not want to stick a spade into the ground and start tearing up the surface roots of your tree to make room for a new shrub – but in this case, you will have to dig down to some degree. Some sources argue that it is better to leave the shade tree’s roots undisturbed and simply to build up the soil above. Other resources say that the mature tree will quickly send feeder roots up into the fresh soil before your new planting has a change to stake its own claim, and therefore you have little choice but to dig down.

Though it is not an exact science, the answer likely lies in a happy medium: plant your new shrub or perennial with the top third of the root ball above the ground. Build up the soil with a mixture of compost and earth to cover up the remainder of the roots. A healthy layer of mulch above this will also help to retain moisture; in fact, if you haven’t mulched around the tree it would be best to do the whole bed, since this is to the benefit of everything growing here (except the weeds, but you don’t want those anyway). Ensure the mulch is not piled up around the base of your new planting.

Caring For Your Shrub

The truly difficult part about dry shade, of course, is that you will need to water new plantings very frequently. Your new plants will need a lot. Once the tree above leafs out, you will have to water even when it rains: what little rainwater even makes it through the leaves down to the base of the plant will quickly be gobbled up by the established roots of the mature tree. Even mature clumps of perennials or shrubs will need supplemental watering in periods of drought.

A liquid root-starter fertilizer (5-15-5 or the like) is a must. Your new planting needs to establish plenty of roots very rapidly, or else the mature tree will see an opportunity and push up roots all around the young plant before it even has a fighting chance.
Your shrub will do a lot better if you top up the organic matter around the plant each spring; add a fresh layer of compost and manure to keep the microbial population high and to help retain moisture more effectively (and don’t forget mulch).

Plants That Tolerate Dry Shade

Below is a list of some plants that are more suited to dry shade. Keep in mind that these plants tolerate dry shade conditions, but do not necessarily thrive in them – they need your help to flourish.

Common Name Botanical Name
Five-leaf Aralia Acanthopanax sieboldianus
Barrenwort Epimedium
Brunnera Brunnera macrophylla
Bugleweed Ajuga
Deadnettle Lamium
Ostrich Fern Matteuccia
Wild Ginger Asarum canadense
Lily-of-the-Valley Convallaria
Lungwort Pulmonaria
Oregon Grape-Holly Mahonia aquifolium
Sedge Grass Carex
Soloman’s Seal Polygonatum