Marin Master Gardeners
University of California
Marin Master Gardeners

Plants that are made for the shade

For many, the “perfect,” garden conjures images of a dappled woodland filled with tree-shaded ferns, shy buds appearing from the deep green shade, and perhaps the sound of running water. Romantic as this vision may be, gardening in the shade can be challenging. If you are planning a shade garden -- either because you live on a northern slope or have a patch of ground in the shadow of a tree or building -- there are many beautiful plants, including edibles, that you can grow.

As with all garden projects, be sure to properly prepare the soil before planting shade-loving plants. This often means adding compost to lighten and enrich the soil. One of the difficulties of planting under trees is that the tree roots will take water and nutrients from the understory plants. You may need to water more frequently or, better still, chose plants that do not require a lot of water. An extra dose of compost will help provide the extra nutrients that tree roots may otherwise steal, or another way to deal with the root problem is to build raised beds. It's possible, but difficult, to add shrubs, bulbs or grasses after tree roots have expanded into the area where you want to add new plant material. Try small annuals or a few seeds covered with a thin layer of mulch (keeping it 2 inches away from the tree trunk), if the surface roots are not too thickly established.

Watering a shady garden requires sensitivity to the soil's moisture. Because of shade, the soil may be less dry than in a sunny garden. Temperature and wind are also determinants. Large deciduous trees, such as Japanese maples, are sensitive to drying out, so monitor soil moisture carefully. Mulch is critical to protect surface roots from drying out.

What should you plant in the shade?

Chinese lanterns come in many colors
Chinese lanterns come in many colors
Tried and true: plants that light up the shade
The range of shade-favoring flowers encompasses many garden favorites. There are many widely available small annuals such as lobelia, impatiens and violas that prefer shade. Ferns of all shapes and sizes typically appreciate shadier conditions. Traditional ornamentals such as foxglove, hosta and hellebores are not only good shade plants, but also thrive in a dry shade garden, reducing water requirements. The large perennial abutilon, known as the flowering maple or Chinese lantern, offers long-blooming, graceful floating "lantern" flowers. For more shade-loving color, check out the lovely and ever-expanding array of azaleas, camellias, and rhododendrons.

Sticky monkeys are easy to grow
Sticky monkeys are easy to grow
Shade-loving natives: all the benefits, less sun required

California native plants offer a treasure chest of dry-shade choices. These plants generally prefer little to no summer water and work especially well on shady hillsides. The large shrub species Ribes sanguineum glutinosum, or pink-flowering currant, offers dramatic clusters of pendulous flowers and is very drought tolerant in coastal gardens. A good drought-tolerant plant to fill in empty spots is the Ranunculus californicus or California buttercup. Be sure to check out the Mimulus species, or shrubby monkey-flower. These drought-tolerant plants tolerate partial shade and offer a swarm of adorable, funny-faced flowers. For a tasty treat, try the native strawberry, Fragaria vesca, a low, spreading groundcover that produces small but sweet fruit. 


Salad greens are beautiful and delicious
Salad greens are beautiful and delicious
Edibles for dappled light
Shade-tolerant vegetables are generally those we think of as cool-weather crops that we grow for their leaves and roots. If you have three hours of sun a day, you can grow leafy greens such as arugula, bok choy, kale, lettuce or spinach. In fact, delicate greens often do well with less direct sun because they will not bolt as quickly. Mesclun mix can grow with as little as two hours of sun per day and can be re-harvested several times before requiring replanting.

Root vegetables such as beets, carrots, potatoes and turnips also can grow in the shade, but do not produce as quickly. You are better off choosing to harvest them as "baby" vegetables rather than waiting for the slow growth to full maturity.



Chamomile’s sweet daisy-like flowers
Chamomile’s sweet daisy-like flowers
Herbs for part-shade
Another good choice for a shady kitchen garden is culinary herbs. Chervil, parsley and sweet woodruff prefer shade. Among the herbs that do well in part shade are borage, chamomile, chives, garlic chives, lemon balm and tarragon. The mint family also does very well in partial shade. 







Original articles by Juliana Jensen and Julie Monson

Edited for the Leaflet by Marie Narlock

Webmaster Email: banielsen@ucanr.edu