Successful Shade Plantings

Adapting to growing in a shady yard

By: Sandy Feather ©2009
Penn State Extension

Q. We recently moved to a new house. Our old house had a very sunny yard, but this one has a shaded back yard with a number of mature trees. We are looking for some suggestions for shrubs to help create privacy for our patio, as well as perennial flowers we can use as a border around the patio. The previous owners did not do much gardening, and we have a fairly blank slate to work with.

A. Some gardeners would envy such a blank slate. At least you do not have the work of tearing out overgrown shrubs and plants that you do not want. Although the change from gardening in a sunny yard to a shaded one may seem daunting, you will find there are lots of wonderful shade-tolerant plants to choose from. I should caution you against piling a lot of topsoil around the trunks of those mature trees to create flowerbeds.

Protecting Tree Trunks

Excessive soil placed over the roots of mature trees and up around their trunks can kill them over time. Rather than building beds right around the tree trunks, create beds between trees, along the perimeter of the yard and around your patio.

groundcover around a tree trunk
Pachysandra around a Pin Oak

When planting shrubs and/or small trees to create privacy for your patio, do not feel as though you have to place plants in a straight row between you and your neighbors. A well-placed shrub or two can create plenty of privacy without looking like a row of soldiers. You can also create beds and combine small trees, shrubs and perennials for more interest.


Plants Suited for Shade

Below is a list small trees, shrubs and perennial plants that flourish in shady locations, followed by a list of references you can use to read more about their specific cultural requirements and ultimate size. Some plants prefer a slightly acidic soil, while others are less fussy about soil pH. Some prefer a moist soil, while others will tolerate a drier area. Evaluate the existing cultural conditions in your yard, take steps to improve the soil in beds with organic matter such as compost, and choose plants that are suited to the site.

Some references listed in the Bibliography will have pictures so you can see what different plants look like, if you are not familiar with some of the names on the list. Plants marked with an asterisk* are native to Pennsylvania, or there are species of that plant native to Pennsylvania. This is a starting point, not an exhaustive list - there are many wonderful plants that thrive in the high shade of mature trees.

Small Trees for Shade

  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)*
  • American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)*
  • Redbud (Cercis canadensis)*
  • Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus)*
  • Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)*
  • Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa)
  • Corneliancherry dogwood (Cornus mas)
  • Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)*
  • Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)*
  • Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)*

flowering dogwood flowers
Flowering Dogwood blossoms

Shrubs for Shady Areas

  • Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)
  • Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)*
  • Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)*
  • Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus)
  • Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)*
  • Shrub-type dogwoods (Cornus spp.)*
  • Redvein enkianthus (Enkianthus campanulatus)
  • Dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii)
  • Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)*
  • St. John's-wort (Hypericum spp.)*
  • Deciduous holly (Ilex verticillata)*
  • Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)*
  • Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)*
  • Japanese kerria (Kerria japonica)
  • Fetterbush (Leucothoe racemosa)*
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)*
  • Oregon grapeholly (Mahonia aquifolium)
  • Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica)*
  • Pieris (Pieris spp.)
  • Rhododendron and azalea (Rhododendron spp.)*
  • Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica)*
  • Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)*
  • Yew (Taxus spp.)*
  • Mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium)*
  • Arrow-wood (Viburnum dentatum)*
  • Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago)*
  • Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)*

Northern Bayberry
Northern Bayberry

Herbaceous Perennials for Shade Gardens

  • Bear's breeches (Acanthus spinosus 'Spinosissimus')
  • Monkshood (Aconitum spp.)*
  • Baneberry (Actaea spp.)*
  • Lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis)
  • Anemone (Anemone spp.)
  • Columbine (Aquilegia spp.)*
  • Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)*
  • Goatsbeard (Aruncus spp.)*
  • Ginger (Asarum canadense)*
  • European ginger (Asarum europaeum)
  • Astilbe (Astilbe spp.)
  • Bergenia (Bergenia spp.)
  • Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla)
  • Turtlehead (Chelone spp.)*
  • Goldenstar (Chrysogonum virginianum)*
  • Bugbane (Cimicifuga spp. -- now listed as Actaea)*
  • Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis)
  • Corydalis (Corydalis spp.)*
  • Bleeding heart (Dicentra spp.)*
  • Foxglove (Digitalis spp.)
  • Bishop's hat (Epimedium spp.)
  • Dogtooth violet (Erythronium spp.)*
  • Ferns*
  • Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)
  • Perennial geranium (Geranium spp.)*
  • Golden variegated hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola')
  • Lenten rose, Christmas rose (Helleborus spp.)
  • Alumroot (Heuchera spp.)*
  • Hosta (Hosta spp.)
  • Crested iris (Iris cristata)*
  • Lilyturf (Liriope spp.)
  • Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)*
  • Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)*
  • Forget-me-not (Myosotis spp.)*
  • Jacob's ladder (Polemonium reptans)*
  • Wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata)*
  • Solomon's seal (Polygonatum spp.)*
  • Primrose (Primula spp.)
  • Bethlehem sage (Pulmonaria saccharata)
  • Rodgersia (Rodgersia spp.)
  • Meadow rue (Thalictrum spp.)*
  • Foamflower (Tiarella spp.)*
  • Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana)*
  • Toad lily (Tricyrtis)
  • Violets (Viola spp.)*
  • Barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides)*



Armitage, Allan M., Herbaceous Perennial Plants, Stipes Publishing, 1997.
ISBN-10: 087563723X.

Armitage, Allen M., Armitage’s Garden Perennials, Timber Press, 2000.
ISBN-10: 0881924350.

Darke, Rick, The American Woodland Garden: Capturing the Spirit of the Deciduous Forest, Timber Press, 2002.
ISBN-10: 0881925454.

Dirr, Michael A., Dirr’s Hardy Trees, Timber Press, Portland, OR, 1997. 
ISBN: 0-88192-404-0

Dirr, Michael A., Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Stipes Publishing, 1998.
ISBN 0-87563-800-7

Gerhold, Henry D., et. al., Landscape Tree Factsheets, Penn State University, 2001.
ISBN 1-883956-01-14

Still, Steven M., Manual of Herbaceous Ornamental Plants, Stipes Publishing Co., 1994.
ISBN-10: 0875634338.


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