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  3. Shade in the garden- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)

Shade in the garden- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)

How to make the most of shade in the garden

For many gardeners dealing with shady areas of their garden is their biggest headache. Up and down the country, you will find shady garden areas turned into dumping grounds or have sheds, and other outbuildings positioned there. Yet it doesn’t need to be this way. Shaded areas of the garden provide the opportunity to create a cool and calm oasis, somewhere to relax and entertain. The unique growing conditions allow the adventurous gardener to create a wonderful addition to their garden and introduce stunning plants that wouldn’t survive in the open sun. Shady north facing gardens do not need to be a nightmare but are the perfect opportunity to create a wonderful relaxing space.

In this article, we try to answer the most common questions we get asked relating to shade in the garden.

What does shade mean for plants?

Plants grow through a process called photosynthesis, in which they use sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to create oxygen and energy. It is the production of their own food which makes plants autotrophs.

Photosynthesis is important to plants as this ultimately leads to them producing plant cells, growing and producing flowers. Shade in the garden refers to the blocking of direct sunshine by an object which could be a tree, wall, building or structure. In urban areas dealing with shade is a common challenge for gardeners where buildings, fence lines, and hedging creates large areas of shade. Shading impacts plants by restricting the amount of direct sunlight that plants receive and therefore affects the plant’s ability to photosynthesize.

Many plants have evolved to be able to cope with varying levels of shade; there are plants suitable for all garden conditions. Gardeners need to research and select appropriate plants for locations

What is the impact of shade on plants?

Plants grow through photosynthesis, during which sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide combine to create oxygen and energy. Research suggests that plant growth can be significantly affected when the ability to photosynthesize is impacted. Sugar production is reduced, leading to slower root, and stem growth whilst flowering rates can be weaker. Ultimately plants can die. Additional environmental factors including temperature, humidity and the amount of carbon dioxide present are impacted when light levels received by plants is reduced.
Many plants have evolved to survive in varying shade levels normally through the development of larger foliage which increases the area for absorbing light energy. Examples include Hostas and ferns. Plants that require more light don’t fare so well in the shade, becoming etiolated – growing tall, thin and pale.

What are the different types of shade in the garden?

The amount of shade in an area of a garden can be broken down into 5 categories

(1) Light shade – any garden area that is open to the sky yet receives no direct sunlight. This shading is often the result of being near buildings, fences and hedges and is very common in urban areas.

(2) Partial or semi-shade – an area of the garden that receives between three and six hours of direct sunlight is considered partial shade. This is a common garden scenario where many plants thrive.

(3) Dappled shade – an area of the garden where direct sunlight is broken up, filtered or diffused is considered dappled shade. This type of shading is common under trees with lightweight canopies, such as Silver birches where light dances around as leaves move in the wind.

(4) Moderate shade – A garden area that receives up to three hours of sunlight in a given day is considered moderate shade. The choice of plants that will thrive under these conditions is reduced due to insufficient light.

(5) Deep or heavy shade – an area of the garden that receives less than two hours of direct sunlight in a day can be considered deep shade. This area typically occurs in woodland gardens under dense tree canopies where little light can seep through.

What is meant by full shade for plants?

Full shade for plants in a garden is defined in several ways. For some people, full shade is any area of the garden that doesn’t receive any direct sunlight but is open to the sky. In these situations, direct sunlight is blocked by buildings, hedges and fences. It is the absence of direct light that is the defining factor in this instance. For other gardeners, this garden area can be considered light shade because it is open to the sky. Full shade is also defined as deep or heavy shade where direct sunlight may occur but occurs for less than two hours. This shade often occurs under dense plant canopies such as beech trees. It is a significantly darker environment.

What are the best plants for full shade?

There are surprisingly many plants that will thrive when grown in full shade. You need to consider the moisture levels in the soil, which tend to be either very dry or very wet which will affect your choice of plants. Here is a list of the 10 best plants to grow in full shade.

Asplenium scolopendrium
Convallaria majalis
Pachysandra terminalis
Liriope muscari
Matteuccia struthiopteris
Dicentra spectabilis
Helleborus orientalis
Brunnera macrophylla
Vinca minor
Hedera Helix

For more detailed information read our best plants for shade gardens guide.

Tricyrtis - shade loving plant
Tricyrtis – plants for shade
Ferns - plants for full shade
Fern garden – plants for full shade

What is meant by dappled shade for plants?

Dappled shade is any area of the garden containing a mixture of sunlight and shade which changes during the day. Commonly occurring under trees with a light canopy such as Silver birches sunlight constantly appears and disappears as the sun and leaves move during the day. Many plants thrive under the dappled shade which can receive up to three hours of direct sunshine in a day. Consider growing Acers, Daphnes, Hellebores and Hostas in dappled shade.

What are the best plants for dappled shade?

Dappled shade is a common scenario in Uk gardens occurring under trees with light canopies or overhead structures such as pergolas and trellis. Light dances around as the leaves and sun move around during the day, creating the perfect growing environment for many plants. Here are the 10 best plants for growing in dappled shade:

  1. Acer palmatum ‘Butterfly’
  2. Sarcococca confusa
  3. Digitalis purpurea
  4. Hakonechloa macra
  5. Arbutus unedo
  6. Berberis darwinii
  7. Nandina domestica
  8. Pieris japonica
  9. Daphne odora
  10. Weigela florida Ebony and Ivory

What is meant by partial shade for plants?

Partial shade in a garden is defined as any area receiving between three and six hours of direct sunlight. You should consider that the mid-day sun projects significantly more light energy than either morning or evening sun which should affect your choice of plants. Gardeners often disagree over definitions of shade with some referring to partial shade as semi-shade.

What are the best plants for partial shade?

Most gardens contain areas of partial shade – those areas that get the sun for a limited period of the day and therefore require plants that can cope with both full sun and shade during the day. We have created a list of the 15 best plants for partial shade in the garden.

  1. Polystichum polyblepharum – Japanese Tassel Fern
  2. Geranium phaeum ‘ Album’ – Dusky Cranesbill
  3. Rhododendron Germania
  4. Campanula portenschlagiana ‘Catharina’
  5. Ajuga reptans Black Scallop – Bugle
  6. Aquilegia Blue & White – Granny’s Bonnet, Columbine
  7. Camellia japonica Dr King – Semi-Double Red Camellia
  8. Clematis Montana Mayleen – Pink Flowering Clematis
  9. Hamamelis Arnold Promise – Witch Hazel
  10. Daphne odora Aureomarginata Rogalski
  11. Viburnum davidii
  12. Helleborus x hybridus ‘Hello Red’ – Oriental Hellebore
  13. Hydrangea ‘Limelight’
  14. Dicentra spectablis
  15. Tricyrtis formosana – Japanese Toad Lily
Astrantia - plants for partial shade
Astrantia – plants for partial shade

What is meant by light shade for plants?

Light shade refers to an area of the garden that is open to the sky and is blocked from receiving direct sunlight. Most commonly found in urban areas where structures such as buildings, fences and hedges block sunlight from coming through. The north side of a wall or hedge can be considered light shade if open to the sky. Hostas, ferns and Hellebores can all grow in light shade.

What are the best plants for light shade?

Plants growing in light shade need to be able to cope with reduced levels of light, which impacts a plant’s ability to photosynthesize and produce energy for growth. The following list details the 15 best plants for growing in light shade.

  1. Heuchera Palace Purple
  2. Hosta ‘Halcyon’
  3. Astrantia major ‘Roma’
  4. Digitalis purpurea Excelsior – Foxgloves
  5. Aquilegia Blue & White – Granny’s Bonnet, Columbine
  6. Geranium Rozanne
  7. Helleborus x hybridus ‘Hello Red’ – Oriental Hellebore
  8. Hydrangea petiolaris – Climbing Hydrangea
  9. Camellia Spring Festival
  10. Viburnum tinus Laurustinus
  11. Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’
  12. Sarcococca confusa – Sweet Box Sarcococca
  13. Pachysandra terminalis – Japanese Spurge
  14. Pieris ‘Forest Flame’
  15. Daphne odora Aureomarginata Rogalski

What are the best plants for dry shade

Dry shade creates the hardest environment for a gardener to get to flourish. The combination of low levels of light combined with poor soil means that gardeners have a reduced palette of plants to work with. As a horticulturalist, the most common question I receive is: ‘what plants are suitable for dry shade?’ Whatever plants you go with, ensure you invest time into trying to improve the soil by including organic material.

Larger leaved plants such as Hostas typically require a moisture-retaining soil and so are best avoided. Our list of the best 15 plants for dry shade provides the means to create an envy-worthy border.

  1. Anemone Honorine Jobert – Japanese anemone
  2. Hedera helix ‘Glacier’
  3. Astrantia major ‘Roma’
  4. Convallaria majalis – Lily of the Valley
  5. Aucuba japonica Crotonifolia – Evergreen Japanese Variegated spotted Laurel
  6. Euphorbia ‘Red Wing’ – Spurge
  7. Fatsia Japonica – Japanese Aralia Plants
  8. Helleborus orientalis Pretty Ellen Pink
  9. Sarcococca hookeriana Winter Gem – Fragrant Sweet Box
  10. Liriope muscari – Big Blue Moneymaker Lily Turf
  11. Viburnum tinus Eve Price
  12. Mahonia aquifolium
  13. Hydrangea macrophylla Verana – Large Flowered Mophead
  14. Dryopteris wallichiana – Wood Fern
  15. Taxus Baccata – English Yew




Gardening Express provide these articles to help gardeners with plant choice and growth. Gardeners need to undertake their own research before selecting plants and review soil types, aspect, moisture levels and care requirements before purchasing plants.

Updated on February 13, 2023

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