Home » ⇾ Great perennials for shade, that are not hostas

Many people consider hostas as the go-to option for planting in the shade. However, hostas are not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’. Several fantastic perennial plants thrive in the shade and can be mixed and matched with your hostas for a more diverse garden.

What is a shade garden?

Part shade garden: Plants receive between three and six hours of direct sunlight each day. The light is gentle, like early morning sunlight. These plants should not be located in a garden where they are exposed to the direct light of mid-day sun or the heat from late afternoon sun.

Full shade garden: Plants receive less than three hours of sun directly on them each day. This could be an area on the north side of a house or under a large shade tree, where the sun only infiltrates through the tree canopy for a few hours each day.  It could also be a garden along a tall wood privacy fence where the shade of the fence impacts the garden light.

General care for shade plants

Follow a regular watering schedule for the first two growing seasons to keep the soil evenly moist. This will help develop strong, deep plant roots. Don’t forget to water during times of drought, as shaded gardens can quickly dry out, especially if located under a tree canopy. Remove last year’s plant stubble and leaf residue in spring before plant growth begins. But do not start too early; ensure your garden soil is warm and dry before beginning your spring cleaning. There are a few shade perennials like ferns, hellebores, and bergenia that you don’t need to clean up at all. They seem to be okay if left alone. Lightly mulch around shade perennials with natural mulch to keep weeds down and help keep moisture in the soil. Plants like to grow in cool soil; mulching helps keep the soil cool. Feed your shade plants in spring with a balanced, slow-release fertilizer like bonemeal (natural) or Miracle-Gro Shake-n-Feed (synthetic) to optimize growth.

Great shade plants that are not hostas

Astilbe (Astilbe)

Try one of the Visions Series: Visions in White, Visions in Pink, Visions in Red, Little Visions.

Colourful plume flowers are striking against coarsely textured green foliage, much like ferns. The dense, upright habit is perfect for a part-shade border, woodland garden, or mass planting as a groundcover. Astilbe makes excellent cut flowers. They attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds and are deer—and rabbit-resistant. They are easy to care for. Faded flowers may be removed. This plant blooms in July and is hardy from Zone 4. Plant in part shade.

Visions in Red Astilbe. Photo from Proven Winners.

Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus)

Astilbe on steroids! Goatsbeard is a long-blooming perennial with large feather-like plumes. A rather monstrous border plant with spectacular creamy plumes about the size of one’s head, lacy foliage forms a very upright, dense clump in about three years. This plant needs space. Plant one as a garden specimen or a few to create a background for other shorter plants. Cut blooms off once they have faded to keep this plant neat and tidy. It performs best in moist soils in part shade. You can grow Goatsbeard in full sun in the northern areas with consistent moisture. It attracts native bees. Blooms in late June and early July.  Zone 3 in part shade to shade.

Chantilly Lace Goatsbeard. Photo from Proven Winners.


Some many ferns, so little garden space. Here is one of my favourite ferns.

Lady in Red Lady Fern (Athyrium felix-forma ‘Lady in Red’)

Finely textured light green foliage is held on vivid red-violet stems, making this fern an excellent choice for a shade garden. Lady in Red grows about three feet tall and three feet wide but grows very slowly. Plant with shorter growing shade perennials like hellebores or bergenia. It’s great for the back of the garden or mass planting (more than nine plants together). Fern care is relatively easy. Ferns require evenly moist, humus soil. If your soil is in poor condition, dig in four to six inches of compost before planting. This will help create the loose, water-retentive soil ferns thrive in. Ferns do well under trees; remember, tree roots (especially maples and many evergreens) may rob the soil of water. When it rains, the rainwater might not be able to penetrate tree branches, so make sure to provide additional water to gardens under trees. This is especially critical just after planting until the fern roots become established. It is a good idea to mulch around your ferns with compost or leaf litter at least once a year. Spring is the best time to do this. Do not clean around ferns in the spring as new growth will form and come up to hide the last year’s growth. Zone 2 is in a partial shade-to-shaded garden.

Lady in Red Fern. Photo from Proven Winners.

Hellebore (Helleborus)

Pretty single and double cup-shaped flowers bloom above lobed, dark green foliage that forms low clumps.  If hellebores like their growing location, they will re-seed quite nicely. Long blooming hellebores are one of the first perennials to bloom in the spring, so make sure to place them at the front of the garden to be enjoyed by everyone. There are many colours to choose from – red, purple, lime-green, pink, white, and yellow – single, double, and semi-double blooms. You can go wild for hellebores. I don’t bother to remove any faded blooms in my gardens; I leave them alone. The foliage is quite lovely once the flowers have finished. Hellebores will grow in a wide variety of soils as long as the soil is well-drained with plenty of organic matter. They are surprisingly drought-tolerant. This very easy-care plant requires little or no maintenance. I’m growing hellebores in Zone 5—part shade.

Vegas Night Hellebore.
Confetti Cake Hellebore.
Photos from Proven Winners.

Brunnera (Brunnera macrophylla)

Sky-blue, forget-me-not blooms rise above the heart-shaped leaves with green veins and silver-white edges in spring. This is the ideal perennial to brighten up any woodland setting, naturalized garden or perennial border. It’s well-suited for a pond location. Best planted in mass – more than one – five or more is best. Each plant will spread about two to three feet wide and 12 to 18 inches high. This plant loves moisture, so make sure you give it water. You can’t have enough brunnera in your garden. It’s an excellent replacement for forget-me-nots. It is a lovely naturalizing plant that is very carefree. Zone 4. In our area, plant in partial shade to full shade locations. It will thrive in a garden with morning sun.

Queen of Hearst Brunnera. Photo from Proven Winners.

Bugbane, Cohosh, or Snakeroot (Cimicifuga)

A tall, dramatic selection for the shade garden, cimicifuga is a lacy, airy backdrop adding texture, colour and height – it’s a ‘WOW’ plant. From late summer to early fall, fragrant bottlebrush flowers dance above the lacy foliage to four and five feet (sometimes taller). You can choose foliage colours – cimicifuga is available in green or purple (dark) foliage. I like the dark purple foliage, as it blends well with lighter foliage like brunnera. Rich white or mauve-pink coloured flowers open in mid-August and lighten to white as they mature. It’s a late summer magnet for butterflies. Cimicifuga performs best in partial shade and moist, organically enriched soil. Some direct sunlight is required to draw out the purple coloration in the foliage of darker plants. Planting Tip: This is not a good selection for planting under mature trees as tree roots will steal moisture, and this plant likes moisture. Zone 3. Part shade garden.

Chocoholic Cimicifuga. Photo from Proven Winners.

Fingerleaf Rodgersia (Rodgersia)

With its bold, divided palmate leaves, shade-loving rodgersia forms an exotic-looking clump that adds a unique foliage accent to any moisture-loving garden or border. It’s not for the gardener who likes small plants. This selection is best planted in mass (more than one) and requires space. Each leaf can be as broad as two to three feet across. Tall, large, airy plumes of soft-pink to ivory flowers appear above the foliage in early to mid-summer (July) and are excellent for cutting or drying. Clumps seldom need dividing, so this plant is very low maintenance. Foliage is available in both green and purple. Green-leaved plants often take on a bronze-red hue when they first emerge. Zone 4. Part shade.

Bronze Peacock Rodgersia. Photo from Terra Nova Nurseries.

Meadow Rue (Thalictrum)

Lacy, delicate blue-green foliage (much like columbine foliage) emerges with large pink, white, or purple airy, fluffy flowers that appear in late spring to early summer.  Easy to grow and can reach up to five feet tall. It does well in full sun (if you keep the soil moist) to part shade (preferred). However, it needs protection from the hot afternoon sun. It is an excellent plant for a woodland or wildflower garden. Plant in groups of three or more for the best effect. I like to mix meadow rue with ferns. They make excellent cut flowers. It does take a couple of years to establish, so be patient. Zone 3 to 5. Part shade.

Black Stocking Thalictrum. Photo from Terra Nova Nurseries.

Hakone Grass (Hakonechloa)

If you haven’t tried this grass in your shade garden, you should. Hakone is a bunching grass native to eastern Asia. The beautiful arching foliage can be placed at the front of the garden, almost like a hedge, or tucked under larger trees or shrubs for added personality, colour and texture. Foliage colours range from yellow to lime green to green, with a few variegated varieties, such as green and white or green and yellow. Clumps are low-growing and slow-growing, so be patient. This grass takes about four years to get its stride in the garden. Hakone grass has excellent fall foliage, turning pink to red in late September. It requires little maintenance. Cut back in spring, feed, and you’re good to go for the season. Zone 5. Part shade to full shade.

All Gold Hakone Grass. Photo from Proven Winners.

Pig Squeak (Bergenia)

This is one hardy perennial and perfect for any garden. The large leathery leaves have a glossy green sheen during the season and turn burgundy red in the fall. In my gardens, this perennial is a semi-evergreen. In spring, the upright flower stems form clusters of bright pink, soft pink or white cup-shaped flowers. Each plant will colonize over time, spreading to about two feet wide and one foot tall. This perennial is easy to divide and move around your gardens. Bergenia is one of the earliest blooming perennials, so select bergenia if you want some spring colour after a long winter. It tolerates a wide range of soils, will take a bit of sun and does well in dry and moist locations. I do have clients tell me it looks a bit like cabbage. Bergenia is a ‘workhorse’ in the garden. Zone 2-5. Part shade to full shade.     

Dragonfly Bergenia. Photo from Proven Winners.

In a northern climate, gardening in the shade can be challenging. However, this doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Don’t get me wrong—hostas are great. I have lots of them in all different shapes, sizes, and colors. But if you are looking for a change and want to try something new, consider a few perennials from my list.

Gardening is learning, learning, learning. That’s the fun of them. You’re always learning. – Helen Mirren

Lexi Dearborn

The Gabby Gardener

April 2022

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