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

When we think about planting in shade, most people think hostas. However, hostas are not everyone’s ‘Cup of Tea.’ There are a number of really great perennial plants that thrive in shade and are fun to mix and match with your hostas.

First, what is a shade garden?

Part shade garden: Plants receive between three and six hours of direct sunlight, however, the light is gentle such as early morning light. These plants should never be located in a garden where they are exposed to intense 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 sun only infiltrates the tree canopy for a few hours each day.  This could also be a garden along a tall wood 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 establish a deep root system and ensure the soil is kept evenly moist during this time. Don’t forget to water during times of drought as shaded gardens do dry out quickly, especially if located under a tree canopy. Remove last year’s plant stubble and leaf residue in spring before plant growth starts. But not too early, make sure your garden soil is warm and dry before starting your spring cleaning. There are a few of shade perennials like ferns, hellebores, and bergenia you really don’t need to clean up. They seem to be fine if left alone. Lightly mulch around shade perennials with a natural mulch to keep weeds down and keep moisture in the soil. Feed your shade plants in spring with a balanced, slow-release fertilizer like bonemeal (natural) or Miracle-Gro Shake-n-Feed (synthetic).

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 planted as groundcover. Astilbe make 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 are 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 in order to keep this plant looking neat. It performs best in moist soils in part shade. With consistent moisture, you can grow Goatsbeard in full sun in the northern areas. It attracts native bees and blooms in late June and early July.  Zone 3 in part shade to shade.

Chantilly Lace Goatsbeard. Photo from Proven Winners.

Ferns

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 makes this fern a great choice for a shade garden. Lady in Red grows to be about three feet tall and three feet wide, however, she is very slow growing. Plant with shorter growing shade perennials like hellebores or bergenia. It’s great for the back of the garden, or as a mass planting (more than nine plants together). Fern care is relatively easy. Ferns require evenly moist, humus soil. If your soil is poor shape, dig in four to six inches of well-rotted compost. This will produce a loose, water-retentive soil which ferns thrive in. Ferns do well under trees, however tree roots (especially maples and many evergreens) may rob the soil of water and nutrients. When it rains, it might not be able to penetrate tree branches so you will need to provide regular watering to areas 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. This will help improve the soil, keep fern roots cool, and help to retain moisture. Just plant, water, and go. Ferns don’t need spring cleanup as the new fern will form and come up to hide the last year’s growth. Zone 2 in a part shade to shade 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 lots of colours to choose from – red, purple, lime-green, pink, white, and yellow – single blooms, double blooms, and semi-double blooms. You can really go wild for hellebores. I don’t bother to remove any of the faded blooms in my gardens, just leave them alone. The foliage is quite nice 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 once established. This very easy-care plant requires little or no maintenance. I’m growing hellebores in Zone 5 and they are doing very well in my gardens. 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 overly or edges in spring. This is an ideal perennial to brighten up any woodland setting, naturalized garden or a 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 to be 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. Great replacement for forget-me-nots. Lovely naturalizing plant that is very carefree. Zone 4. In our region, plant in part shade to full shade garden. It will thrive in a garden with morning sun and shade from the afternoon heat.  

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 through to early fall, fragrant bottlebrush flowers dance above the lacy foliage to a height of four and five feet (sometimes taller). You have a choice of foliage colours – cimicifuga is available with green or purple (dark) foliage. I really like the dark purple foliage, as it blends well with lighter foliage plants 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 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 wide at two to three feet across. Tall, large airy plumes of soft-pink to ivory flowers appear in early to mid-summer (July) and are useful for cutting or even drying. Clumps seldom need dividing, so this plant is very low maintenance. Foliage is available in both green or purple. Green leaved plants often take on a bronze-red hue when it first emerges. Zone 4. Part shade.

Bronze Peacock Rodgersia. Photo from Terra Nova Nurseries.

Meadow Rue (Thalictrum)

Lacy, fine blue-green foliage (much like columbine foliage) emerges in early spring with large pink or white or purple airy fluffy flowers in late spring or 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 hot afternoon sun. A great plant for a woodland or wildflower garden. Plant in groups of three or more for the best effect. Personally, I like to mix meadow rue with ferns. They make great cut flowers. It does take a couple of years to establish. 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 it in under larger trees or shrubs for a bit of added personality, colour and texture. Foliage colours range from yellow to lime green to green with a few varieties being variegated green and white or green and yellow. Clumps are low growing and slow growing, so be patient. It takes about four years for this grass to get its stride in the garden. Hakone grass has great 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 forms clusters of cup-shaped flowers of bright pink, soft pink or white. Each plant will colonize over time, spreading to about two ft. wide and one ft. high. This perennial is easy to divide and move around your gardens. Bergenia is one of the earliest blooming perennials, so if you want spring colour after a long winter, select bergenia. It tolerates a wide range of soils, will take a bit of sun and does well in both dry and moist locations. I do have clients tell me it looks a bit like cabbage. Bergenia is just 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 shade can be difficult. 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 colours in my gardens.

If you are looking for a change and want to fill a shady spot, try a few new shade perennials for interest.

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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