If you cant keep anything alive (let alone grow) in a dark shady garden then listen up – we have a few choices for you that we have tried in our gardens for many years, and are very happy with the results. They hold up well without much effort – certainly proven winners !
Having a successful shady garden is all about overcoming 2 things – tolerance to low foot candles, and low susceptibility to pests. There are not a huge amount of plant choices that have both conditions – but I bet more than you thought!
Perhaps the only other consideration is that you will have to give up the day dream of that English cottage look – and instead embrace the beauty and simplicity of these hardy plants. But don’t despair ! – there are plenty that have colorful foliage and flowers to brighten up the day !

When you go below 300 foot candles of light (my definitions of a dark garden) there is so little light energy striking any leaf that plants basically use up their stored calories then wither away. It happens because the plant cant produce the necessary sugar, nor has enough in storage, to run its core metabolism. It gets weak really quickly.

Insects and/or disease may even strike before they have used up their stored food. Same reason – a weakened metabolism. So it is quite important to take into consideration their susceptibility to pests or you simply will be fighting the environment. Example : Some shade tolerant Azalea would possibly work – but they get spider mites quickly if weak – and look terrible even quicker ! – and – you will be spraying them forever!

Choosing a plant that is both super low light tolerant and not prone to insects and diseases is the best way we have found to have a successful shady garden. Here are Plant Specialists  suggestions – based on 50 years of gardening in all different conditions.

Tall up to 8′

Mahonia Evergreen Shrub to 8′, slow grower, many species and varieties available, dark green leaves.
My favorites are “M. aquifolium with its soft fern like foliage, and M japonica (pictured below).

Thank you Southern living



Aucuba            Evergreen Shrub to 5′, green, dwarf, variegated and yellow varieties available.

Thank you meadowfarms.com for all of these lovely Aucuba images


Kalmia             K. latifolia – a deep forest plant – Called mountain laurel.  Shrub to 8′, slow grower, new varieties come with flowers in all sorts of colors – my personal fave – K. l. “Tinkerbell” – google it !

Thank you gardenmanage.com

Taxus – densiformis – the weeping type (not an needle evergreen) – Shrub to 4′, solid green, slow grower.

Thank you Spring Meadow nursery for this lovely Taxus image



Short – up to 2′

Athyrium – or Japanese painted fern – thank you Great garden plants !

Pulmonaria or lungwort

The ever beautiful Hellebores –  Heleborus hybrid – Hellebore or Lenten rose Thank you Northwest Garden Nursery !

Asarum canadenses – Wild ginger Thank you NC State U


Solomans seal – Polygonatum            Thank you Burpee

Dicentra (my favorite – chartreuse leaves with pink flowers – but many other varieties to choose from

            Bleeding heart – Thank you Terra Nova Nurseries


Aquilegia hybrids – Columbine  Thank you Amazon.com

Hosta hybrid  – Plantain lily – Thank you greenseedgarden.com


You can probably mix a bit of all of them and make a lovely colorful shade garden. You may have to plan it out on paper first– but of course you could have one of our designers at Plant Specialists do that for you !





This Shady Blog was written by our resident horticulturalist Peter Morris MSc. BSc. MBA