7 Tips for Creating a Colorful Shade Garden

How to create a colorful shade garden

Something you may not know about me: I love to garden.

When I have a little time to myself and I’m not doing blogging stuff, I’m getting down and dirty in my yard.

I grew up with a big sunny yard, and to me, sun = gardening. I didn’t even know you could garden in the shade.

So when I moved into my house, I was dismayed that much of my backyard was shady. What in the world could I do with all the empty, mulched, weedy beds that the previous owners obviously gave up on?

I delved into the world of shade gardening and quickly learned that shade doesn’t have to equal boring, green plants. The key is to anchor your garden bed with some great perennials that come back year after year, then fill in with colorful annuals. Voila! A pretty, colorful shade garden!

Here are my Top 7 Tips for planning an impressive and low-maintenance shade garden:

1. In the beginning, invest in lots of good, dark mulch. When you’re first starting out, you’ll need a good amount of mulch in your garden beds, as many perennials take a few years to fill in. Dark mulch lets your plants and flowers really pop, keeps weeds at bay, and looks natural as your plants grow. Now that I have more mature plants I need less mulch, and I can even get by mulching most areas every other year – which saves a lot of money.

Bonus tip: Wherever you have large open areas, put down a couple layers of newspaper and wet it down with your hose before spreading your mulch. You will get practically zero weeds!

2. Think about your soil. If you have crummy soil, your plants won’t thrive. Good soil is pretty dark and crumbly, but will briefly clump together if you squeeze it. If your soil seems poor, an easy fix is to buy packaged organic compost and work it into your soil where you are going to plant.

3. Remember that hostas are your (colorful) friend. When most people think about hostas, they think about boring green leafy plants. But those people are wrong! Hostas come in colors such as yellow, blue, and pale green. They can be variegated or solid. They can have rounded wavy leaves or thin, narrow leaves. And they can be miniature in size or even reach five feet tall! Plus, some hostas have beautiful, fragrant flowers. They are an excellent anchor for your shade garden and require almost no maintenance at all. See below for just a few examples of different hostas from my own garden.

Colorful variety of hostas

4. Look for perennials on good gardening websites. It’s worth it to buy from a reputable catalog, website, or local garden nursery as opposed to a big-box store or bargain catalog. Over the past ten years I’ve bought slightly more expensive perennials and shrubs from White Flower Farm and perennials from the big-box home improvement store. Guess which ones are still around and thriving?

5. Supplement with inexpensive annuals. This is where you can cheap out a little. I like to buy flats of pale purple impatiens (around here, that’s eight 6-packs or eight 4-packs of flowers) and spread them around in my woodsy area. I like the contrast of the purple against my green, yellow, and blue hostas, and my yellow-flowered archangel.

6. If you have some morning sun, consider hydrangeas. These are my absolute favorite shrubs, and I find that many varieties flourish with morning sun and plenty of afternoon shade. My favorite one is called Vanilla Strawberry and sports lacy flowers that start white, turn to light pink, and then to dark pink. It really brightens up a partially shady area on the side of my house.

7. Add character with statues, fountains, and more. This is a great way to fill in bare spots  due to still-growing perennials. In my gardens right now I have a bird bath, stepping stones, and some cute ceramic animals my kids painted. I also have a perfect spot for a water fountain – just deciding on which one to order!

Now what plants should you actually put in your gardens? Here are some of my favorites:

Shade perennials: (1) Astilbe (2) Archangel (3) Hosta (4) Heuchera (5) Pulmonaria (6) Bleeding Heart (7) Variegated Hosta. Most of these plants come in many colors, especially Astilbe and Heuchera. I also love Ferns, Brunneria, and Solomon’s Seal.

Colorful shade perennials

Shade annuals: These plants, all of which come in many colors, are annuals for me in the Northeast: (1) double Impatiens; (2) Coleus; (3) Caladium; (4) traditional Begonias; (5) Polka Dot Plant; (6) Lobelia; (7) Viola. I also love Fuchsia, traditional Impatiens, and huge Begonias that look like roses. If you have partial shade, Snapdragon, Salvia, and Nicotiana can do well, but they do need some sun.

Colorful shade annuals

Any time in summer is a great time to get started on your shade garden. In fact, in late summer you can get some great bargains on perennials that look past their prime at that moment, but will come back strong next year.

Do you have any questions about shade gardening? I’d be happy to answer them for you – and if I don’t know, I can point you in the right direction!

Pin me to your gardening or DIY board!

7 tips to create a colorful shade garden

*Shade perennial photos by JD Bailey except these via photo pin cc: (2) bill barber (5) beautifulcataya (6) Gene Wilburn.
**Shade annual photos by (1) J.G. in S.F. (2) mbgrigby (3) Gertrud K. (4) wintersoul1 (5) TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋) (6) mbgrigby (7) Parvin ♣ – all via photopin cc.

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5 Replies to “7 Tips for Creating a Colorful Shade Garden”

  1. Well, this validates me, since I just planted hydrangeas, bleeding hearts, and hostas in my yard! Thanks for the great tips.

  2. Love this! Every year I set out to do something more with our garden and every year I get overwhelmed – and I’m on the south shore of Boston so this is especially good! Thanks.

  3. Exactly, JD I am totally agreed with your suggestions to make a beautiful garden. We have to take care of some natural factors like, sunlight, water and type of soil. The gardening is all depends on these factors. It will be easy for us to prefer the perennials for instant gardening. Thanks for the valuable tips!

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