Horticulture Magazine

8 Shade-Loving Plants For Garden Containers

various hosta plants in terracotta pots

Got a shady spot in your garden that’s a little lacking in colour and character?

It’s tempting to leave this space alone and focus your growing efforts on bright, sunlit areas. But with the right guidance, it’s possible to get a vivid and exciting bloom established in areas that the sunlight doesn’t always visit.

In this guide we’ve rounded up some of the best plants that will thrive in containers in the shadiest parts of your garden.

After reading this guide you’ll realise that a shady section of your garden is nothing to shy away from. Rather, it’s the source of endless opportunity to plant and enjoy a different set of plants from what you might otherwise see. Once you get into the swing of these shade-loving customers you’ll realise just how rewarding they can be.

1. Hostas

a mixed garden border with astilbe and hostas planted together
Throwing shade

This is a broad and inclusive family of plants, with differing varieties sporting all sorts of colours, shapes, and moods. Head over to the website of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), and you’ll also note that they spotlight hostas’ particular suitability to shaded conditions, making this a perfect plant to get acquainted with if you’ve got a shady garden!

There are plenty of varieties to choose from, but here are three to whet your whistle –

  • Hosta blue mouse ears: Cutely and aptly named, the delicate bluey purple flowers of this diminutive hosta variety give a nice and unobtrusive splash of colour. Expect a maximum size of 0.5 x 0.5m.
  • Hosta June: Clocking in at a similar size to blue mouse ears, this variety boasts variegated leaves, with green and white-yellow intermingling to create a striking aesthetic.
  • Hosta Francee: Slightly bigger at a metre squared; the Francee variety also sports variegated leaves. This time, however, the green is on the inside and skirted by white, rather than the other way round. Great for creating contrast!

2. Ferns

a large Boston fern plant
Mottled lighting brings out the best of a fern’s aesthetic

Head to any woodland and you’ll probably see a carpet of fern lining the ground beneath the soaring tree canopies. If this isn’t testament to the plant’s ability to thrive in shady conditions, we don’t know what is!

And not only are ferns well-suited to shade, but they’re a pleasure to look at as well. They have a rugged image and a dazzling spectrum of green that will brighten up even the dreariest corner of your garden.

Again, we’ve selected a few varieties to help get you started –

  • Dryopteris affinis, aka scaly male fern: This deciduous fern does well in damp conditions, giving you options if your shady spot is also a little moist. In terms of looks this aligns very closely with your ‘average’ fern.
  • Adiantum venustum, aka evergreen maidenhair: This evergreen fern also handles damp well, and the year-round foliage will hold strong appeal to some gardeners. Smaller, rounder leaves also create a distinctive aesthetic.
  • If you’re working with a dry spot rather than a damp one, varieties like asplenium, polypodium, and dryopteris should do you well.

3. Begonia

A variety of colourful Begonia plants in pots
A variety of colourful Begonia plants in pots

Here’s another plant spotlighted by the RHS as particularly well-suited to shade. Just take a look at the selection of begonia varieties available and you’ll quickly see that it’s a medley of shapes and colours to enliven any garden space.

We recommend the begonia illumination series as a good jump-off point for this flower: the bold orange bloom will draw the eye and set off the greens, whites, and yellows likely to surround it in a display of shade-loving plants.

If orange isn’t your thing you’ll have no trouble finding yellows, reds, pinks, purples, whites, and more. With a little time and energy invested, creating a stunning display from begonias is well within your reach.

4. Coleus

coleus plants in differing colours in a terracotta planter
Coleus foliage is known for its interesting colour

Here’s another plant just bursting with colour, and not just via its flowers. Scroll through a list of coleus and you’ll see vibrant red leaves with green zig zags, yellow leaves with mottled red flecks, purple leaves that fade to pink and white towards the centre, and many other exciting combinations.

Used well, coleus can provide an exciting and invigorating backdrop for other flowers in your display of shade-loving plants. It’s easy to forget about colour when working in an area of your garden with specific conditions. But try not to fall into this trap: explore different combinations; explore unexpected colours. Mix them up and see what happens, and you may find this becomes one of the most exciting areas of your garden!

To get you started with coleus, here are the varieties that correspond to the colour combinations we mentioned previously:

  • Red leaves with green zig zags: Coleus glory of Luxembourg
  • Yellow leaves with mottled red flecks: Coleus pineapplette
  • Purple leaves that fade to pink and white towards the centre: Coleus Picturatus

5. Lysimachia

leaves of creeping jenny hang over a plant pot
Creeping Jenny

Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’, also known as golden creeping Jenny, is a beautiful plant that forms a mat of vibrant yellow flowers at ground level. Just like ferns, this is a plant you’d expect to see winding its way around high tree trunks in thick woodland, and it’s a surefire way to bring this ambience into your garden.

And what’s more, the yellow colour stays year-round, keeping this plant visually interesting and engaging in all seasons.

We’ve included this because it’s an excellent reminder that not all shady container displays need to rely on plants that clock in at similar heights. A ground-level burst of yellow-topped by graduated heights of colourful plants like begonia and coleus will create stunning displays that bring your sun-free spots to life.

6. Impatiens

a large mixed group of Impatiens walleriana flowers
A beautiful medley of colour

There’s no better time to introduce impatiens than while we’re on the subject of colour. These delicate and dainty flowers bring an enchanting feel to any garden lucky enough to be graced by their company, and we definitely recommend considering them for your shady container displays.

If you’re looking for something attractive and colourful that will thrive in the shade, you can’t go wrong here. There are plenty of varieties ranging in height, colour, and feel – meaning that some combination will work perfectly for your garden.

Impatiens walleriana is a great starting point.

7. Carex

Carex in a red plant pot

This plant could pass as a grass to the untrained observer, and while it technically isn’t a grass, it looks great when used with other ornamental grasses as prairie-style backdrops for shady container displays.

Choosing a variety of plants for your displays is an important part of getting a really distinctive visual effect. We’ve mentioned height and colour before, and while introducing carex it’s a good time to think about how combining subtle and flamboyant plants can lead to a well-balanced and harmonious display.

Different carex varieties offer green, variegated green and white, and even bronzish brown leaves, giving you lots of options when choosing the right one to accompany the other plants in your shade container.

8. Boxwood

boxwood topiary in tall metallic planters
Boxwood topiary

These evergreen shrubs offer something a little different to the gardener looking for container plants to grow in shade. Where previously we’ve looked at plants that combine well into displays, a boxwood shrub probably works best as a standalone plant in its own containers.

If you’re a fan of shrubs and topiary, this will be a good one for you. The bold green leaves look fantastic in mottled sunlight, and shady conditions will help this plant to grow its best – strong sun can scorch and discolour the leaves, eventually causing lasting damage if not rectified.

No need to throw shade

Hopefully this article has shown you that working with a shady garden doesn’t force you to grow dull and uninteresting plants and flowers. As you’ve seen in our little showcase, there are tons of options available to you when designing a container display for a shady spot: you’ve got the boisterous medleys of colour from begonia and impatiens. Back these up with ferns and carex and you’ve got a rugged blanket centered around luscious greens. Mix with other plants and you open up a world of possibilities.

Remember, too, that this list is not exhaustive. There are literally thousands of plants that will grow well in shade, so the deeper you dig into this area, the more options will be revealed to you.

We hope you enjoy designing and planting your shade container display, and also watching it burst steadily into bloom over the coming months.

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