Home Gardeners
Creating Beauty in the Shade
Sarah Browning, Nebraska Extension Educator
Creating Beauty in the Shade
Epimedium rubrum. By Peter Coxhead - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Many gardeners struggle with their property’s shaded areas. True, turfgrass won’t grow in heavy shade (anywhere with less than 6 hours of direct, full sun), but there are many plants which prefer either partial or even full shade. All it takes is a shift in your landscape vision for shaded areas to go from thin, unthrifty turf to the healthy restful gems of your landscape.

Benefits & Challenges of Shade
First, soil moisture doesn't evaporate as quickly from shaded areas, which reduces the need for watering during most of the year. Shaded areas are also cooler, making it easier for plants to tolerate hot summer days. And, once established, a shade garden is fairly low maintenance.

However, there are drawbacks to shade, too. Shade is often created by large trees with many surface roots. Planting among tree roots can be a challenge, but do not add soil over an existing tree’s root system or create a raised bed. Both techniques are bad for the tree’s long-term health. Add any new plants at the existing soil grade.

Trees are also very competitive for moisture, which can result in a combination of dry shaded conditions and should be considered when maintaining new plantings.

To begin reducing your “shade” headaches, convert areas too shaded for healthy turf into landscape beds. Often existing bed lines can simply be expanded to incorporate the larger shaded area. Smother the remaining grass with 2-3 inches of wood chip mulch. Leave turfgrass in the sunny areas where it thrives.

The biggest problem in shade gardening is usually selecting the right plants. You may be familiar with hostas and ferns, but there are many other shade tolerant plants worthy of attention.

Picture of Heuch_oaris_rebloomThree Great Perennials for Shade Landscapes
One of the best plants for dry shade is Epimedium, otherwise known as Barrenwort. There are several species of Epimediums, some of which are evergreen and others are deciduous. All are hardy in USDA zones 4-8, making them an excellent choice for Nebraska.

Epimediums prefer a rich, well-drained soil in part shade, but will produce flowers for years even in poor soil. The foliage is usually a light green, but often the new growth has a pinkish tint. The leaves are small and heart shaped. The flowers, which appear in mid-spring are four-petaled and dangle in clusters. Flower colors range from white to cream, rose, lavender or yellow. Plant height varies from 6 to 20 inches, depending on the variety.

With all of the varieties, planting can be done in spring or fall, and plants will benefit from an all-purpose fertilizer applied in spring. Epimediums can be found at some local nurseries and are available through some of the popular mail order catalogs.

Picture of hellebore_confetti_cakeAnother great plant for shade is Helleborus orientalis or Lenten Rose, so named because it blooms in the early spring. Hellebores are evergreen and hardy to USDA zones 4-9. The leaves are dark and leathery and divided into 7- 9 segments. The plant produces masses of nodding 3 to 4-inch flowers which vary in color from purple to pink, as well as maroon and white. The showy yellow stamens in the center of the flowers add to the display. Plant height is approximately 18 inches, with a similar spread.

Since flowering is so early, plant it in the shady border where you'll be sure to notice the beautiful blooms. Hellebores are widely available in the nursery industry, both locally and by mail-order.

Finally, Heuchera, pronounced hoo-ker-a, is another popular perennial for shaded areas. According to Allan Armitage, author of ‘Herbaceous Perennial Plants’, there are fifty to seventy species of Heuchera native to North America and due to the tremendous popularity of this plant with homeowners and landscapers more species are coming into the nursery trade every year. The most common and widely planted member of the genus is Heuchera sanguinea, commonly known as Coral bells. Plants are grown for their attractive flowers and/or colorful foliage.

Heucheras grows best with very good drainage and partial to full sun. Plants perform poorly in heavy clay soils, so add organic matter to the soil before planting. Visit Proven Winners, to view new and popular cultivars.

For an extensive listing of annuals, perennials, shrubs and small trees that perform well in shade, check out Plants for Shade Landscapes.

Make the best use of your shade by letting go of turfgrass and embracing shade tolerant plants instead. Your landscape will be healthier, more beautiful and easier to maintain.

Reference to commercial companies is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by Nebraska Extension is implied. Mention does not imply approval or constitute endorsement by Nebraska Extension. Nor does it imply discrimination against other similar products.


  1. Epimedium rubrum, by Peter Coxhead - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.
  2. 'Paris' coral bells. Image from Proven Winners
  3. 'Wedding Party Confetti Cake', Helleborus hybrid. Image from Proven Winners.

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Associated Video

Shade Plants

Nebraska Extension Landscape Horticulture Specialist Kim Todd gives some suggestions for plants that love growing in the shade.