The Four Seasons of the Shade Garden

The four seasons of the shade garden can be filled with colour as long as you use the right plants. Your evergreens are the bones of the garden providing you with year round colour. Let’s take a look at the shade garden throughout the year to get some new ideas.

Best plants for spring colour under trees:

In the shade garden people find it difficult to find the right plants to have colour throughout the seasons. Often our shade gardens are a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees and let in varying amounts of light at different times of the year. The key to shade gardens is to maximize the light when you have it. Early spring means that your deciduous trees have not leafed out yet so you may be getting dappled shade on the garden.

The Four Seasons of the Shade Garden

This is the perfect area to add spring bulbs such as early blooming snowdrops. As you can see snowdrops were bursting through my leafy garden before I had a chance to clean up. What I love about the leaf litter is it seems to keep the slugs away.

The Four Seasons of the Shade Garden

Mass plantings of species tulips take away the show here. This Tulip tarda opens on sunny days and closes up at night. Its flowers seem unaffected by heavy rains since they close tight on cloudy days. Plant these tiny bulbs under trees with ease and let them naturalize over the years.

The Four Seasons of the Shade Garden

Of course, no shade garden is complete without Hellebores for colour. By selecting different bloom times you can have this hardy perennial plant bloom from early January to the end of April. Above is a selection of the colours I have in my shade garden but don’t limit yourself. They also come in double flowering and yellows as well. Be prepared to pay a higher price for this plant but its worth every cent.

Best plants for summer colour in the shade garden:

As the trees leaf out we get more and more shade each day as summer nears. It’s time to plan what the next show of colour will be in the shade garden. I love the way hostas emerge and hide the dying foliage of spring bulbs.

The Four Seasons of the Shade Garden

Hostas come in so many colours and leaf shapes that you can use them to highlight other plants in the garden. The small hosta above, which is unnamed due to me losing the tag, leafs out in early spring and is always first on the block to open its chartreuse leaves. Hostas flower in summer with pink, white or mauve blooms but they are grown mostly for their foliage.

The Four Seasons of the Shade Garden

I have a saying that goes, if you have great foliage in the garden the flowers are a bonus. I have a green and white hosta planted in mass under a deciduous tree. I pair it with white Impatiens or Begonias in summer to add a pop of white in what can be a heavily shaded area. White flowers can brighten up the shadiest spots in the garden.

The Four Seasons of the Shade Garden

If you don’t have Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ in your garden, go to the garden center right now and buy one. This fabulous plant has tiny blue flowers in early spring followed by huge green and white variegated leaves that look fabulous in the garden paired with narrow leaved plants. I can’t get enough of Brunneras so now I own ¬†Brunnera ‘Alexander the Great’ and Brunnera ‘Looking Glass’. Be sure to shelter this plant from any afternoon sun as it can scorch the leaves. I have this plant growing underneath my oak tree and it loves it there. I have tried planting it in dry shade but it struggles in these conditions. Dry shade is one of the hardest areas to plant. That’s a whole other post. I have established Rhododendrons, Hostas, Kerria, ferns, Sarcococca confusa and Euphorbia in my dry shade area. Its not lush by any means due to competition and heavy shade from tall cedars and pine trees. I call it a work in progress.

Best plants for fall colour in the shade garden:

As our shade gardens begin to wind down and the days get shorter I am always glad to see fall colour in the shade garden.Hosta leaves turn a golden hue as they die back leaving their leaves easy to rake away.

The Four Seasons of the Shade Garden

It’s time to look at what does well in the fall. In November shrubs like Skimmia start to form pink buds which they hold onto for long periods before flowering. This glossy evergreen shrub is low growing and works well along our tall cedar hedge. Being its evergreen you can use this plant for indoor flower arrangements in winter.

The Four Seasons of the Shade Garden

Arum italicum sends up its leaves in the fall after a time of dormancy through the summer. The arrowhead shaped leaves are a sharp contrast against the red leaves of fall. This low ground cover loves the protected area below the rhododendrons in the shade garden. I am excited to see it spreading a bit. In late summer it will send up a spikes of red berries if I am lucky.

The Four Seasons of the Shade Garden

To have fall colour in the shade garden I would be remiss if I didn’t mention trees. Not all trees have excellent fall colour but this sour gum or Nyssa sylvatica tops the charts. Its always the last tree to lose its leaves in November. Place this tree near an evergreen backdrop for a show of colour.

The Four Seasons of the Shade Garden

Can you say amazing colour? Yes, this is our sour gum tree which is not planted often enough.

The Four Seasons of the Shade Garden

If you have room for Viburnum bodnantense in the garden, its a keeper. This shrub is pretty average in the summer with ridged green leaves but its the late fall when it comes into its own. As the leaves drop, buds swell and open to light pink fragrant flowers from late November until the end of February. Wait, I still have a few flowers on my Viburnum and it’s April! A hard frost can knock the flowers back but they soon return when it warms up.

The best winter plants for the shade garden:

The Four Seasons of the Shade Garden

Winter is the time when we are craving colour of any kind in the garden. Many plants such as the Viburnum discussed above are still blooming throughout the winter. Winter is the time when your garden really should stand out. Winter displays the bones of the garden, our evergreens. If you are starting a new garden it’s the evergreens that go in first. They are always there and will give you year round colour. In my shade garden I have Rhododendrons, Skimmia, Aucuba, Azaleas, Viburnums and Pieris japonica that make up the bones of the shade garden. It’s around these plants that all other perennials and bulbs are placed.

Here are a few more ideas:




Spring bulbs-Tulips, Hyacinth, Narcissus

Dicentra ‘Gold Heart’







Tuberous Begonia




Black Mondo Grass




Kirengeshoma palmata

Viburnum bodnantense

Nyssa sylvatica

Arum italicum




Aucuba japonica

Viburnum bodnantense


Taxus baccata





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