Low-Maintenance Shade Plants: Shrubs & Perennials

Part of the fun of gardening is deciding what to plant and where to plant it. However, there are various considerations to consider while designing your dream garden space, such as how much space each plant needs, the soil, watering and feeding requirements of each, and, of course, whether they prefer sun, shade or part-shade.

When grouping plants, you can’t put those that love full sun alongside more delicate varieties with easily scorched leaves since they need such different conditions to thrive. However, it is possible to find perennials for shade, which you can easily grow and maintain in the shady areas of your garden.

Low-maintenance shade plants are a worthy addition to any garden space. Although not so many plants enjoy total shade, and most will need a couple of hours of daily sun, there are several excellent shade-loving plants to choose from.

Growing plants in low-light parts of the garden can be challenging since water can evaporate more slowly, low UV levels can encourage pathogens to spread, the air will be cooler, and some plants struggle to bloom in low-light conditions.

Choose low-maintenance, hardy plants with brightly colored foliage to make the area attractive.

Just as some plants are happy indoors, even with air conditioning, some are perfectly content being outdoors and getting very little sunlight. Low lighting doesn’t mean you have to go without beautiful plants; even if you live somewhere cool and don’t get a lot of sun, there are some perfect plants you can choose from.

Sun & Shade Conditions: Useful Definitions

  • Full sun: Direct, full sunlight for at least 6 hours a day. This can be six consecutive hours or perhaps 4 in the morning, then some noon shade, and then two more hours of sun in the afternoon.
  • Full shade: Less than 2 hours of sun every day.
  • Partial shade: Between 2 and 4 hours of sun each day.
  • Partial sun: Between 4 and 6 hours of sun each day.
  • Heavy shade: No direct sunlight. All plants need light to grow, but heavy or dense shade means no direct sunlight. Examples of heavy shade areas include underneath thick evergreens or at the bottom of a wall that faces north.
  • Moderate shade: Light which is mainly reflected rather than direct.
  • Light shade: Filtered sunlight such as the kind coming through an open-canopied tree or where there is a shade/sun pattern that changes all the time.

The following plants tolerate low light levels well; some even grow in 100% shade.

Shade-Loving Shrubs

Don’t forget shrubs when choosing shade plants for your landscape or garden. Shrubs are foundational to any design. Just be sure to keep their mature size in mind when planting. Also, shrubs will likely need additional water until their root system gets established. After that, no extra watering will be required unless in a drought.


Boxwood

boxwood shrub in garden

Evergreen boxwood shrubs are a popular option. Deer don’t eat them; they will grow in partial shade and thrive in most soil types.

There are different types of boxwood to choose from, including upright, conical, and globe-shaped ones, which come in different sizes. It’s up to you whether you shape them with clippers to make exciting shapes or let them do their thing naturally.

Abelia

abelia shrub in bloom

You can get abelia in various sizes from 2 to 6 feet high, and they grow in all USDA zones between 4 and 9.

Some boast copper-pink leaves which turn vivid green. Expect little trumpet-shaped flowers in lavender, pink, yellow, or white during the summer, depending on the variety. Abelia is tough, deer-resistant, and highly adaptable.

Hydrangeas

hydrangeas shrub

Huge billowing hydrangea blooms look stunning in any outdoor space, and the lacecap and bigleaf varieties are especially popular for their gorgeous blue flowers.

Rich, moist soil is the best kind for hydrangeas, although they don’t continuously bloom easily in cool climates or places where there are deer. 

Flowers from the last season can be ruined by frost if the temperature gets below 0 degrees F. However, Mophead and lacecap varieties can bloom on both new and old wood, so even if you lose one year’s buds to frost, you can still enjoy blooms the next.

Apart from a delicate spring trim, hydrangeas don’t require much effort. They bloom during the summer and display red leaves in the fall, keeping their flowers sometimes until the early winter.

Bush Honeysuckle

bush honeysuckle shrub

Another low-maintenance option, bush honeysuckle, grows between 3 and 5 feet in height and width. Also known as Diervilla, this shrub grows in USDA hardiness zones 4 through 8, boasting shiny green, maroon, or russet foliage, depending on the variety.

The name comes from the little yellow flowers which attract bees and other pollinators in the summer and fall.

Rhododendrons & Azaleas

Rhododendron shrubs in shade garden

You can choose from many rhododendrons and azaleas colors, combining more than one color for an eye-catching display or sticking with one for pure elegance. Some bloom early, while others won’t flower until the summer.

Also, some are compact while others get pretty big, so compare some different types and choose whichever matches the effect you want to create.

Some azaleas are evergreen, others are deciduous, while all rhododendrons are evergreen. Some newer types flower twice a season, and others thrive in cold climates.

These flowers prefer rich, moist, acidic soil but will tolerate poor soil once established. You don’t need to trim them apart from the odd dead branch.

Shade-Preferring Perennials

Perennials come back every year, which is why they’re such a popular choice. These plants can last for years, and although some need light to thrive, others do well in low-light or even shaded conditions. 

Many perennials don’t require much maintenance because you can leave them outdoors in winter. Also, they typically don’t spread uncontrollably and won’t need to be pruned often.


Fringed Bleeding Heart

fringed bleeding heart

This one enjoys a moist, cool climate and plenty of shade to keep the blooms healthy throughout the summer. This fringed perennial looks a bit like a fern and has serrated foliage with delicate leaflets which don’t like strong sunlight.

So if it is hot, the pretty, heart-shaped flowers might not appear until the fall. 

They are attractive to hummingbirds and bees and ripen into pods that release elaiosome to attract ants.

This chemical stimulates the ants to carry the seeds back to the ant nest, leaving them to grow in a safe, nutritious nest environment.

Snake Plant

snake plant in a pot on the floor

Possibly the toughest plant there is (they are hard to kill even if you forget all about them!), the snake plant has striped leaves that alternate dark green with pale green stripes. 

The leaves’ snake’ outward into sharp points hence the name. This is an excellent choice for beginner gardeners since they seem fine even when neglected!

Also known as mother-in-law’s tongue or sansevieria trifasciata, this plant is fine in USDA hardiness zones 9 through 11, like part shade or even full shade.

They will thrive with barely any sunlight at all, although this might make them grow at a slower rate. Let the soil completely dry out between watering.

Asparagus Fern

Asparagus Fern with rocks

This houseplant is accustomed to shade since it does well indoors. Native to South Africa, the asparagus fern or asparagus densiflorus loves dappled shade and will grow well in hanging baskets, pots on the patio or containers under the shadow of canopied trees. 

It isn’t a type of fern despite the name. It’s a flowering perennial which is in the asparagus family.

Wear gloves if handling this plant because the leaves can be sharp. Also, don’t expose the stem to direct sunlight because it scorches easily.

Asparagus ferns grow small white flowers, eventually turning into slightly toxic berries.

Columbine

Columbine flower in bloom

These flowers will look pretty in any shaded space and bloom during early spring for a few weeks. Unfortunately, these cool-season perennials don’t get along with hot weather. Although the flowers last only 2 or 3 weeks, they reseed heavily in the right conditions.

Columbines boast unique flowers shaped like a jester’s cap, and they are attractive to hummingbirds. Grow them in a lightly shaded area.

They’re drought-resistant too, as long as they are established. Consider adding columbines with other shade-loving perennials at the edge of a rock garden. They will grow up to 3 feet tall and up to 2 feet wide and do well in USDA hardiness zones 3 through 8.

ZZ Plant

zamioculcas zamiifolia plant or zz plant for shade

A ZZ plant will grow in total shade or partial shade and it’s perfect for USDA hardiness zones 9 or 10. This plant will grow in the darkest corner of your darkest room but it is also fine under bright fluorescent lights. 

ZZ is an abbreviation of the plant’s botanical name, zamioculcas zamiifolia. 

Let the soil completely dry out between watering. This plant has tall stems and dark green, glossy leaves. It’s popular because it’s so low-maintenance.

French Hydrangea

French Hydrangea is an excellent shade plant

If you live in USDA zones 6 through 9, you can leave this plant, also known as Hydrangea macrophylla, outdoors.

This ornamental perennial is native to Japan and has bouquet-shaped heads of flowers, the color of which depends on the pH of your soil. You can choose from lacecap hydrangeas and the mophead (hortensia) variety.

The mophead has little equal-sized florets, and the lacecap has little clusters of flowers.

You might have seen French hydrangeas doing well in full sunlight, but they also enjoy partial shade as long as substrates are regularly moistened. Leaves exposed to strong sunlight might wilt if the soil is allowed to dry out.

On the other hand, a generous mulch layer and regular watering mean French hydrangeas should tolerate cool conditions. At anything less than zone 6, though, they might not survive.

Boston Fern

holding a boston fern plant

This fern, also known as the fishbone fern because of the leaflets on the fronds, is native to tropical areas. It likes to be outdoors in dappled or full shade.

It’s a bushy evergreen and is often kept indoors. The crinkled fronds can grow to almost 100 inches in length and be up to 6 inches wide, giving mature Boston ferns a majestic appearance.

The Boston fern is happy in humid weather with indirect light exposure or partial shade. You can grow it outdoors in intermittent or complete shade.

If you have an indoor Boston fern or are bringing yours in for the colder months, you might need to mist it or use a humidifier to keep it in tip-top shape.

Indian Pink

Indian pink plant for shade

This perennial, also known as spigelia marilandica, is native to the southeastern US and prefers full to partial shade environments. It likes a fertile, moist substrate and can withstand full sun if kept moist enough. It does grow better in the shade, though.

Indian pink grows on wooded slopes in the wild and is undoubtedly an eye-catching choice.

This plant can grow up to 18 inches in height and width, and it’s suitable for urban gardens and border plantings since it spreads in clumps.

The name suggests the flowers are pink, but they’re decidedly red, appearing at the beginning of summer with red trumpet-shaped buds that open into creamy yellow star-shaped blooms.

Indian pink flower clusters are attractive to hummingbirds. You can propagate Indian pink with cuttings, but make sure you root it early in the season so the underground growth bud develops appropriately.

Deadhead any spent blooms to prolong the flowering period and encourage new stems.

Plantain Lilies (Hosta)

hosta's in a garden

These come in various patterns, colors, and leaf shapes and are native to northeast Asia. Plantain lilies are eye-catching and pretty and prefer a low-light environment. 

These plants, also known as hostas, need fertile, well-draining soil. Those with golden-colored leaves tend to like some morning sun.

You can grow more than one kind in the same container or next to another to show off their slight differences.

Bigleaf Periwinkle

vinca major plant

Suitable for groundcover plants, the bigleaf periwinkle, or vinca major, is native to the Mediterranean region. This evergreen will elongate its shoots and spread its roots in a well-shaded location.

Full sun brings out more flowers, while full shade makes it bushier. 

Bigleaf periwinkle typically only grows in moist undergrowth or along the edges of freshwater rivers and lakes in the wild.

However, it is pretty alongside ponds and will spread on its own as a trailing plant, spreading from stem nodes that touch the soil.

The delicate stems contrast with the deep green leaves. Flowering stems are upright, while non-flowering ones usually grow outwards.

Plant your stem cuttings 12 to 18 inches apart from each other if you can if you’re planning for them to cover a big area. If you prefer to restrict their spread, grow them in pots or containers instead.

Dwarf Chinese Astilbe

This pretty plant makes a good groundcover in shady parts of the garden and is native to eastern China, Korea, and Japan. It’s fern-like and can typically tolerate anything from full shade to intermittent shade.

It only reaches 10 inches in height, making it a good candidate for water feature borders and landscaping borders. Let shoots grow in groups for the most attractive appearance.

Expect showy, feathery flower plumes from the summer until late fall in shades of pink or purple. Spent florets turn a rich brown and look lovely during the winter season. This plant won the RHS Award of Garden Merit. 

It’s certainly an unusual plant but make sure the ground stays moist since it doesn’t do well if the soil dries out. It’s pest-resistant for the most part but can be affected by powdery mildew. 

Purple Coneflower

purple coneflower plant

Also known as echinacea purpurea, this plant thrives in anything between partial shade and full sun. It’s native to the eastern US and looks pretty in a wildflower garden. Purple coneflower grows wild in woodlands, barrens, and prairies. 

After the roots have established themselves, the species will tolerate various ambient conditions, and it’s an excellent plant for attracting pollinators like long-tongued bees and butterflies to moist meadows or shady garden areas.

These plants will grow to a maximum of 47 inches and boasts domed bunches of tiny florets with purple petals. Each one can reach up to 6 inches in diameter. Expect blooms any time between April and September. 

There are different cultivars to choose from, and some, such as Elbrook and Ruby Giant, have won the RHS Award of Garden Merit. They usually reseed well in well-draining, loamy types of soil.

Foam Flower

foam flower plant in bloom

Known as tiarella cordifolia too, the foam flower is a flowering perennial plant. It is low-growing, and the blooms can last six weeks in the right conditions. Foam flower is native to the eastern United States and looks pretty in woodland gardens, pond-side locations, and borders. Use it for groundcover or as a potted outdoor plant.

Foam flower won the RHS Award of Garden Merit and offered heart-shaped leaves with various lobes and stunning blooms. You will see pale pink flower buds come out on the long stalks in early spring, and these will open just before the summer to show white petals with delicate little stamens. 

The stalks stand out above the foliage so potential pollinators can find them easily. Foam flower prefers full or partial shade and moist soil. It doesn’t mind mild to cool temperatures.

Coral Bells

Obsidian Coral Bells
Obsidian Coral Bells

Native to the west coast of the US, coral bells are low-maintenance and surprisingly underused, considering they are so colorful and gorgeous. You can choose from many colors; the foliage varies from dark-colored to bright green. Coral bells, also known as heuchera, prefer full shade, although some varieties don’t mind full sun. 

Heuchera foliage is pretty, and the flowers are also impressive. Some coral bells have foliage and flowers of a similar shade, while others offer a distinct contrast. Many heuchera admirers like to have various colors next to one another because they all complement one another.

Clematis

Clematis plant

Even with a small garden, you should have room for a clematis vine that will wind around a trellis, fence, or whatever is near it. The flowers come in white, yellow, pink, blue, or purple and look good if allowed to climb into small trees or shrubs.

Clematis will grow in partial or full shade, but it prefers several hours of sun daily. Plant them fairly deep and add sufficient mulch to cover the roots. Clematis varieties suit USDA hardiness zones 3 through 9, and they like moist, nutrient-rich soil.

Spotted Dead-Nettle

spotted dead-nettle plant

Perhaps not the most attractively named plant, these are an excellent option for full or partial shade. They are so called because they have hairy leaves reminiscent of stinging nettles.

This plant won’t thrive in full sunlight. Spotted dead nettles are native to Asia and Europe and have stems growing to 8 inches maximum. Use them as a dwarf edge plant or as a groundcover. 

It’s best to cultivate this plant in the shade as it favors low light conditions and doesn’t do well in high temperatures. In fact, it will wilt in direct sunlight, so plant it somewhere shady such as in the shadow of a larger perennial or shrub.

This plant blooms from April until November, and the attractive hooded blooms are unusual. They form a helmet shape and are suspended over the flower’s tube. 

Grasses

Japanese forest grass
Japanese Forest Grass

Although these are considered full-sun plants that like meadow environments, some grasses prefer the shade and will add different colors and textures to a garden.

One example of shade-tolerating grass is hakonechloa macra, or Japanese forest grass. It comes in golden and variegated varieties and looks waterfall-like, growing just over a foot tall. It’s pretty grown under a canopied tree or to border a path and suits USDA hardiness zone climates 5 through 9.

Another option is sedges or carex, which grow in tidy mounds, ranging from gold to green and a few variegated types. Sedges come in 1 to 3 feet heights and are best for USDA hardiness zone climates 5 through 9 or even 10.

Plant grasses on their own or in containers to offer a nice contrast with your other shade-loving plants. Leave grasses alone over the winter when they will be dormant and provide shelter for birds and small animals, then trim them back the following spring.

Bug-Repelling Shade Plants

lavender plants
Lavender

Insects and other pests can be a significant annoyance in the garden. So whether mosquitoes are driving you crazy or bugs have started eating your prized plants, you might prefer to choose shade plants that deter pests rather than go the chemical spray route.

By choosing perennial plants that repel pests and also grow well in the shade, you can tackle both issues at once. Plants such as chrysanthemums, marigolds, and citronella are popular choices, although these don’t like full shade so much.

Also, bear in mind bugs are naturally attracted to dark, shady areas so they can stay out of the hot sun.

The best thing to do is remove any low-growing plants, improve drainage and choose some plants which don’t mind shady conditions. 

Consider garlic and chives with attractive little flowers, and a smell bugs hate. Or what about bee balm or lemon balm? These smell citrusy, and bugs aren’t keen on that either. 

Lemon thyme and mint would also work. Most of those examples are edible too, which means you can enjoy attractive plants in the shade, repel bugs and pests, and have some tasty herbs to use in the kitchen!

Made for the Shade: Time to Get Creative!

Choosing the best low-maintenance shade plants with care is vital to get the gorgeous display you dream of and enjoy a pretty garden, even if most of it is shaded. 

Although a lot of gardeners don’t garden in the shade because they aren’t convinced the plants will do well, a shade garden can be easier to keep on top of, and, when the weather is hot, you will probably rather be in the shade working on your plants than roasting under the sun!

The fun thing about growing plants that thrive in the shade is you can utilize all your outdoor space. Whether using pots or containers or growing them in the soil, shade-loving plants will happily grow in the shade of a canopied tree or on the north side of a wall. 

Some prefer partial shade, while others are fine with full shade. So there is literally no corner of your garden you can’t use, even if most of it is shaded at least part of the time. 

Choose from any of the above varieties, see what your local garden center offers, and combine various colors for an eye-catching floral display.