Shady garden ideas for sun-starved spaces

Dazzling designs that prove your garden doesn’t need full sun to shine.

Life is all about duality. Good and bad, yin and yang, and – when it comes to our gardens – light and dark. Whether you’re a sun seeker or a shade dweller, it’s likely that your property will experience a mix of the two.  

My exposed, sun-drenched south-facing back garden is in stark contrast to my north-facing front patch that sulks in the shadow of my house. But your shady garden ideas don’t necessarily have to be restrictive. Throw all thoughts of doom and gloom by the wayside, because there’s joy to be had in these dappled, darker spaces.  

The trick is to know what to plant, and how to work with the sunlight you are afforded, leaving no forgotten dim corner behind. Oh, and having some expert garden designers share their shady garden ideas and top planting tips is handy, too. 

shady seating area in a large gardenCredit: Elks-Smith Landscape & Garden Design

1. Place seating away from building shade

Sit under the canopy of a tree

Garden designer Helen Elks-Smith suggests you don’t create garden seating spaces in dense shade close to buildings. 

“Otherwise, many surfaces will tend to become green, slippery and look unattractive,” she says. “They are also not great spaces to sit. Instead, I would plant these areas with ferns, grasses and shrubs.  

“Sitting under the canopy of a tree in the heat of the day is often wonderful. If it has a Tree Preservation Order, permission will be needed from your local authority, and that will depend on many factors,” she notes. “But, in all events, the detail of the construction needs to avoid damage to the tree.” 

In the shady garden idea pictured above, Elks-Smith has erected a structure that complements the surrounding trees and offers more shade to people sitting underneath.  

“As our climate heats up, we are valuing shade more, and likely to continue,” she adds. “Planting trees is a great way to create shade and future-proof your garden. Deciduous species will allow the light into the garden in the cooler months.” 

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Elks-Smith shares her tips for planting trees in a shady garden: 

  • “Japanese maples tend to thrive in the cool shade of nearby trees and form a wonderful understorey – looking up into the canopy of the larger varieties is simply a joy. Underplant them with Hakonechloa macra (Japanese forest grass) is a great combination. 
  • “Planting close up to the main stem of large trees is best avoided – the soil will be dry and the tree will often see off any competition. Digging ground close to large trees is also best avoided for the health of the tree. 
  • “Create larger planting beds. That way, when you view the plants, you are further away, and the space between the plants and the tree is not the focus. The plants below will also thrive better.” 

2. Plant hydrangeas

These flowers will bloom in shady spots

Credit: Emma Newbery Garden Design & Planting

Hydrangeas are low-maintenance garden flowers that can thrive in shade. You also don’t need a sprawling garden to enjoy their bounteous blooms, as you can grow hydrangeas in a pot. 

“Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ is happy in part-shade and prefers a moist, well-drained soil,” notes Elks-Smith. “Alternatives are ‘Strong Annabelle’ and ‘Pink Annabelle’, and the flowers of both of these tend to stay more upright, whereas ‘Annabelle’ blooms tend to droop slightly under their weight.” 

This luscious example is from a garden designed by Emma Newbery, showing ‘Strong Annabelle’ thriving in shade, alongside a variety of contrasting foliage textures provided by other shade-tolerant species, including variegated holly (Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea marginata’), Euonymus japonicus ‘Microphyllus’, Miscanthus synesis ‘Strictus’.  

Even phormium ‘Yellow wave’ and Verbena bonariensis are flowering well in this shady front garden, according to Newbery. 

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3. Create a shade-loving border

Fill a dark spot next to your house

Credit: May & Watts Garden Design

You might think that an extremely dark spot – perhaps a patch alongside a building or sheltered by a fence – is unplantable. But there are ways to add texture, colour and shapes to these areas, too. 

This shady garden idea from May & Watts Garden Design shows a very shady border abundant with ferns, anemones, white foxgloves, Aucuba japonica ‘Rozannie’, and Japanese hollies. 

The variation in green hues, the injection of white petals and different heights mean your eye naturally moves around the display. We think it contrasts against the building’s masonry wonderfully and plays to its shady strengths.

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4. Use water to reflect light and colour

Water creates a sense of calm

shaded garden with large pond and stepping stonesCredit: Peter Donegan Garden Design & Landscaping

Water can have many uses in your outside space. Not only does it help to attract wildlife, it can make a small garden look bigger. Water can also brighten up a very dark space, as demonstrated by this shady garden idea from Peter Donegan 

Using minimal, sleek, clean lines and modern design, the water replaces what could easily be a lawned area, or paved courtyard garden.  

The water’s surface captures glimpses of sky and shades of green, doubling the textures your eye takes in as you wander across the dedicated stepping stones. Any sunlight that does break through the canopy will be emphasised in the reflection, adding some sparkle to what could otherwise have been a dimly lit space.  

5. Build an al-fresco room

Covered areas can become cosy

covered shaded garden with dining area and outside cinemaCredit: Peter Donegan Garden Design & Landscaping

If you have an outside space that’s in full shade, with lots of hardscaping, embrace its textures and transform it into a cosy additional outside room. This shade garden idea from Peter Donegan takes accents from minimalist Japanese design to create a covered dining area complete with outdoor cinema.  

With the right heating and lighting, this garden can be used year-round, whatever the weather, and will likely see much more action than if it were merely dressed with a few potted plants.  

The use of red and white lighting creates an ambience perfect for hosting and relaxing, injecting some vibrancy into the dark space.  

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6. Wander down a pathway

Journey through the shade

Shade loving plants and curved pathCredit: The Garden Company

Why should darker areas of a garden be boring? Creating a journey through them is a great way to give shadier spots some purpose, working with its natural features.  

This shady garden idea, designed by James Scott, managing director and head designer at The Garden Company, shows pergola arches and a paved pathway enveloped with shade-loving plants. This ethereal pathway leads you through the shady part of the garden, drawing your eye towards the end, where the space opens out to a bright and open lawned area. 

“Trees are a vitally important feature”

“In a shady garden, the plants and trees are a vitally important feature,” says Scott. “Low-canopy trees can be used to add volume to the space and connect the lower planting to any larger trees. 

“Bulbs, ferns and other shade-loving plants all add texture and visual interest,” he says. “In the landscaping phase (if you are transforming an existing garden), when you may be thinning trees to allow light through, or there’s a local wind-blown-over tree available, you can also make use of its surplus logs.  

“Repurpose them into stepping stones, log stacks (these make a great wildlife habitat) or curved log walls that follow the shape of hardscaped paths, reinforcing the overall geometry of the space.”  

Scott’s top tip

“Restrained colour palettes can still create stunning combinations. For example, picture a carpet of bluebells set against a backdrop of silver birches or beech trees.” 

7. Create a wildlife pond

Add water to a woodland glade

Credit: The Garden Company

Another water-based shady garden idea, albeit one that embraces nature’s uneven textures, is to add a pond to attract wildlife. 

“If your shady garden has an open area, such as a woodland glade, a pond can be a great way to reflect movement and create atmosphere,” says Scott. “From a design perspective, it’s important to position the pond where you can enjoy watching the biodiversity and wildlife activity it creates, either from the house or a suitable seating spot. 

“It is also important that your water source is shallow, ideally with gradual and textured edges, so that anything that climbs in can get out safely, [such as frogs]. If you don’t have the space or resources to add a pond, a running water feature or even a bird bath can bring added interest and a focal point to the space.” 

8. Add garden seating

A space to contemplate

wooden bench under a big tree in a shady gardenCredit: Sylvan Studio

All gardens can benefit from somewhere to sit, contemplate, relax and find a moment of mindfulness. Whether it’s under a tree or in a snug corner, there are loads of garden seating ideas available that will suit your space. 

“Having somewhere to relax comfortably and soak up the atmosphere, immersed in layers of greenery, is vital to a shady garden,” says Scott. “There are plentiful organic seating choices, from various types of wooden seats (bespoke or not) to stone benches and even a simple hammock strung between the trees.” 

We love this shady garden idea from Christine Whatley of Sylvan Studio, which shows a simple wooden bench under a majestic tree. We imagine it’s the perfect place to sit and listen to the leaves rustling in the wind, and enjoy the view back towards the house.

9. Plant shade-tolerant species

Holly, yew and ivy are native

Credit: Shutterstock / mimohe

Of course, the success of any shady garden idea is reliant on you choosing shade-tolerant plants. But it’s important to balance how these will look, as well as their role in your patch. 

“As you put together your planting plan, it’s always good to consider plants that will bring biodiversity benefits to the space,” Scott suggests. “Native, shade-tolerant trees and plants that are great for wildlife include holly, yew and ivy (the latter is great for providing late nectar when little is available from other plants).” 

Garden designer Marlene Lento agrees: “Don’t underestimate the usefulness of ivy in shady locations,” she says. “You really can’t beat it for vertical greening, and you can even use it as low-maintenance ground cover between shrubs. You can opt for a small-leaved version or a variegated, lighter-leaved one, such as Hedera helix ‘Glacier’.” 

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10. Know your shade type

Is it dry or damp?

collage of shade tolerant flowersCredit: Marlene Lento Design Studio

According to Lento, a shady garden is not inferior: “On the contrary, it’s a great opportunity for lush greenery and texture, and it usually takes less management than planting in the sun. 

“There is a big difference between dry shade and damp shade, so choose plants accordingly. You will find ferns for both conditions, for example, so always check the label.” 

She suggests Geranium phaeum (pictured left) as another great dry or wet shade-lover. “Neat hummocks of foliage early in the year help supress weeds, and dark purple or white flowers appear in spring,” she says. “Take advantage of white flowering plants that shine in the darker corners of the garden, such as Japanese anemones (pictured centre). Another favourite of mine is Euphorbia robbiae (pictured right among arum foliage). It’s evergreen, with decorative whorls of leaves and long-lasting, chartreuse flowers from April onwards.”

11. Paint the walls white

Reflect the light with paint and mirrors

Credit: Nest

You can always inject some brightness into a shady garden with paint. This is especially useful if you have lots of masonry bordering your patch.  

“Apart from planting, painting a wall white or adding garden mirrors to strategically reflect light will brighten up a dark space,” advises Lento. A lick of paint will instantly lift an area that’s feeling a little dull. If white isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other outdoor paint colours to choose from. We love the addition of lamps set in enclaves, in this design from Nest, which adds another pop of light.

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12. Play with lighting

Add some festival flair

dining table set up in a shady garden with Moroccan style lanterns hanging from trees overheadCredit: Ella James

If you want to enjoy your shady garden at all times of day and night, particularly if you have a dining area or outdoor kitchen, then some lighting is in order. 

“Garden lighting is especially effective in shady areas, where a darker background helps to set off an artfully illuminated feature,” suggests Lento. But even if you don’t have a particular feature to highlight, you can still be playful with your lighting options. 

We love these Moroccan-style lanterns, which create a festival atmosphere. They are solar powered, though. So if your garden receives very little light, you might need to charge them up on a sunny windowsill before hanging them out in the evening.  

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13. Use gravel to brighten the floor

A lighter stone will help

light gravel pathway leading through wooden pergolas in a shady gardenCredit: Sylvan Studio

Here’s another shady garden idea that utilises pergolas and pathways, though this time we’re focusing on the floor. There are different types of gravel you can use in your garden, with slightly different applications. We love how this design (by Christine Whatley of Sylvan Studio) lightens the palette underfoot.  

“In this garden, I made use of what had been a dark, overgrown side of the garden in shade, by crown lifting the best of the existing shrubs, including a Cotoneaster, and removing others,” Whatley explains. “I designed a path to run through below a pergola, surfaced in golden flint gravel to brighten the space. Ground cover plants here include ferns and Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’.” 

14. Place a water butt in a shady corner

Repurpose a wooden barrel

Credit: Sylvan Studio

Not sure what to do with an unsightly corner? Rather than ignore it, why not transform it into useful space? 

“Often a shady corner will end up being used for utility stuff like water butts, but as this example shows, it can still look beautiful,” says Whatley, who designed this one. We love the aesthetic of an old barrel. Though make sure it’s been properly repurposed for this use. It’ll likely need to be lined and/or treated, so it doesn’t spring a leak. 

Did you know? 

You might be able to get a free water-saving device for your garden? Offers differ depending on your water provider. But we’ve spotted free water butts, discounted water butts and water-saving kits available. 

15. Embrace a darker colour palette

Decking and planting can be dark, too

shady garden idea with pergola and seating area near to a bird bathCredit: Harry Holding Studio / Marina Ralph

As much as painting walls white is a good shady garden idea, embracing the darker hues found in these spaces can also work well. We love this design from Harry Holding, which features a rust-orange bird bath, dark grey decking, grey paving slabs, dark green foliage and a hint of purple petals. 

“Embrace the shade,” says Holding. “Work with the conditions and enjoy the wonderful palette of plants that thrive in these conditions. Lush, textural and green shady spaces are magical – bringing in some hints of white flowers helps to bring light into dark spaces. 

For this, he recommends Anemone × hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ or Eurybia divaricata. 

16. Plant vertically

Cover a shaded wall with foliage

Credit: Earth Designs / Better Perspective Photography

If you have a small garden that is also very shady, utilising wall or fence space with vertical planting schemes can help to brighten things up. 

“I try and pick plants with bright-coloured leaves to add some brightness to the space,” says Katrina Kieffer-Wells, of Earth Designs, which created this space. “Go for plants with interesting foliage and shape to add extra interest, and select plants with brightly coloured flowers to add extra brightness to the space. 

“Try to bring colour into the hard landscaping. Position a brightly coloured glazed pot in a shady border to add a splash of colour.” 

This shady garden design saw the team position planters up a very shaded wall. The alternating textures and tones bring what could have been a forgotten space to life. It also frees up floor space, which does receive some sun, for garden seating.

17. Don’t rely on flowers

Leaves are your friends

Shady garden idea with potted plants, trees and ferns in a courtyardCredit: Chiltern Garden Design

This shaded courtyard, designed by Sam Proctor of Chiltern Garden Design, is enclosed with tall buildings on all sides (it’s located at Amersham Hospital and is used by NHS staff there). 

“The planting is successful because it doesn’t place a heavy reliance on flowers,” says Proctor. “Instead, it’s mostly lush and varied foliage, which provides a long season of interest through form, texture and colour. Plus, scent is a bonus when the shrubs and climbers are in flower.  

“The tree ferns provide drama, height and structure in a space where there is very little depth of soil (it’s a podium garden effectively). We couldn’t have planted standard trees without putting them in pots. There’s a strong evergreen element in the mix to provide interest into the winter months.” 

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Rosanna Spence

Written by Rosanna Spence she/her

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Rosanna Spence has been a journalist for nearly 10 years, reporting on a huge array of topics – from microwaves to cocktails, sustainable buildings, the Caribbean islands and beyond. She’s interviewed chefs at the helm of Michelin-starred restaurants and chatted to countless CEOs about their businesses, as well as created travel guides for experienced travellers seeking life-changing adventures. Throughout her career, she has created content for Business Traveller, i-escape.com, Pub & Bar, BRITA, Dine Out and many more leading titles and brands.

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