Shade stars

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The shadier parts of a garden can be challenging. But they also present an opportunity to create something of subtle beauty and sophistication - a cool revitalising space to retreat to on hot summer days.

Some of our most stunning foliage plants are purpose built for low light situations, their leaves designed to catch the light. Big and shiny, fine and lacy, or frilled and crinkled, they fill a garden artist’s toolbox with richly contrasting shapes, textures and colours. Flowers are fewer in a shady garden, but they’re by no means absent. There are loads of shade plants to try. Here are a few of the classics.

Cold-hardy ‘woodland’ perennials that thrive in moist but well-drained, humus rich-soil and look beautiful planted in groups under deciduous trees ...

Hostas offer an exciting choice of shapes and colours from bright chartreuse through icy blues and some striking variegated forms and a range of heights from ground hugging to over a metre tall.

Heucheras, tiarellas and heucherellas offer an astounding range of colours. These popular foliage plants cope with a range of light conditions but perform best with protection from afternoon sun. The darker the foliage generally the more sun tolerant they are.

Hellebores, also known as Winter Roses are long-time favourite flowers for dappled shade under deciduous trees and shrubs. Perfect planted in groups with hostas and spring bulbs, they flower in winter and spring. Their healthy green foliage is beautiful too.

Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ is loved for its heart-shaped with silver and mint green markings. Sprays of bright blue forget-me-not flowers appear in mid to late spring. It is easy to grow in all but the driest shade.

Ferns are among the most beautiful and underutilised plants for cool shady spaces. They blend perfectly with flowering plants such as clivias, daylilies, rengarenga and hellebores. Some will grow in dry shade once established, but most ferns require humus rich soil, which holds moisture without becoming water logged. There are ferns for every climate.

Ligularias provide fantastic contrast, accent and drama. The variety ‘Britt-Marie Crawford’ is a favourite with large dark burgundy leaves. L. reinformis (tractor seat ligularia) has huge kidney-shaped leaves in highly lacquered forest green. Ligularias grow 60cm to a metre or so tall and look fabulous with ferns. Some are now reclassified as Farfugium.

Pulmonaria (lungwort) is a hardy groundcover perennial which forms a low leafy clump of pretty silver spotted leaves. Flowers in shades of blue, pink or white appear in spring. Look for modern varieties bred for superior mildew resistance.

Viola Heartthrob makes a beautiful groundcover or edging. It forms a dense mat with its heart shaped leaves pointing up and outwards. Like hostas, it needs protection from slugs and snails.

Shade lovers for warm subtropical gardens or a sheltered frost-free location ...

Coleus are colourful subtropical plants, mainly grown as annuals and easy from seed. They’re great as short-term fillers among shade loving perennials. They combine beautifully with impatiens and are great for pots.

Bromeliads make excellent container plants. Most require good drainage and are intolerant of frost. Of the many different bromeliads, the Neoregelias and Vreisias are among the easiest to grow.

Clivias are among the few spectacular flowering plants that thrive in the shade of trees.

Once established, they tolerate dry shade. The modern hybrids that have been developed from the native South African species have the most spectacular flowers, in rich shades of orange, red or yellow, with thick strappy leaves.

Dianellas have attractive iris-like foliage and blue flowers.

The recently released Dianella ‘Badger’ is one of those useful variegated plants that will brighten a dull corner with its pretty striped foliage. It also produces masses of pretty flower stalks in summer.

Renga lily (Arthropodium cirratum), or ‘NZ Rock lily’ lights up the shade with fountains of little white lily flowers in spring and summer. Among the best plants for mass planting under trees, cultivars like ‘Matapouri Bay’ and 'Avalanche' are favoured for their thick leaves and compact habit.  Protect from frost and snails.

Other NZ natives for shade include Mazus radicans and Pratia angulata (panakenake), two pretty flowering groundcovers that thrive in damp soil. Also for damp shady ground are Gunnera prorepens and Fuchsia procumbens, a groundcover with exquisite miniature fuchsia flowers. For a spacious subtropical garden, consider the beautiful lush goundcover, Parataniwha (Elatostema rugosum). Its large, prominently veined leaves are bronze green with purple highlights.

One of the many native ferns, hen and chickens (Asplenium bulbiferum) is a good choice for dry shade and kiokio (Blechum novae-zelandiae) is a super tough fern that grows in sun or shade and is great for frost free coastal gardens.

Success in shade:

  • Bulk-up the soil with compost before planting.
  • Mulch regularly to conserve moisture and build up soil structure.
  • Apply fertiliser to compensate for the competition from tree roots.
  • In very dry areas consider installing an irrigation system.
  • Prune trees to let more light and moisture into the soil below.
  • Protect young plants and newly emerging spring foliage from slugs and snails.
  • Plants grow more slowly in the shade. Start with larger plants for quicker results.


Look for these products, tips and advice at a Go Gardening Store near you.



Shade Stars

Hellebore Winter Sunshine
Hellebore Winter Sunshine

Ligularia reniformis
Ligularia reniformis



Arthropodium  cirratum
Arthropodium cirratum

kiokio - Blechum novae-zelandiae
kiokio - Blechum novae-zelandiae