Shade gardening in a tiny garden

Categories Community
shady garden
Elliott Lowe unsplash

Sheila Gijsen writes, I hope to give you a few ideas for plants which can fill that difficult shady area, but are also interesting and surprisingly colourful. A bonus is that none of the plants I mention need staking!

I’ve lived in my ground floor 1970 ex council flat for thirty years. The garden is tiny and nearly square – 18 by 20 feet. It is two thirds soil -mainly on the shady side. The rest is basic patio paving, and I’ve covered that part with sunlovers – bottle brush and ceratostigma plants in tubs, clematis, salvias, bedding plants, alpines and so on.

The soil was un-reconstituted clay and builders’rubble and I’ve since then added loads of my own compost to greatly improve it.The biggest problem has been the shady half. Quite a lot of shade is inevitable in a small walled courtyard garden, but also of course some has been self-inflicted. I happily filled my new garden with shrubs and small trees to try to create the woodland look I love, I also created a lot of extra shade.

The following are plants which have worked for me, after a lot of trial and error.


It was important not to have disproportionately tall trees in a small garden, or which blocked out too much light… After a lot of research, I settled on three deciduous ones ; a sambucus nigra for the sunny side (which does horrifyingly well), a multi stemmed amelanchier and a fastigiate rowan called “Autumn Spire” for the dappled shade area.

None should exceed 10 – 13 feet in height and ticked all the boxes in terms of autumn and spring colour, flowers, berries, interest to wildlife etc.

I also have a few Japanese maples, mainly in pots, which have a beautiful miniature tree shape as well as interesting leaves. The dissectum varieties are very shade tolerant. In light which is too bright the leaves seem to look scorched by the end of the summer.

The boundary walls

The traditional ivy – variegated and woodland -has done well. In the shadiest corner, I put a hydrangea petiolaris which flowers poorly but provides a bit of variety and self-clings.

Shrubs for shade

In the deepest shade, at the back, I’ve relied on the old stalwarts – pyracanthas, aucuba, kerria,and a couple of fatsia japonicas which I love -always fresh and green, large glossy almosttropical looking leaves (a welcome contrast tomy many tiny leaved plants), quirky white blooms, and very pruneable to size.

Where the shade is more dappled I’ve been able to be more adventurous, and here’s a list of shrubs which have done well, some of them not so well known:

  • clerodendrum bungeii. This tall deciduous shrub grows upwards out of shade into light, has almost heart shaped bronze green leaves,and heads of pink flowers towards the end of summer. It’s not very common but well worth sourcing.
  • symphocarpus. I like the smaller version which is a good filler in light shade, has arched stems and little mauve berries.
  • hypericums are well known, but the Magical series is a good size for a small garden. as well as tolerating light shade it blooms all summer,and has bright jewel like berries.
  • all the fuchsias enjoy a bit of shade. My favourite is Genii. It has a magical woodland look and the lime green leaves are bright without being garish in shade.
  • leycesteria formosa similarly has pendulous flowers like burgundy coloured earrings and a soft woodland look.
  • sorbaria  Sem looks like an exquisite small tree, only about four feet high, with amazing coral/lime coloured new leaves in spring followed by plumes of white flowers.
  • for architectural interest I have a dwarf Chusan palm. It looks stunning, easy and evergreen but is extremely spiky. It is contained in a pot and will not be allowed to escape!
  • mahonias are well known as shade lovers, and I’m experimenting with a slightly different form – mahonia Cabaret. It has marmalade orange flowers.

Finally, I read on an RHS site that lonicera nitida Baggesen’s Gold is good in deep shade.  Apparently the leaves are a less bright gold, but it is useable in a dark space.


Be warned. I’ve discovered the hard way that many perennials from garden centres labelled ‘sun or semi shade’ in fact fail to thrive out of full sun, ending up leaning towards the light and flowering poorly. But the following have done well for me in an area which has good light but only soft sun during or towards the end of the afternoon.

My favourites are the persicaria family, from a 1ft. high front of the border one with salmon flowers, to taller ones with dark orange flowers, and a tall one called “Red Dragon” with purple leaves and cream flowers. They have a very long flowering season and ampexicaulis at least keeps its stems into the winter. Also:

  • astilbes
  • heucheras keep their bright colours quite well in soft light
  • perennial lobelias have strong bright colours, and in some cases purple leaves
  • the many herbaceous geraniums are a standby for shade – my favourite is Rozannej. The flowers are a luminous purple – blue and it is still flowering in November. It’s at its best near the front of the border as it does tend to sprawl.

Here are some surprise successes:-

  • salvia Hotlips copes well with a bit of shade,and also blooms for months.
  • large crocosmias, especially Lucifer also are surprisingly tolerant,
  • little golden feverfew with daisy like flowers can survive anywhere.

I never use hostas though….I’ve tried them a few times but even the supposed slug resistant kinds end up like lace, however I try to minimise the damage


Ferns are perfect to add a bit of magic to a shady area, my favourites are the Japanese painted fern, with silvery leaves, and the Autumn fern (dryopteris erythrosa) ) which is evergreen with bronze coloured new foliage. The evergreen hart’s tongue fern with strapl Iike leaves can survive any dry shade.


Because my garden is small, although I love grasses for their informal, relaxed hedgerow look, they have to be evergreen – no dead-looking tufts over winter!

My favourites are Bowles’ golden grass, also the little black grass, ophiopogon, which survives any shade and looks amazing with the tiny pink cyclamen hederifolium coming up through it. I also have carex Evergold – a small variegated, very reliable carex.

Ground cover for shade

To introduce colour into shady areas, I find the following really useful:-

  • the silver leaved ornamental nettle archangel cheerfully roots along the ground in the deepest shade, evergreen, with a soft yellow flower.
  • houttuynia likewise pops up in different places and has green red and cream leaves.
  • purple ajugas and more recently discovered a “giant” one – “Catlin’sGiant”, which is striking.
  • Euonymus “Silver Queen” – I have it either side of a shady path leading to the compost heap,
  • At the front of shade borders I have helxine (mind your own business) and also sweet woodruff and campanula poscharskyana. Both have delicate flowers in spring.

Bedding plants

There aren’t many bedding plants for shade, but busy lizzies are always reliable. They just grow taller.

I experimented with bedding lobelia Cambridge Blue and pastel coloured small-leaved and flowered bedding begonias. The results in both cases were great! They gently flowered all summer and had almost a wildflower/forest floor look, adding colour to quiet places in a very natural way.

Edited from an article which originally appeared in our Summer 2021 Newsletter