Best plants for shady gardens

Shady corner of a garden with a statue, hostas, ferns and other plants

Brighten up dark corners with shade-loving plants
Image: Elena Elisseeva

Does your garden have a Cinderella spot? A part that doesn’t get the same love and attention as the rest? Chances are, says Mandy Bradshaw of The Chatty Gardener, it’s a shady area.

Sunny borders might seem more interesting and easy to fill, but Mandy’s tips for the best shade-loving plants will give your neglected corners a fairytale ending of their own. Here’s her pick of show-stopping specimens that positively thrive in the shade.

Shady types

stock image of a green garden with beds, trees and patches of shade

Know your type of shade before you plant
Image: Hannamariah

Before you start tackling a shady area, there are a few things to consider.

Firstly, work out what sort of shade you have. Is it unrelenting gloom or the type of dappled shade that’s found under deciduous trees and shrubs? Is the shade caused by buildings or walls that will lend themselves to climbers? Or is it cast by evergreen shrubs that take the light and compete for water?

The type of soil you’ll be planting into is also important. Some shady spots suffer from dark, damp conditions, while others have quite dry soil. Different plants will suit each scenario.

Ask yourself what you want to achieve. Is the patch of shade at the end of your drive where neat and tidy will do, or alongside a seating area that needs a bit more drama?

Finally, think about colour. Lighter colours, particularly white flowers, and variegated leaves stand out better in shade than those with dark or muted tones.

Preparation is key

Pink and white Cyclamen hederifolium from Thompson & Morgan

Cyclamen is a woodland flower that grows well in shady areas under trees
Image: Cyclamen hederifolium from Thompson & Morgan

Look carefully at the area before you start. Sometimes, raising ‘the skirts’ of trees or shrubs dramatically increases light levels beneath. In my garden I’ve removed the low-growing branches on my Parrotia persicaria, allowing cyclamen and snowdrops to naturalise underneath. Similarly, clearing the lower trunk of a holly bush has not only given it a better shape; I now also have an easier area to plant.

Preparing the soil thoroughly is never wasted work, particularly when it’s in shade. Add plenty of humus and fork it in. Well-rotted leaf mould is good as it mimics the sort of natural conditions many shade-loving woodland plants love.

After you’ve planted, mulch the ground thickly. This will help to conserve moisture and, if repeated regularly, will gradually improve dry soil.

Plants for damp shade

Yellow flowers of Epimedium ‘Frohnleiten’ from Thompson & Morgan

Pretty yellow Epimedium lifts otherwise gloomy areas of the garden
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

There are many plants that will revel in damp shade. Lamprocapnos spectabilis (bleeding heart) is lovely in gloomy spots, particularly the white form. Geranium phaeum is another good choice – the white flowers of ‘Album’ are particularly effective. Other possibilities include epimedium, with its dainty flowers held high over the leaves, Lily of the valley, and hostas – as long as you can guard against slugs and snails. For something a little different, try Podophyllum versipelle ‘Spotty Dotty’ for its beautiful marbled foliage.

Plants for dry shade

Shady border of a garden with hostas and sweet woodruff planted together

Sweet Woodruff and hostas planted together in a shady spot
Image: Nature Within – Cherish The Moment

Dry shade is the hardest to deal with, as I know well from gardening on my own thin, sandy soil. Euphorbia amygdaloides var robbiae has lovely limey green bracts and growing it in poorer conditions keeps it in check. Iris foetidissima copes with deep shade and its orange seed pods are a welcome splash of winter colour, while a pretty ivy or Galium odoratum (sweet woodruff) are great for ground cover. Several ferns, including dryopteris and polystichum, also thrive in shade.

Plants for partial shade

Pink and white flowers of Foxglove ‘Excelsior Hybrids’ from Thompson & Morgan

Attract wildlife to your garden with foxgloves
Image: Foxglove ‘Excelsior Hybrids’ from Thompson & Morgan

The term ‘partial shade’ describes the way the sun moves across your garden, leaving it in shade for part of the day. But it can also refer to the sort of seasonal shade that deciduous trees and shrubs provide when in full leaf.

Alchemilla mollis, hardy geraniums and the elegant Polygonatum x hybridum (Solomon’s Seal) are all good for spots that are shady for part of the day. Under trees, choose woodlanders such as Anemone nemorosa, primroses, and foxgloves.


Single yellow flower of Clematis ‘Guernsey Cream’ from Thompson & Morgan

A climbing clematis is a great way to cover walls and fences
Image: Clematis ‘Guernsey Cream’ from Thompson & Morgan

Ivy is the obvious choice for covering a shady fence or wall, but you can also brighten these areas with flowers. One of my favourites is Clematis ‘Guernsey Cream’, which I grew for many years in a sun-free courtyard. Its beautiful limey flowers gradually fade to white as they age. There are even climbing roses that will tolerate some shade, including ‘Graham Thomas’ and ‘The Generous Gardener’.

So, with a little thought and some careful soil preparation, even the most overlooked area of your garden can enjoy the spotlight. If you’ve enjoyed this post, head over to our plants for shade hub page to find plenty more resources to help you transform the shady areas of your garden, or if you’re looking for green and leafy solutions to other problems, visit our plants for a purpose gardening advice page.

Five tips for planting for pollinators

peacock butterfly against a green background

Important pollinators like bees, butterflies and moths are in decline
Image: Marek Mierzejewski

Bees, butterflies and other pollinators are under threat, so there’s never been a better time for gardeners to help by adding a few plants to support them. Here, Mandy Bradshaw from The Chatty Gardener shares five simple tips to help make your garden a refuge for pollinators.

1. Be part of the solution

bumblebee on a yellow foxglove

Residential gardens and allotments are an important lifeline for pollinators
Image: Paul Stout

I love watching the bees in my garden squeezing into a foxglove flower, noisily feasting on opium poppies in the veg plot or enjoying the winter honeysuckle.

Gardening without chemicals and trying to choose nectar-rich flowers means bees and other pollinators are often buzzing around my plot – good to watch and helping my flowers and veg set fruit or seed.

Increasingly, our gardens are becoming an important lifeline for these beneficial insects and go some way to counter the effects of natural habitat loss and the use of pesticides.

A recent study found that urban allotments and gardens are vital sources of food for pollinators – especially when they have native plants such as brambles and dandelions, and traditional favourites like lavender and marigolds.

So, to hear the sound of bees in your garden, make the decision to actively support our pollinators – it’s the first important step.

2. Choose the right plants

bench in the middle of a wildflower garden in England

A quiet corner of this walled garden has been dedicated to wildflowers
Image: Shutterstock

The very best plants for pollinators are ‘species’, as modern cultivars can be sterile or have low nectar and pollen levels. If you grow vegetables, try to include some heritage varieties among the modern cultivars.

When it comes to the flower garden, plants with open, single blooms are better than double flowers where the nectar can be difficult to reach.

Incorporate some wildflowers in your garden, or even leave a corner where you allow weeds such as nettles and dandelions to thrive. Let your grass wait a little longer before you get the lawnmower out, to allow the clover to flower. Allowing ivy to flower will also provide important food for bees.

Think about adding a few flowers to your vegetable patch to help pollinate your crops. I edge my beds with the common marigold (Calendula officinalis). It looks pretty and draws in those helpful insects.

3. Give a good mix

Mahonia x media collection from Thompson & Morgan - available now

The mahonia’s large yellow flower spikes bloom from November through to March
Image: John Glover

Different insects like different plants, so make sure you have a range of flower shapes to ensure your garden helps them all. Some bees, for example, have long tongues to cope with plants such as aconitum.

Grow a mix of perennials and annuals and don’t forget trees and shrubs. Both can be excellent sources of nectar for bees and butterflies.

Think about planting to cover the seasons. Like the gardener, pollinators need food all-year-round, so it’s important to plant for more than just the summer! Early spring and autumn are the seasons when nectar can be particularly short in supply, but adding just a few of the right plants can make all the difference. Good spring plants are crocus and hellebores, while a winter feast can be provided by snowdrops, mahonia or sarcococca.

Take a look at Thompson & Morgan’s Perfect for Pollinators range which includes a selection of seed and plant varieties known to attract bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects.

4. Ditch the pesticides

Achillea millefolium 'Summer Pastels' (Yarrow) from Thompson & Morgan - available now

Yarrow attracts ladybirds and hoverflies
Image: Achillea millefolium ‘Summer Pastels’ (Yarrow) from Thompson & Morgan

Try to garden without using pesticide sprays as they often kill beneficial insects alongside the pests.

Instead, encourage birds, ladybirds and other gardeners’ friends in to deal with any problems. For instance, the larvae of hoverflies voraciously consume aphids. Similarly, when they hatch, ladybird larvae can eat up to 5,000 aphids as well as attacking red spider mites.

To attract these helpful insects plant things like marigolds, alyssum, cosmos, dill, yarrow, penstemon and fennel.

5. Give them a home

Garden Life Wooden Insect Hotel from Thompson & Morgan - available now

Insect hotels are beautiful and functional
Image: Garden Life Wooden Insect Hotel from Thompson & Morgan

Make or buy an insect house to give solitary bees and others somewhere to nest. Something as simple as an old terracotta plant pot filled with lengths of bamboo can be used as a bee hotel.

I hope this has given you plenty of food for thought. Just a few simple changes can turn your garden into a wildlife sanctuary that provides vital food and shelter for our precious pollinators. For more advice and pollinator-specific recommendations, visit our hub page.

Growing sweet peas

field shot of pink sweet pea flowers

Fill your garden with fragrant sweet peas
Image: Vic and Julie Pigula

Sweet peas are top of my desert island plant list. I love them for their soft papery flowers, pretty pastel shades, and that stunning scent. Summer just wouldn’t be right without them. Here are The Chatty Gardener’s, aka Mandy Bradshaw’s, excellent tips for growing healthy, prolific and beautifully fragranced sweet peas from seed in your garden.

The scent of a sweet pea

red and white sweet peas, little red riding hood variety

Most sweet peas are beautifully scented
Image: Sweet Pea ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ from Thompson & Morgan

Theyre easy to grow from seed and I raise dozens of plants each year – old favourites along with just a few new varieties added to the mix. It gives a much better choice than buying plants from a nursery and means I can choose my own colour combinations.

Among my favourites are ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, which has pretty pink and white flowers, and Lathyrus odoratus ‘Cupani’, which dates back to the 17th century. Its violet and maroon flowers may be tiny but little else has the same strong scent. If it’s scent you’re after, take care not to confuse the annual sweet pea, Lathyrus odoratus, with the perennial pea, Lathyrus latifolius, which has a pretty flower but no fragrance.

Sowing for success

pink and purple sweet peas in a basket. Sweet Pea 'Fragrantissima' from Thompson & Morgan

Sweet peas are tougher than they look.
Image: Sweet Pea ‘Fragrantissima’ from Thompson & Morgan

Surprisingly, despite their delicate appearance, sweet peas are tough, and autumn-sown plants will come through winter with ease and just a little care.

I prefer to start mine in January or early February, as life is too busy to keep an eye on them in the run-up to Christmas. It also gives me something to sow in the dark days of winter. Seeing new shoots is guaranteed to lift my mood.

Warmth and light

Train your sweet peas with homemade root trainers
Image: Ian Grainger

Sweet peas have a long root system so a deep pot is needed. Root Trainers are ideal, or, if you’re cutting down on plastic, try the cardboard inner tubes from toilet rolls. The advantage of using them is that the whole thing is planted – the cardboard will break down as the plant grows – so there’s no root disturbance.

Use a good quality compost and plant a couple of seeds per pot. Some gardeners pre-germinate the seeds on damp kitchen paper but I’ve never bothered and germination is fine. Make sure you label them clearly!

I use a heated propagator to get them off to a good start but a sunny windowsill would do, just pop the pots into a polythene bag, or cover with a piece of glass. Uncover them when the first shoots appear.

Once the plants are about an inch high, I get them out into cold frames to toughen them up a little and free up space in the greenhouse. Just make sure they get good light to stop them getting leggy.

Top tips for successful sweet peas

Grow your sweet peas vertically with an obelisk
Image: Shutterstock

  • Pinching out the growing tip when there are two pairs of true leaves will give you bushier plants and, ultimately, more flowers.
  • Make sure you harden plants off gradually before planting them out towards the end of April, or once the ground has warmed up a bit.
  • It pays to get the soil right before you plant out. Sweet peas are both hungry and thirsty so improving the nutrients and water-retention of your ground will mean a better performance.
  • As well as adding homemade compost to the planting hole, I put a thick layer of newspaper, which is then watered well. This then acts as a ‘sump’ – important on my thin, sandy soil.
  • Plants can be grown up netting stretched between bamboo poles or on wigwams. If you don’t have space in the borders, try plants in a large container on a patio and there are even trailing varieties suitable for a hanging basket. Mine are grown on obelisks in the vegetable garden where they’re easy to pick, add colour and bring in pollinators.
  • Once the plants are in, protect them against slugs and snails until they get established and then feed and water regularly and keep picking! The plants will stop producing flowers if seeds are allowed to set.

So, make sure you check your plants every day and fill your home with their scent. After all, it wouldn’t be summer without vases of sweet peas.


About the author:

Cotswold-based, Garden Media Guild member, Mandy Bradshaw is also known as the Chatty Gardener. Passionate about gardening and writing, her beginnings are in football reporting for her primary school, and Mesembryanthemum planting with her mother. Winner of the ‘Garden Journalist of the Year’ in the 2018 Property Press Awards, she writes for not only her own blog but also newspapers, magazines and other sites.

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