Nearly all gardens have areas of shade, created by boundaries or overhanging shrubs and trees. These shady spots can be turned into serene woodland borders with several well placed key plants.
The plants we’ve picked tend to flower from late winter to spring, taking advantage of the light available before overhanging branches come into leaf and shade them out. This is particularly useful if you have deciduous trees or shrubs in the garden already. They’ll grow best in a light, free-draining, humus-rich soil. Plants such as ferns, wood spurge, hellebores, pulmonarias, corydalis and sweet woodruff make up the palette, along with some spring bulbs, such as bluebells or erythroniums.
They look best when planted informally, and in a natural, woodland setting you tend to see a few species of plants in large quantities as they tend to colonise where they are happiest. As long as the conditions are right, these plants are easy to grow and to propagate.
More on gardening in shade:
Create your own woodland-style planting with these five key plants.
Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum’
This hardy shrub has lots of interest throughout the seasons. In late spring, it has large, lacecap white flowers that open from apple-green globes. Its mid-green, three-lobed leaves turn orangey-yellow and red in autumn, when it bears bunches of translucent, bright red berries. If it’s a decent size, you can prune off some of the lower branches in winter to lift the crown a little and allow other plants to grow as ground cover beneath it.
Height x spread: 3m x 3m.
Corydalis flexuosa ‘China Blue’
This is a fabulous carpeting plant, which will freely seed, filling gaps and helping to glue the scheme together. From April onwards (sometimes through to July) it produces masses of pale blue flowers that float above a sea of grey-green feathery foliage, often tinged with pink. The more light it gets, the pinker the leaves will be.
H x S: 30cm x 20cm.
Polystichum setiferum ‘Herrenhausen’
There are hundreds of beautiful ferns for woodland settings. Some are evergreen and some deciduous, some like dry soil, others like damp shade. This one is evergreen, compact, and produces fresh green, filigree, layered foliage. It’s a versatile plant that grows well under shrubs, but it’s also useful for softening the edges of paving in shady areas.
H x S: 50cm x 90cm.
Helleborus x hybridus ‘Ashwood Single Primrose Shades’
Hellebores make excellent ground cover beneath deciduous trees. They tend to self-seed freely, though seedlings will differ from the parent. ‘Ashwood Single Primrose Shades’ has dark green, leathery leaves and clear pale yellow flowers that will last for ages and brighten up a shady spot. You can cut the old tattered leaves off as the flowers emerge to show them off more and make room for the new foliage.
H x S: 30cm x 45cm.
Erythronium ‘White Beauty’
Erythroniums, or dog’s-tooth violets, are choice bulbs for shady settings. Each stem carries up to 10 delicate lily-like flowers. ‘White Beauty’ is a strong grower with nodding white blooms that have warm yellow centres. They’re not the cheapest of bulbs, but if they’re happy, they’ll quickly clump up and spread.
H x S: 20cm x 10cm.
Woodland border care plan
Buying and planting
- All can be planted now, save erythroniums, which are best planted as bulbs in autumn
- Prepare the soil well by digging in plenty of organic matter – leaf mould is ideal
- In spring, weed, then mulch the entire area with leaf mould or other well-rotted organic mulch. Prune off the tatty hellebore leaves before flowering, and prune back the ferns to reveal the bulbs in between
- In autumn, cut back the corydalis to the ground
- You can add to this border by planting a succession of early to late-spring bulbs in autumn, such as snowdrops, grape hyacinths, winter aconites, scilla, cyclamen and crocus. Plant in drifts or blocks, but for a natural woodland look, stick to just a few varieties and species
- For late-summer/autumn flowering, Liriope muscari would be a good addition
Create plants for free
- Some of these plants will freely self-seed, such as the corydalis. Hellebores will too, although the seeds will be different to the parent plant
- The viburnum is very easy to propagate from hardwood cuttings taken in autumn
- Erythroniums will naturally clump up over time. To start a new clump lift and tease the bulbs apart and replant quickly before they dry out
- In autumn you can cut off a leaf from the fern and peg it into a compost tray, where tiny new plants will emerge and take root