Made in the Shade: Creating Dynamic Shade Gardens Presenter, Sylvia Schmeichel

Too much shade to have a lush garden? Nonsense! Learn to love the shade you’ve got. Sylvia Schmeichel, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist, will share tips and tricks for creating layered and dynamic plant combinations that result in an inviting space. 

Check out the Made In The Shade – Creating a Dynamic Layered Shade Garden Handout.

Webinar Video


Smithsonian Gardens’ Let’s Talk Gardens Series
Made in The Shade: Creating a Dynamic Layered Shade Garden
Presented by Sylvia Schmeichel, Lead Horticulturist, National Museum of Natural History

  • Get to Know Your Site
    1. When does direct sunlight hit certain spots and for how long?
    2. What’s the soil condition?
    3. What’s the size of your space (length, width AND HEIGHT)?
    4. How do you want to use the space?
  • Understanding Shade (Not All Shade is created equally)
    1. Full Sun – 6+ Hours direct sunlight (no shadows)
      1. i) Occurs in open fields/prairies/savannahs/ meadows.
    2. Part Shade/part-sun= 4-6 hours direct sunlight
      1. i) Occurs in woodland edges, forest clearings.
    3. Full Shade – less than 4 hours of direct sunlight
      1. i) Occurs under tree canopies, conifer forests.
    4. Seasonal shade
      1. i) Occurs under deciduous trees.
  • Sun intensity
    1. Morning and evening sun are less intense than mid-day or afternoon sun.
    2. Latitude matters, closer to the equator =more intense (Minnesota vs. Louisiana)
    3. Altitude matters, mountaintop = more intense
    4. Time of Day- some spots could have very intense sun for a few hours, then deep shade at other times.
  • Soil and Drainage
    1. Conduct a soil test through your local county extension office (search: soil test extension *your state*)
      1. i) Will identify soil composition of sand/silt/clay
      2. ii) Water drains fastest in sand, slowest in heavy clay.
    2. Drainage can be impacted by several components.
      1. i) Shady areas dry more slowly and tend to hold moisture longer
    3. Dry (under trees, near other plants competing for space, under building overhands, near foundations)
    4. Average (holds some moisture, but drains steadily)
    5. Wet (may indicate high water table, high clay content, compacted soil)
      1. i) The presence of moss can be an indication of compaction/poor drainage.
      2. ii) If you did into your soil and it smells bad/rotten, it could be anaerobic.
  • Taking Cues from Mother Nature
    1. In nature, shady conditions occur along woodland clearings and edges.
    2. Plant height is staggered and layered.
    3. There are seasonal successions of bloom time.
    4. Plants thrive in locations with suitable growing conditions.
      1. i) Look at the site conditions, then find a plant that will be happy there.
    5. Nothing is static, but always evolving.
    6. There are no hard and fast rules.
  • Garden Composition
    1. Pro Tip: Successful shade garden designs tend to prioritize shape, form and texture before colorful blooms.
    2. Guiding the Eye:
      1. i) Texture:
        • Rough holds the eye, appear closer to the viewer.
        • Fine, generally dense, recede in the landscape, low impact background.
      2. ii) Shape:
        • Overall plant shape (Growth habit)
        • Repeating (continuity) vs. Contrasting (dynamic)
  • Color: Flower AND Foliage
    • Remember in Shade -dark colors appear darker, bright colors appear brighter.
    • Monochromatic (similar color different shades)
    • Analogous (neighbors on the color wheel ex. Yellow, orange, red)
    • Complementary (Blue and orange/yellow)
    • Dark colors recede to the background.
      • Purple, maroon, black (creates backdrop to make other colors pop)
  • Bright colors “pop”
    • Yellow, orange, coral, white, lime
    • Silver/ gray foliage they reflect light
  • Seasonal Autumn colors (Fothergilla in the Fall is a showstopper!)

Don’t Forget Evergreens!

Rich Shillings’ Favorites for Shade:

  • Trochodendron arailoides,
  • Danae racemosa
  • Cephalotaxus h. ‘ Prostrata’ ,‘ Gnome’
  • Chamaecyparis obtusa’ Kosteri’, ‘Thoweil’ ,Nana Gracilis’
  • Crytomeria japonica’ Cristata’, ‘Globosa Nana’, ‘Elegans Nana’, Tansu’
  • Polystichum polybletharum
  • Aucuba japonica ’Rozannie’

Arborist, Jake Hendee’s Favorite 12 Trees for Shade in the Mid-Atlantic

They “Dozen’t” need full sun!

  • Acer rubrum, A. saccharum, A. griseum
  • Fagus grandiflora (woody adelgid caution)
  • Prunus virginiana
  • Cornus sp.- C. alternifolia, C. florida, et al.
  • Cercis canadensis
  • Tsuga canadensis (woody adelgid caution)
  • Hamamelis virginiana and H. vernalis
  • 8 Ilex opaca (many cvs.)
  • Amelanchier arborea, A. canadensis
  • Chionanthus virginicus
  • Magnolia virginiana, M. acuminata, M. macrophylla
  • Carpinus caroliniana ‘Palisade’

Shade Tolerant Plant List

Scientific Names Common Names
Top Layer – Shrubs and Trees  
Lonicera nitida



Box or Wilson’s Honeysuckle *


(*not shown to be aggressive/invasive in Mid-Atlantic)

Hamamelis virginiana, H. vernalis, H. x intermedia Witch Hazel and Winter Hazel
Cercis canadensis Redbud (many cultivars)
Amelanchier laevis, A. arborea, A. canadensis Serviceberry
Pieris japonica Japanese Pieris or Andromeda
Cephalotaxus harringtonia Plum Yew
Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Ruby Slippers’ (many cvs.) Oakleaf Hydrangea
Hydrangea arborescens Smooth Hydrangea
Viburnum opulus var. americanum


V. acerifolium, V. prunifolium V. dentatum



Many tolerate full sun to part shade

Cornus florida, C. alternifolia, C. kousa Dogwood
Asimina triloba Pawpaw
Cephalanthus occidentalis Buttonbush
Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis Sweetbox
Fothergilla gardenii, F. ‘Mt. Airy’, F. x intermedia ‘Blue Shadow’ Fothergilla or Witch Alder
Clethra alnifolia many cvs. Summersweet
Rhododendron sp. Rhododendron
Kalmia sp. Mountain Laurel
Leucothoe axilaris Dog-Hobble
Vaccinium Blueberry, Cranberry, Huckleberry
Azalea sp. Azalea
Gordonia, Gordolinia Gordonia, Gordolinia (Franklinia X Gordolinia)
Camellia japonica Camellia
Sambucus canadensis, S.racemosa, S. nigra (cvs.) Elderflower
Physocarpus opulifolius (cvs.) Ninebark
*Aesculus parviflora Bottlebrush Buckeye
*Itea virginica Virginia sweetspire
*Lindera benzoin Spicebush
*Calycanthus floridus Carolina allspice
Philadelphus coronarius, P. pubescens Philadelphus, Mockorange
*Symphoricarpos orbiculatus Showy Coralberry
Aucuba japonica Aucuba, Spotted Laurel
Deutzia gracillis ‘Chardonnay Pearls’ Slender deutzia
Ruscus aculeatus Butcher’s Broom
Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ Daphne
Garryia elliptica Silk Tassle
Edgeworthia chrysantha Paperbush
*Callicarpa americana American Beautyberry
Cotinus coggygria Smokebush
*Ostrya virginica Ironwood
Cotoneaster horizontalis Cotoneaster
Taxus x media , T. cuspidata cvs. Yew
Thuja occidentalis Arborvitae
Aronia melanocarpa Chokeberry
Diervilla sessilifolia Southern bush honeysuckle*non-invasive
Clethra alnifolia Summersweet
*Halesia tetraptera Silverbell
Acer palmatum Japanese Maple
*Oxydendron arboreum Sourwood
Podocarpus macrophylla Yew Plum Pine, Buddhist pine
*Sassafras albidum Sassafras
Stewartia japonica Stewartia
*Chionanthus virginicus White Fringe Tree
*Nyssa sylvatica Black Gum
*Carpinus caroliniana American Hornbeam
Rhus aromatica, R. typhina Sumac
Corylopsis pauciflora, C. spicata Buttercup Winter Hazel
Corylus americana, C. avellana ‘contorta’ Hazel
Hypericum calcynium Aaronsbeard St. Johnswort
Middle Layer – Perennials  
Fatsia japonica Fatsia, Paper plant
Farfugium japonica var. giganteum Leopard Plant
Tricyrtus hirta, T. formosana, T. ‘Sinonome Toad Lily
Actaea (syn. Cimicifuga) racemosa ‘Black Negligee’ Black Cohosh, Bugbane
Gentiana andrewsii Bottle Gentian
Lobelia siphilitica Blue Cardinal Flower
Lobelia cardinalis Cardinal Flower
Polygonatum odoratum var. pluriflorum ‘Variegatum’ Solomon’s Seal
Maianthemum racemosum False Solomon’s Seal
Rodgersia pinnata Rodgersia
Hosta sp. (endless cvs.) Hosta
Astilbe sp. (many cvs.) Astilbe
Brunnera macrophylla (many cvs.) Siberian Bugloss
Aruncus diocus ‘Horatio’, ‘Misty Lace’ Goat’s Beard
Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Adrensii’ Monkshood
Ligularia ‘The Rocket’, L. dentata ‘Desdemona’ Leopard Plant
Chelone glabra, C. lyonii Turtlehead
Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta Magnifica’ Queen of the Prairie
Acanthus mollis, A. spinosus, A. hungaricus Bear’s Breeches
Porteranthus (syn. Gillenia) trifoliatus Indian Physic
Pulmonaria sp. (many cvs.) Lungwort
Eutrochium (syn. Eupatorium) purpureaum, E.maculatum, E.dubium ‘Little Joe’ Joe-Pye Week
Sisyrinchium angustifolium Blue-eyed Grass
Grass, Sedges, etc.   
Hackenacloa macra ‘Aereola’ Golden Forest Grass
Carex sp. (many species and cvs.)


Some faves: C. pensylvanica, C. flacca, C. muskingumensis, C.flaccosperma

Ferns (many, many lovely options)  
Dennstaedtia punctulobula Hay-scented ferns
Matteuccia struthiopteris Ostrich Fern
Polystichum acrostichoides, P. polyblepharum Christmas Fern, Tassel Fern
Osmunda cinnamomea Cinnamon Fern
Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’ Autumn Fern
Bottom Layer- Groundcovers, low-growing  
Anemone canadense, A. cylindrica Anemone
Packera aurea, P. obovata Golden Ragwort
Fragaria sp. Strawberries
Pachysandra procumbens Allegheny Spurge
Galium odorum Sweet Woodruff
Chrysogonum virginianum Goldenstar
Geranium macrorrhizum, G. maculatum Geranium
Alchemilla mollis Ladies’ Mantle
Cyclamen hederifolium (many cvs.) Persian Violet
Epimedium (many cvs.) Barrenwort
Tiarella cordifolia ‘Running Tapestry’ (many cvs.) Foamflower
Packera aurea Golden Ragwort
Viola cornuta, V. pedata, V. sororia Violet’s
Aguilegia canadense Columbine
Bergenia cordifolia Pigsqueek
Trillium sp. Trillium
Erythronium americanum Trout LIly
Podophyllum peltatum Mayapple, Maypop
Mertensia virginiana Virginia Bluebells
Sanguinaria canadensis Bloodroot
Dodecatheon meadia Shooting Star
Iris cristata Crested Iris
Asarum canadense Wild Ginger
Spigella marilandica Indian Pink
Phlox divaricata (many cvs.) Woodland Phlox
Phlox paniculata, P. stolonifera et al. Garden Phlox
Heuchera villosa,H. americana (many cvs.) Coral Bells
Vines and Climbers  
Aristolochia tomentosa Dutchman’s Pipe
Parthenocissus quinquefolia Virginia Creeper
Schizophragma hydrangeoides False Climbing Hydrangea
Gelsemium sempervirens Carolina Jessamine
Hydrangea anomola ssp. petiolaris Climbing Hydrangea
Annuals/ Tropicals/Non-Hardy  
Caladiums sp. Caladiums
Impatiens sp. Impatiens
Coleus (syn. Solenostemon) (syn. Plectranthus) Coleus
Torenia sp. Wishbone Flower
Dracaena sp. Dragon Tree
Colchicum sp. Autumn Crocus
Crinum sp. Crinum Lily
Anemone blanda Windflower
Plants to AVOID!!! Check for your location
Vinca major, Vinca minor Periwinkle
Hedera Helix English Ivy
Pachysandra japonica Japanese Pachysandra
Lysimachia nummulaira Creeping Jenny
Liriope muscari Lilyturf


For Further Reading:

Making the Most of Shade: How to Plan, Plant, and Grow a Fabulous Garden That Lightens Up the Shadow by Larry Hodgson

Glorious Shade: Dazzling Plants, Design Ideas, and Proven Techniques for Your Shady Garden by Jenny Rose Carey

The New Shade Garden: Creating a Lush Oasis in the Age of Climate Change by Ken Druse

Clemson Cooperative Extension. Home and Garden Information Center.  Plants for the Shade.

Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Virginia State University.  Lawn and Garden.