Top 5: Made For the Shade Perennials!

The definition of a shady area can be divided into two categories: part-shade and full shade.  Part shade is an area protected from the mid-day sun and receives dappled sun as well.

If you are still planning your garden for spring 2021 and have a shady area (s) to fill, the following shade perennials are for you!   I can personally attest to their hardiness and growing requirements as I have grown them all in one yard or another in Zone 3 or 3b.

The definition of a shady area can be divided into two categories: part-shade and full shade.  Part shade is an area protected from the mid-day sun and receives dappled sun as well. An east location or open north location of your yard would be classified as part-shade. Full shade locations do not receive any direct sunlight. There may still be light but it is filtered or reflected light.   Full shade is often found on the north side of your yard under many dense trees or an area shaded by a garden shed or garage. Another example would be an east four foot wide walkway along the house bordered by a fence.

You can combine shade annuals and perennials in containers with great results.  When the season is over remove the perennials from the containers and plant in the ground to overwinter.  When leaves die back mulch this area to provide some winter protection. The key to having a great garden is to spend some time and money on mixing a good quality soil.  This is especially true of perennial garden planning as you usually have one shot to make the perennial beds as nutrient rich as possible.  Organic soils and fertilizers such as compost, well- aged manures and moistened peat moss can be mixed together in a wheel barrow and  incorporated into the planting beds.  In subsequent years you can lay the compost around the perennials and the nutrients can work their way down into the soil. 

It used to be that creating a shade perennial garden was a challenge.  There are so many shade perennials available now that the challenge becomes what to leave out!  Here are my top 5 favorite shade perennials. 

Hosta   - (Also known as Plantain Lily)

It has always amazed me that one of the toughest perennials that grow on the prairies is the one that looks the most tropical.  Hostas are gorgeous plants and, lucky for us, come in all sizes and do very well in the shade or part shade!  Some varieties are even tolerant of a touch of sun.  The green leaf varieties are best for full shade while yellow and white leaf varieties can be planted in an area that gets only morning sun.  

Hostas love soil that is rich with compost and provides good drainage.  Plant like varieties in groups of odd numbers for a visual wow factor or feature one very large variety as a focal point in your shade garden.   A month after planting you can fertilize with an all - purpose perennial plant fertilizer. If you incorporate compost in the beds every year, that will provide enough nutrients as well.    During the establishment period after planting water consistently but be careful not to overdo it.  The closer they are planted to trees and shrubs, the more water may be needed as the trees and shrubs wick away most of the water.   You can provide mulch around the base of hostas after planting and it will help hold the soil moisture.  I prefer mulching with compost and letting the nutrients sink down to the root system over time. 

In Saskatoon, hostas are best divided in the spring.  The small purple pointed leaf buds are slow to emerge from the soil.  Once the buds reach 1-2 in. tall, dig up the whole root clump taking a good amount of the surrounding soil with it.  Clean the soil off the clump and divide it with a sharp knife.  Some clumps can be divided by hand.  A large hosta clump can be divided into 5 or 6 new plants and should be replanted the same day.  Water well and leave to grow.

Hostas bloom for approximately 3 weeks from June to Sept.  The white or lavender tubular  blooms hang from tall stalks called scapes.  Some are fragrant.  You can cut back the blooms at the plant base at any time but if you want to encourage pollinators leave them be.  Later in the season do cut off the blooms when finished as you do not want the plant to set seed.  Producing seed takes the plant’s energy away from the roots and leaves.  Hosta leaves will die back in autumn and should easily pull away from the root clump. 

Clean your Hosta beds thoroughly. Do not provide slugs or snails a 5 star hotel to stay in over winter.  I have never mulched or covered my Hosta in fall preparing for winter.  You will hear varying opinions on that topic! The main enemy of the hosta plant is slugs.  Others include deer, rabbits and hail.  Some varieties of hosta are not slug favorites as they have very thick leaves.  These varieties include June, Sum and Substance, Blue Angel , Halcyon and the tiny Mouse Ears.  Another full proof method I have tried is filling a yoghurt tub or two with beer or a mix of  yeast, sugar and water and sink the container rim to ground level near the hostas and slugs will fall in and drown. 

Heartleaf Brunnera – (Brunnera macrophylla)

This deer resistant shade perennial is also known as Siberian Bugloss.  Some varieties feature beautiful heart shaped silvery leaves with green veining that grow in a mounding form.  During mid to late spring Brunnera shoot out sprays of tiny blue flowers that attract bees and other pollinators.  They like a fertile soil and consistent moisture.  Most varieties fall in the 1-2’ range in height and 2-3’ range in spread.

My two favorites are Brunnera m. ‘Jack of Diamonds” and Brunnera m. ‘Jack Frost”.  Fertilize in spring and summer with an all- purpose perennial plant fertilizer.  They can be slow growers and spread by rhizomatous roots.  Division is not needed for six to 10 years!  If you let the plant go to seed, you may find volunteer seedlings the next season close to the mother plant that need a new home.

Sun King Aralia  -  Aralia cordata “Sun King”

Photo courtesy and with permission from Terra Nova Nurseries- Josh Blair

Sun King Aralia was Perennial Plant of the Year 2020.   Mature size is 3-4’ in height by a 3-4’ spread. This outstanding yellow-leaf perennial will brighten up any shady corner or pond area with its beautiful mounding growth habit and yellow leaves.   A location with morning sun only will help Sun King to retain its yellow leaf color.  In shade, the leaf color will be a chartreuse or lime green.  Sun King Aralia prefer an slightly acid to neutral soil.   When mixing planting soil, incorporate moistened peat moss and compost into the mix and dig well into the planting location.

Sun King is not drought tolerant so can be paired with astilbe and ferns.    The white flowers appear from July to September and the inedible blue/black  berries that follow are loved by birds.   Propagation is best done by tip cuttings in summer.  The tip cuttings  are very easy to root.  Use a well- draining, moistened starter soil mix. Sun King Aralia dies back to the soil line every winter but will emerge each spring and quickly fill in. This perennial is deer resistant. 

Astilbe  -  (Many species and varieties)

If you want a lacy colorful look in the perennial shade garden without resorting to ferns, astilbe fills the bill.  This perennial offers many choices in the short (small), medium and large (tall) category.  The tall fluffy plumes come in a wide range of colors; whites, purples, pinks and reds.  They bloom in late spring and summer and attract butterflies.  They are deer resistant.   Astilbe do well in a location in part- shade or that receives early morning sun.  They like rich organic type soils and in preparation for planting spade the planting area down to about a foot if possible.  After planting,  water at soil level consistently and fertilize twice a season with an organic fertilizer high in phosphorous.  Propagate by root division every 3-4 years.  Astilbe spreads fairly quickly and the root crowns may become exposed as they grow.  Cover these root crowns with compost or a rich soil mix.  Unlike other flowering plants, removing astilbe flower heads will not promote new blooms to form.

Sweet Woodruff   -  (Galium odoratum)

No Top 5 would be complete without a groundcover.  Sweet Woodruff is a mat-forming perennial groundcover for part- shade to shady areas.   It is a plant that provides a much needed texture variation in the garden and looks awesome as a groundcover for large hostas or the Sun King Aralia.   The leaves are pointed; in whorls of 6-8 along a square stem. They have a freshly mown hay fragrance when crushed or bruised.  The leaves are often used in potpourri.   Sweet Woodruff has white, star-like flowers that appear in June and July, sitting just above the foliage when in bloom.  The blooms are also fragrant.  Sweet Woodruff prefers average to wet; well drained, rich soil.    It does not need fertilizer and has no serious disease or insect problems.  It is deer and rabbit resistant.  Sweet Woodruff spreads rapidly.  It can be propagated by crown division or the separation of rooted stems from the mother plant.

Runners Up in the Perennial Top 5 Shade Category

  • Lamium – ground cover
  • Ajuga – ground cover
  • Solomon’s Seal – (Polygonatum) – for those hard to fill shade spots along the side of the house.
  • Aruncus (Goat’s Beard) – comes in large and small varieties.
  • Columbines – dainty and colorful 
  • Ligularia – “The Rocket”  looks awesome with lime green hydrangeas.  Variety name!
  • Heuchera – so many varieties!


    • Good suggestions, I plan to keep this posting & try to follow some of your ideas…you will see me in another 6 weeks or so looking for hostas etc.
      Thanks, Pat.

      Patricia Krutzen
    • Thank you for the recommendations you offer and the variety of everything your business offers in plants etc.

      Linda Tessman
    • Thank you so much this is very helpful
      Is there any evergreen in our zone that can tolerate part shade?

      moftah younis
    • Hi love the ideas for shade. My garden gets the hot sun all afternoon. What plants should I look at. The soul is rich.

      Susan Hamm

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