Design ideas for shady gardens

It is entirely possible to create a stunning shady garden.  With just a few simple design principles and ideas, you can brighten up the space and make it very inviting. The plants and trees will be a vitally important feature. Lower canopy trees can add volume to the space and connect the lower planting to any larger trees. Bulbs, ferns and other shade-loving plants all add texture and visual interest.  In the landscaping phase (if you are transforming an existing garden), existing trees may have been ‘thinned’ to allow light through.  This can give you the opportunity to re-use the logs.  Or there may be a local wind-blown-over tree available. You can re-purpose these ‘surplus’ logs into round log stepping stones, log stacks (as a wildlife habitat) or curved log walls which follow the shape of hardscaped paths, reinforcing the overall geometry of the space.

Suggested plant choices for a shady garden 

Shady gardens provide an excellent opportunity to showcase the many beautiful plants that will thrive in these conditions.   Textures of green will dominate.  Lots of shade-loving plants flower in springtime before trees leaf out and the canopies establish more shade.  Restrained colour palettes can still create stunning colour combinations – picture a carpet of bluebells set against a backdrop of silver birches or beech trees for example.

Don’t try to create year-round colour in a shady setting.  Instead, aim for the varied textures and patterns that can be provided by e.g. ferns and grasses. A lovely example of a grass that adds interest and movement is Deschampsia Cespitosa.  Its stiff, mid-green leaves are topped by sprays of bronze spikelets in summertime.

Shady garden designed by James Scott and built by The Garden Company

Celebrate the seasons by allowing herbaceous plants to display their russet colours well into Winter before cutting back. Use carpets of bulbs such as bluebells, snowdrops, wood anemone for a naturalistic splash of seasonal colour. If your soil is sufficiently water-retentive, you can also add splashes of Hydrangeas for late colour.

As autumn takes hold, it can be good to add some complementary tones.  A good example is Winged spindle or Euonymus alatus Compactus.  This is a dark-leaved shrub which comes into its own at this time of year.

Cyclamens can be very good for adding colourful ground cover when larger trees are dormant and have lost their leaves.

Hellebores have attractive leaf shapes and fragrant flowers from late winter to spring. They can thrive in shady spots.

Acers (commonly known as maples) provide interesting shapes and leaf colours and add spectacular colour in the autumn-time.  They can provide a wonderful focal point when other plants are dormant.

A note on biodiversity

As you put together your planting plan. remember to consider plants that will bring biodiversity benefits to the space.  Native, shade-tolerant trees and plants that are great for wildlife include holly, yew and ivy.  The latter is great for providing late nectar when little is available from other plants.

Ponds and water features

If your shady garden has an open area such as a woodland glade. a pond can be a great way to reflect movement and create atmosphere. From a design perspective, it’s important to position the pond where you can enjoy watching the biodiversity and wildlife activity it creates, either from the house or a suitable seating spot.  The image at the top of this post shows the corner of a larger garden which I designed and my landscaping team built with an Acer palmatum maple shading a wildlife-friendly pond. It is important that your water source is shallow, ideally with gradual and textured edges, so that anything that climbs in can get out safely.  If you don’t have the space or resources to add a pond, then a running water feature (or even a bird bath) can bring added interest and a focal point to the space.

Garden seating 

Having somewhere to relax comfortably and soak up the atmosphere, immersed in layers of greenery, is an important aspect to plan for. There is a wide range of organic style seating choices, from various types of wooden seats (bespoke or not) to stone benches and even a simple hammock strung between the trees.  Pale-coloured garden furniture can be a good option when you need to brighten up a potentially ‘gloomy’ area.

Garden lighting and related features

Carefully considered lighting can really help to highlight the form and structure that you have created in your garden.  In addition, reflective panels or mirrors will give the illusion of space and reflect any natural light available.  Glass or stainless steel sculptures and garden art work can also be used to add visual interest.

If you are interested in ensuring that your shady garden has a positive environmental impact, you might like to browse our related blog post on sustainable garden design and landscaping. And if you would like to seek out some more garden design ideas, why not check out this list of beautiful public gardens to visit.


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