Shade Garden

Nothing is more serene and mystical than blooming azaleas reflected in a small pond.

Every garden needs a bit of shade. Nothing is more mystical, magical and serene than a lovely garden shrouded in shade. Not only is it an oasis of coolness in the heat of summer, but provides a place to linger, relax and reflect. If your garden is already shady, embrace it and enhance it. If you have too much sun, start now to plant a few trees and begin building a shady spot.

To get ideas on creating a serene shade garden, I talked to Peachtree City resident Jennifer Bigham, owner of Dunaway Gardens in Newnan, one of the largest shade gardens in the South. Jennifer estimates that about 85% of Dunaway Gardens is in partial to deep shade.

“A shade garden is so peaceful and restful,” Jennifer says. “It is easier to maintain, takes much less water, less sweat and is more forgiving. And there is something about a shade garden that is peaceful, spiritual and mystical. Dunaway is one of those places where you can engage all your senses.”

Jennifer Bigham, owner of Dunaway Gardens, enjoyed bringing her father, John James, to the garden each spring to enjoy the azaleas in bloom. This massive shrub was from the original planting in the garden, decades before.
Photo courtesy of Dunaway Gardens

Some of Jennifer’s favorite shade plants are azalea, hydrangea, tea olive (for fragrance) and leopard plant (Farfugium), with interesting foliage and yellow blooms. A favorite variegated groundcover is wild spreading ginger and spike moss (Selaginella), a beautiful trailing plant that looks stunning cascading over rocks near a water feature. In deep shade the iridescent leaves are blue.

Start small by planting a bed under some trees. Here an old satellite dish, with added drainage holes, features a mass planting of hostas and creeping jenny.

Jennifer loves to plant combinations of ferns and hosta, amid a carpet of moss. If you have a deep shady area where moisture collects, let the moss take over. Add a stepping stone path, a bench, and a simple water feature, and you have created a little paradise!

The white blooms of astilbe add a pop of color and look great combined with ferns and selaginella spilling over the sides of the pond.

One tip Jennifer has learned from adding plants to Dunaway Gardens is that you can make plants adapt to imperfect conditions over time. For example, she has hydrangeas and astilbe thriving in areas of partial sun to deep shade.

“Blooms may be more prolific in sunnier areas, but you can adapt many plants to shadier conditions,” says Jennifer.

Another tip – use pots filled with colorful shade plants, like coleus, caladiums and angel wing begonias, to highlight areas where you need a little extra punch of color.  


Design Tips for Planting a Shade Garden

Make a Plan

Start small and define your space. Draw out a design. First draw in the structure of the garden – walls, pathways, hedges, specimen trees, water feature, borders, sculptures, benches. These become the backbone of the garden and will enhance the plants you choose.

This mixture of dwarf mondo grass, ferns, hostas and impatiens creates a lush vignette around the birdbath.

Amend Planting Beds

This helps your plants to thrive. Add compost and other amendments to native soil to ensure the soil is loose, will drain easily, and provides nutrients for your plants.

Choose Plants

Repetition is key to good design. Select a few favorite shade plants that you will use again and again throughout the space to pull your design together. If your plants have blooms or colorful foliage, choose only two or three colors to repeat as well. In deep shade, yellow and white will pop. Select plants with different shapes, sizes, structure, and fragrance for added interest.

A good design principle is to layer your plants with larger ones in the back, medium size plants in the middle and smaller border plants and ground cover in the front.

Layer Plants

For visual appeal, place plants that will grow taller in the back of the bed, medium size plants in the middle and small plants and groundcovers in the front of the bed.

Follow Directions

The plant labels that come with your plants are your guide to light and spacing requirements. Give plants enough space to spread out to ensure you don’t have to move them later!

Oh, Deer!

If you have a low, shady, moist area in your garden, let the moss take over for a beautiful, soft look. Photo courtesy of Dunaway Gardens

If deer are a problem in your garden, look for shade plants that are deer-resistant, like ferns, hellebores and woody shrubs.


Lenten rose (Helleborus) are some of the first shade plants to bloom, starting in January and continuing through May. They are deer resistant and the foliage is evergreen.

Suggested Plants for Shade

Shrubs: azalea, bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parvilflora), boxwood, camellia, winter Daphne (Daphne odora), Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica), hydrangea, mahonia, mountain laurel, nandina, Oakleaf hydrangea, rhododendron, Japanese Pieris (Pieris japonica), pittosporum, plum yew, serviceberry, spotted laurel (Aucuba japonica), tea olive (Osmanthus), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)

Don’t forget to plant some understory trees like Japanese maple that combine well with massed ferns.

Perennials: astilbe, bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), caladium, coral bells (Heuchera), ferns, hosta, Lenten rose (Helleborus), leopard plant (Farfugium), Solomon’s seal

Groundcovers: ajuga, creeping ginger, liriope, mondo grass, moss, pachysandra, periwinkle (Vinca minor), selaginella, creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)

Annuals: caladium, coleus, impatiens, wax begonia

Vines: clematis, climbing hydrangea

Understory trees: Eastern redbud, flowering dogwood, Japanese maple

To get inspiration to start a serene, shade garden, plan a spring visit to Dunaway Gardens. For information, go to

:Make your shade garden a peaceful oasis by adding places for people to sit and linger awhile.

Bonnie Helander

I am a writer and blogger with a specialty in gardening and a proud graduate of the University Of Georgia. I live in Peachtree City with husband, Dan, and enjoy hiking, gardening, being a member of the Peachtree City Garden Club and rooting for the Georgia Bulldogs!

March 16, 2019
March 29, 2019