Garden Design

Top Performing Plants for Shade


Living in the Carolina Piedmont often means living in a house shaded by our native pines and hardwoods, and I love it. But, I’ve had to learn how to garden in shade and determine which plants will do best in specific areas of our lot.

What is the best plant to screen a shady area, or provide lovely flowers, or cover some ground? Here’s a short list of some top contenders for shade for specific uses such as privacy screening, flowering or providing color, groundcover, and foundations. I picked these plants for performance meaning they are pest and disease resistant and do not pose major challenges to successful growing.

Flowering and Providing Color

Sexy stuff first, let’s talk flowers and color!

Hydrangeas: It’s amazing what breeding in hydrangeas has yielded in the last 20 years. The color variations, flower forms, sizes, and, very important, the ability to re-bloom in these summer-blooming shrubs have all been improved. I like the new Tuff Stuff series, a group of re-blooming lacecap hydrangeas, and also Bloomstruck, a vigorous, re-blooming mophead hydrangea producing lavender to blue flowers. Then, there’s the classic and peerless ‘Annabelle’ smooth hydrangea whose large, snowball-like blooms brighten any shady setting.

Impatiens: I worried these classic annuals would seem boring. But, if a panoply of bright colors, non-stop bloom from spring to fall, pest resistance, and respectable disease resistance is boring, then fair enough. They are still a top performing, colorful plant for shade. Growing to 8 to 10-inches, impatiens are best for the front of the bed or containers.

Honorable Mentions: Lenten Rose, hosta, and carex.

Privacy and Screening

No worrying about walking by a window in your undies with these plants.

Chindo viburnum: How do we love Chindo viburnum, let us count the ways. First, it’s fast growing, a key feature for privacy. Then, it’s evergreen, for the same reason. It’s a nice pyramidal structure draped in glossy foliage that reflects light, always nice in the dark of shade. Finally, it is easy to grow. Topping out around 15 to 20-feet makes it suitable for most screens unless you need something massive. Regular water during establishment improves speed of growth.

Honorable Mentions: Japanese privet/ligustrum (but not the Chinese variety, which is invasive), Japanese cleyera, camellia (the Sasanqua species since it grows faster), and fringe bush (Loropetalum), which needs a little sun.)


When you need evergreen, low-maintenance plants that look good all year at the front of the home.

Aucuba: An easy to grow shrub sporting broad, evergreen foliage. The most exciting varieties are variegated because they feature green leaves splashed and speckled with yellow, or green margins with yellow centers. You can get all-green ones if you’re that kind of person.

Re-blooming Azaleas: You had us at re-blooming! Who wouldn’t want to have an azalea that blooms not once but twice? Some even bloom three times! Look for the ReBLOOM, Encore, or Bloom-a-Thon series with many, many color options to choose from. Pro tip: Most of these don’t need pruning but if you decide to do so, prune right after the spring bloom.

Honorable Mentions: Yew and plum yew (varieties like ‘Emerald Spreader’ or ‘Yewtopia’), ‘Narihira’ mahonia, and dwarf camellia.

Upright and Narrow

For entrances and other places where you need an upright columnar plant.

Columnar Boxwood (‘Graham Blandy’ as an example): Nice and neat and columnar, these classic formal garden plants fit the bill without fuss as long as drainage is decent. If it isn’t, try the camellias or the yew mentioned below.

‘Slim ‘n Trim’ Camellia: This one can be more challenging to obtain but a few growers offer it. Which is good because you get the lovely flowers of a camellia in a space-saving, narrow form. In fall, salmon-pink flowers with golden stamens at the center bloom on this evergreen shrub. Grows to about 10 to 12 feet-tall and 3-feet wide.

Honorable Mention: ‘Autumn Rocket’ camellia and ‘Fastigiata’ plum yew.


Vinca minor/periwinkle: Lovely low mats of glossy, almond-shaped foliages are studded with lavender-blue star-like flowers in spring. Evergreen, tough, and durable, this plant sends out runners so it’s not meant to go right next to a walkway unless you want to add trimming them to your “To Do” list.

Japanese pachysandra: This is just handsome is what it is. People new to it always seem to appreciate the unique texture and fluffy density of the foliage. Plus, it’s evergreen and you can mow right up to and around it. It grows somewhat slowly but doesn’t want to rule the world (sorry, the band Tears For Fears didn’t get it completely right.) It’s available in green and variegated.

Honorable Mention: Dwarf mondo grass and lirope (L. spicata).

Tina Mast is communications director for Homewood Nursery & Garden Center and can be reached at 919-847-0117 or

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