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Shrubs and evergreens for shade

September 13, 2018
last modified: September 13, 2018

I've been trying to Google this, but unfortunately the world of the internet won't cooperate (only able to find bad articles suggesting poor choices for my query). I'm looking for shrubs, hopefully some evergreens also, that can handle shade.
My front gardens get very little sunlight as they are right olalong the front of the house, also is usually pretty wet (not soggy just always wet). During the winter and fall it only gets about 3 - 4 hours of sun. During the summer it's about 4-5.
I have some hydrangeas and other shade tolerant/ shade loving perennials here that are doing well. It also is good enough for tulips and crocus to bloom during spring, but I'm desperately looking for more shrubs to help create structure. I would be thrilled if I could get a few evergreens to put here.
During the winter it just looks empty and awkward. Looking forward to hearing everyone's suggestions!(Massachusetts, zone 5b/6a, clay soil)

Comments (25)

  • ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

    a pic would be worth a thousand words of speculation ...

    winter sun levels is not too relevant .... plants dont need a lot of light when dormant .... they need it most.. in summer.. when they are growing the roots .. to store the energy for next year ...

    sooo ... your 4 to 5 hours of summer sun is pretty darn close to full sun ... ergo.. i would not limit myself to shade TOLERANT plants ...

    the only thing reduced light will do.. is impact vigor .. not many things are going to outright die, on this variable alone ... in the amount of light you are talking about ...

    if it is too dark .. you will see it in the years to come.. as the plant reaches out for more sun .. and you can deal with that.. when it happens ...

    all the info you gave ... you didnt mention size constraints ... never forget.. foundation plantings are planted to hide the foundation.. not ON THE FOUNDATION .... and things jammed up against the house.. can end up not being too pretty ...

    more info plz ....


    kali_deere thanked ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5
  • Saypoint 7a CT

    Inkberry Hollly (Ilex Galbraith) , Leucothoe, and Mountain Laurel (Kalmia) will tolerate shade and wet sites.

    kali_deere thanked Saypoint 7a CT
  • mad_gallica

    I believe several weeks ago you mentioned you had neutral/alkaline soil? I've been dealing with this problem for longer than I care to admit because the remotely common broadleaf evergreens all want acidic/very acidic soil. The workhorse exception, yews, are about the first thing the deer go for. I do need to try boxwood. I've been reluctant to because the front of the house gets a lot of winter wind. Mahonia is another one I'm very curious about. My local Lowe's had a lot of it a few years ago, but they sold while I was dealing with my daughter's high school graduation nonsense.

  • kali_deere


    Thank you for the help! If I could clarify, the 4 hours of sun is during this time of year as well, so from very early fall up to about March. During the height of the summer I can get five hours on a good day. Enough for tulips but not for roses (roses didn't bloom here would moved them to a better location and they're doing great). Other full sun perennials have also not done well here :/

    The width of the gardens is 9', the length for the shorter one is 20', and the length for the longer one is 25'.

    These pictures are about two months old, and extremely unflattering for some reason(bad light and after weeks of rain), since then the plants have filled in a bit more, and I moved a couple things around a tiny bit

    Shorter garden above

    longer garden above (sloped)

    Thanks everyone!

  • Dillybeansown (6b in the Ozarks)

    I would definitely at least give boxwoods a try. They do fine in shady areas. Granted, a row of boxwoods by themselves can be rather boring and cliché, unless in a formal setting, but interspersed with other shrubs/perennials, they have such a lovely, constant shade of green and add some nice structure, and are lovely green gems in the winter.

    I have also found forsythia to perform surprisingly well in shady areas, and it might tolerate wet feet more than the boxwoods.

    There is also the possibility of some sort of structure or trellis for a climber, which would add height and winter interest.

    hope you get some suggestions that work for you! :)

    kali_deere thanked Dillybeansown (6b in the Ozarks)
  • kali_deere

    Thanks dillybean! I would love to put a trellis or other vertical feature in front of the vertical foundation line in the bottom picture just to make it not so glaring.

  • ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

    oh ....that darn wall and hill.. i recall the older posts now ....

    when are you going to just do it.. and quit worrying about it .. .lol ...

    go.. go..go.. just go for it ... we will fix the problems in a few years .. if its really bad.. you can always move... and we can tell the new owner to just get rid of the prior owners mistakes ...lol ...


  • ckerr007

    We planted a Densi yew (Taxus x media 'Densiformis') this year in shade/part shade conditions and it's done great. It is in a fenced yard protected from deer, so if that's a concern as mad_galica suggested it may not work for you. Missouri Botanical says good soil drainage is essential so I'd plant it high in the sloped area. Tolerates pruning well but we've let ours grow into a more natural, shaggy look. Here is the MBG link:


  • ckerr007

    Also second Saypoint's suggestion of a few holly (Ilex) bushes. We have a 'Blue Boy' and 'Blue Girl' (Ilex x meserveae) that have done well for 12 years in mostly shade against the foundation. It looks like there are several other boy/girl choices like China Boy/Girl and Blue Prince/Princess, shop around to match your site conditions, desired size, pruning tolerance, etc.

  • kali_deere

    Haha Ken, trust me I know! I just want to have everything planned before I start digging around. I learned the hard way a few years back that I need to plan otherwise I dig and butcher things. After the wedding is paid for I'll feel comfortable spending the money to do it.

    Ckerr - what a fantastic idea! I never realized yew could tolerate shade, yay! It's very beautiful and more interesting than some options. Ill be interested to investigate Holly options also, Holly is one of those plants I never really noticed before but I'll be happy to begin looking into it.

    Luckily, I've only ever seen a deer on my property once, they must like the neighbors gardens better hahaha.

  • kitasei

    If you plant yew that deer will find you. Trust me!

    kali_deere thanked kitasei
  • Embothrium

    If you can grow tulips (and crocus) in that spot it's not that dark and it's not that wet, the first ones in particular are full sun with good drainage plants that in my area lean over markedly whenever there is any shading.

    So surely you can grow just about anything - not terribly narrow in its requirements - that takes your interest there. At least in the parts farther out from the house, in the case of sun loving plants.

    kali_deere thanked Embothrium
  • laceyvail

    Yes, like Embothrium I wondered how you could possibly grow tulips in the dark, wet environment you described.

  • NHBabs z4b-5a NH

    Is mad Gallica correct in remembering that your garden is neutral to alkaline, and is that based on a pro test or a home test? Soil pH makes an enormous difference as to your choices for evergreens that tolerate some shade.

  • kali_deere

    Mad - sorry for some reason my phone is literally just now showing me your comment, I was very confused the past couple days when people mentioned your post since I couldn't find it. The soil in this area is now more neutral, was alkaline but I've been able to change it. Still trying to change it over time to get it more acidic. Also I just googled mahonia and it's gorgeous! I'll be interested to learn more about it :) congrats to your daughter graduating though!

    Laceyvail - I've asked myself this question too lol. Maybe there are other factors as to why I find some of my sun-loving plants don't do well here (perennials and shurbs, but bulbs do ok), maybe that reason has nothing to do with sunlight?

    Babs- currently the soil is neutral according to my home test (haven't yet gotten around to sending in soil samples) ah perhaps THIS is the reason my sun loving shrubs and perennails don't do as well?? Perhaps bulbs have better tolerance for alkaline and neutral soil (that's how it was for the last year or so), maybe I can try again or try soon when the soil is more acidic

  • NHBabs z4b-5a NH

    Since you only have pH results from home tests, I would get a pro test done which is typically more accurate before planning your plantings. I honestly don't know of any areas from the Berkshires and eastward in MA that wouldn't have at least slightly acid soil.

  • mad_gallica

    Ah yes, the Houzz whackiness ;-(

    You absolutely need a professional test. Sulfur is a lot less forgiving than lime for a variety of reasons, so adjusting soil pH down isn't a trivial matter. It takes a long time to begin to work, and overapplications can make the soil uninhabitable. This is magnified with a heavy soil. It isn't like the common idea of liming the lawn every spring, whether it needs it or not. Lowering pH isn't something that is usually recommended unless the gardener is up for a regular monitoring routine.

    Anywhere there is a lime pit, lime kiln or other historical lime operation can have pockets of relatively high pH soil. The county Soil & Water people will know if it is reasonable. The group that seems to be also quite informed on the subject is plumbers. Those are the people who told me that the standard pH indicator fluids don't do a good job of distinguishing between about 7.1 and 7.4. Gardening, and general horticultural types tend to assume that the soil is acidic just because it is in the east. The Taconic range used to be limestone mountains as high as the Himalayas. All that lime had to go somewhere, and some of it is in my yard.

    At this point, I'd say almost all of my 'mysterious' problems with plants that should do well here can be attributed to soil pH issues. OTOH, according to William Cullina, the easiest ladyslipper to establish in a garden prefers neutral to alkaline soil. Someday . . . .

  • kali_deere

    Yikes now I'm afraid I overdid it this season with sulfur. I did follow all the directions on the labels but I'll be sure to get a formal test just in case

  • NHBabs z4b-5a NH

    If your soil is somewhat acid, there are a bunch of Heath family broad leafed shrubs you can grow in your 4-5 hours of sun that will provide flowers as well as an evergreen presence, including rhododendrons, mountain laurels/Kalmia, and Pieris. They don’t tolerate alkaline soil, however.

    kali_deere thanked NHBabs z4b-5a NH
  • Embothrium

    It takes large amounts of pH altering additives to change the pH of a soil even one pH point. With each point representing a huge incremental difference - changing the pH of a soil by merely one point in a short period of time disrupts the soil system, is therefore undesirable.

  • NHBabs z4b-5a NH

    Here is a response to the above suggestions:

    Leatherleaf arrowwood/Viburnum rhytidophyllum won’t be particularly evergreen in your zone, though it is in warmer areas. The blooms and berries are both ornamental. I have seen it growing in half day shade to full sun but not full shade in warmer areas in NH.

    Here Kerria isn’t evergreen, though it is root hardy, so check how it behaves in your area.

    I may be biased, but I don’t find our native inkberry/Ilex glabra to be particularly ornamental. At a previous home, I found the growth rather loose, especially in shade, they were prone to foliage diseases, and since the berries are black, they aren’t ornamental. In my yard I didn’t see them being fed on by birds or other critters either.

    Andromeda/Pieris and Rhododendrons both need acid soil, so don’t plan on those until you have a professional soil test done.

    Depending on the species, Mahonia may be a good suggestion.

  • kali_deere

    Thanks Babs, I'm very excited.to have all sorts of new options. I'll have to keep everyone updated to date once I get test results back and make some decisions

  • mazerolm_3a

    Hi kali_c, have you had a look at Tsuga canadensis cultivars? I have ‘Moonfrost’, it’s very pretty. I actually have to move it to a shadier location, it’s getting too much sun.

  • NHBabs z4b-5a NH

    Mazerolm, while I love hemlock/Tsuga canadensis, it isn’t a good choice in most of New England due to an insect, wooly adelgid, that slowly kills them. So far they aren’t in my area, but they are bad enough in MA that without systemic pesticides hemlock won’t survive.

  • Campanula UK Z8

    Viburnums, sarcococca, ruscus, ilex, mahonia, abelia, euonymous, holm oak, privet, and box grow in my calcareous woodland. I grew up with acidic peaty soil and always thought I would not live without rhodies, enkianthus, zenobia, kalmia and so on... but my climate is ultimately very forgiving...although I am still somewhat new to the world of shrubs.

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