Shady spaces between tall trees and shrubs are the perfect opportunity to get creative by underplanting with shade-loving hedges, shrubs and perennials.
Most of us have those tricky spots where existing trees or shrubs cast shade. It’s hard to think of suitable plants for under a tree or existing shrub but the good news is underplanting lets you add colourful flowers and textured foliage to challenging shady areas.
Many low-growing plants love those awkward gloomy spots, so read on to discover some of our favourite shade-loving plants to jazz up shadowy garden areas.
What is underplanting?
Underplanting means planting smaller, low-growing plants or a single plant under large trees and shrubs. Depending on what is already growing in the garden area you wish to underplant, it’s best to choose plants that can cope with more established neighbours. It’s no good planting sun-loving perennials under a dense evergreen because they’ll struggle to survive so finding the perfect plant partnership is vital to success.
Read on to discover our top underplanting recommendations today.
What are the benefits of underplanting?
Underplanting offers an excellent way to add interest to the bottom of scrappy hedges, block out bare stems, energise dull evergreens or add successional flowering and textured foliage to existing garden trees and shrubs.
Before we dive in, let’s take a look at some of the challenges of underplanting.
The difficulties of planting under mature greenery and tree canopies
A mature tree or shrub hoovers up any available water and food, and its canopy will throw near or newly underplanted neighbours into shade.
Underplanting under conifers, evergreens and mature trees is especially tough since they cast deep shade, existing root spread makes cultivation difficult and conifers also drop needles making it hard for new under-plants to receive sufficient light, moisture or nutrients. Think David versus Goliath and you’ll get the picture.
We won’t lie to you — you’ll be up against some practical challenges but once you identify the obstacles and prepare the planting ground properly and as long as you choose under-plants wisely, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t meet with success.
Considerations for underplanting
Get out into the garden and walk around your existing tree or shrub, making a note of which side faces southwest and which faces northeast. You’re going to have a better chance of success if you plant to the south face of the tree where there is often more ground moisture than a drier, more heavily shaded north face.
Underplanting in dry or poor soil is a major challenge because competition between established plants and newbies is fierce. It’s important to beef up any area you’re considering underplanting by mulching with leaf mould, homemade compost or adding well-rotted organic matter in early spring or mid-autumn for at least 1-2 years to help young plants establish.
Timing, as they say, is everything and the best time to introduce new plants is in early spring when the canopy isn’t in full leaf or when leaves are beginning to fall in autumn. This allows new under-plantings to receive maximum hours of sunlight to help them establish at times when rainfall is abundant so they don’t go short of water.
Trees that have higher canopies (the leaf line,) and lesser leaf density allow more sunlight to filter through to ground level than those with lower canopies or those with heavy leaf coverage. It makes sense that any tree with lighter leaf density will give your under-tree plants more sunlight.
Successful underplanting means working with shade-tolerant plants. Never plant sun-lovers in full shade, they’ll sulk and die.
Once you’ve planted new plants in canopied or shady areas, looking after them going forward is critical to planting success. During the first year or two, give new plants a good thick mulch in spring and again in late autumn and don’t forget to water regularly to help get their roots down.
Now you’ve done the maths and taken time to prepare your ground, here comes the fun bit! Let’s take a look at the best plants for garden underplanting.
Best plants for a hedge in shade
Euonymus are hugely popular plants and ideal for creating hedges in partially shaded areas. It’s best to steer clear of the gold-leafed variegated types that don’t colour up as well in deep shade but that still leaves plenty to choose from — go for the evergreen types including E. ‘Kathy’ or E. ‘Emerald Gaiety.’ Did you know we offer instant mature hedging if you’re an impatient gardener and don’t wish to wait?
2. Spotted laurel
With vibrant gold-spotted evergreen leaves, Spotted laurel is one tough customer. As happy in full sun as it is in semi-shade, it needs moist soil to be at its best so don’t skimp on the organic matter and spring mulch.
Pittosporum ‘Gold Star’ is a great compact contender for hedging in part-shade with attractive crimped-edge green-gold leaves, plus it’s low maintenance and pretty much trouble-free.
Good old reliable box (Buxus) makes a classy addition to any garden but if you’re looking to grow hedging in the shade, box is a shrub without fault. Keep it low or let it grow taller to create timeless parterres, divisions or garden boundaries.
How about a shade-loving flowering hedge that looks good 365 days a year? There are plenty of enviable deciduous and evergreen viburnums that can cope with dry shade. Typically, with sprays of rose-tinted white flowerheads from winter to spring and clusters of colourful berries in autumn, we recommend V. Davidii with pretty sprays of white flowers followed by spectacular purple berries.
Best Climbers for trees and hedges
1. Clematis montana
Some of the more rampant spring-flowering clematis are brilliant partners for mature trees and shrubs. Give C. montana ‘Rubens’ a whirl! Masses of fragrant shell-pink flowers from May to June help liven up dull shrubs and conifers no end.
2. Climbing Hydrangea Petiolaris
This is a fabulous deciduous climber for shady gardens. Admittedly, it is likely to flower more profusely in a sunny spot but we’re talking plants that can cope with competition and shade, right? It’s an unbeatable choice for North-facing gardens and semi-shady locations and is smothered with foaming white flowers from May to July.
Since honeysuckles are native woodlanders you’ll be thrilled to hear they can cope with shade reasonably well. It flowers its socks off once it has got its head up amongst the boughs and sunshine. Lonicera periclymenum ‘Belgica’ gets top marks from us.
If you can offer a sheltered, semi-shaded spot and beef up the underplanting area with loads of organic mulch, deciduous common jasmine is an ideal adornment for smaller trees and shrubs. With scented, starry-white flowers followed by black berries, its attractive narrow, deep green foliage make it irresistible.
4. Virginia creeper
Few climbers are up to the challenge of established conifers. Say hello to Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). It has an unrivalled reputation for injecting life into dull conifers with vibrant, claret-hued leaves in autumn often followed by purple berry clusters. It is happy in light to deep shade and with the potential to reach 15m, it makes the perfect partnership to complement mature shade-casting evergreens.
Best plants for under evergreen hedges
1. Shrubby honeysuckle
Honeysuckles to the rescue again! Lonicera nitida, a deep green evergreen, compact shrub has tiny white flowers followed by purple berries and makes a dependable ally in part or dappled shade. Admittedly, it needs more clipping than box, but its sheer versatility makes it earn its stripes over and over again. And don’t overlook the welcome golden splashes offered by L. nitida ‘Baggesons’ Gold’ either, ideal for brightening up gloomy corners.
If your evergreen hedge is Portuguese laurel, try growing yew alongside or vice-versa! Yew is widely recognised to be the Rolls Royce of evergreen hedging and can be grown as a high or low year-round barrier and is often followed by postbox red berries in cold winters whether growing in full sun or deep shade.
3. Hardy geraniums
Hardy geraniums are known to be dependable workhorses and some varieties thrive in shady spots. Geranium macrorrhizum is a corker, dainty pink blooms from May to September held over long-lasting deeply-cut semi-evergreen foliage. As long as you do your ground prep, it makes unbeatable ground cover even in dry shade.
4. Berberis stenophylla
Few of us can resist the sun-burst orange-gold flowers of berberis that offer sunshine splashes against dark green foliage in part shade. Both large and compact varieties are available so if you’re looking for a dependable shade-loving ally, give it a go.
5. Flowering quince
Geisha red flowers of flowering quince appear on bare stems in early spring and add a dash of unusual exotic colour in part shade. Coupled with vivid green leaves that emerge after the flowers, the scented fruits mean you can make as much quince cheese or jam as the kitchen larder can handle.
Best plants for under deciduous hedges
Bulbs have got to be your go-to companions for underplanting shady hedges and under canopies. Bluebells, Crocus, Daffodils, Muscari, Snowdrops, Snake’s head fritillaria, Snowdrops and Sweet Woodruff mean you’ll never be short of stunning plants in the shade.
2. Hardy geraniums
Few perennials can cope with full shade and offer welcome colour too. May we introduce Geranium nodosum that guarantees delicate pink-mauve saucer-shaped flowers from spring to autumn? It’s equally happy in sun and semi-shade.
3. Japanese sedge grass
Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’ will appeal to contemporary style gardens. Arching bright green and yellow striped leaves enjoy semi-shade as long as you keep them well watered and looks fantastic planted en-masse against deciduous hedging.
How about planting a lower tier of golden-leaved privet to liven up an existing deciduous hedge? Being evergreen it looks spectacular against the bare stems in winter as well as earning its keep all year round.
5. Sweet woodruff
For heavenly fragrant carpets of evergreen matting, Galium odoratum with glistening white scented flowers in dappled shade takes some beating.
Best plants for under tree canopies
1. Tree peony
Successful under tree planting is easily achieved by growing a tree peony. Paeonia suffruticosa delights in dappled shade and there are plenty of varieties to choose from. Huge extravagant blooms in damson, crimson, white and peach make it hard to choose just one.
Rhodies are a worthwhile investment under shady canopies offering fabulous leaves and explosive bursts of spring colour in light shade. They need plenty of leaf mulch to compete with a mature tree or shrub so lay it thick around the base of new plants in spring.
Undoubtedly one of the most aristocratic and versatile plants out there, it’s hard to find fault with Oleaster. Elaeagnus x ebbingei needs dappled, rather than full shade but the silver-sheened leaves and creamy fragrant flowers from autumn to winter let you create that holy garden grail – scented shade.
Dogwoods are more desirable for their vivid stems than mid-green leaves and ordinary, creamy late-spring flowers and arguably, their fiery multi-coloured stems colour up better in full sun. However, they do an admirable job in semi-shade. Choose from bonfire orange, acid yellow or ruby-red stems to add year-round drama and enhance gloomy winter landscapes.
Plants for under hedges are hard to find but Skimmia embraces fifty shades of shade! Full, part or lightly shaded areas can benefit from this smart little plant. Skimmia japonica Rubella with smooth oval leaves and rich red flower buds burst with creamy-pink flower pillars in spring.
Best plants for under bamboo
There are no two ways about it, most bamboo are rapid growers so quickly swamp their neighbours and cast inevitable shade. That’s fine if you’re growing one of the compact varieties but frankly, it’s difficult to find a plant that can live happily alongside the larger bamboos. Often you’re better off growing large bamboo in pots as they tend to be invasive and few plants can compete with their rapid growth rate. Go for companion plants that offer contrasting leaf shapes and colours. Or better still, experiment with different colour canes and mix and match.
1. Golden bamboo
The shimmering gold canes of Golden bamboo canes look gorgeous against green bamboo varieties and can easily cope with stiff competition.
2. Black bamboo
How about moody black bamboo with mid-green leaves that makes striking jungly contrasts to existing planting?
The huge lush, glossy jungly leaves of Fatsia japonica make a striking combination in dappled or semi-shade. Fist-sized ivory-green flower clusters provide splashes of welcome light in overcast places whilst bees, butterflies and birds enjoy the autumn berries.
4. Black elder
Grow the enchanting filigree purple-black foliage of Sambucus Black Lace that is at its best in part-shade. It is spectacular against black, green or gold bamboo grown in pots and is smothered in trusses of scented pink flowers in early summer, followed by signature black berries come autumn.
Nothing brightens shady areas better than free-flowering hydrangeas. Grow them in containers against bamboo and whilst there are so many fabulous ones to choose from, we recommend H.arborescens ‘Annabel.’ Football-sized, dazzling white flowers against mid-green etched foliage make it a sure-fire winner in semi-shade and it makes glamorous flowering hedging too. Hydrangeas are also a knockout combination underplanted with roses.
Did you know that many of our recommended shade-loving shrubs are easy to grow as low-growing hedges? Whilst many are ideal for shade, some appreciate sunny spots as well so don’t forget to browse our tantalising selection of diverse low-maintenance hedging options.