17 Tips For Container Gardening in The Shade
Thinking of using some containers in your shade garden but aren't quite sure where to start? Using containers or pots in shady areas can be a great way to transform lesser used spaces. In this article, certified master gardener Laura Elsner gives you her top tips for using pots or containers in the shade this season.
If you have a shady area of your garden that could use a little dressing up, container gardening can be a great way to liven it up. Container gardening gives you flexibility to move plants around, and play with different types of plants, and colors that don’t have to be permanently planted in the ground. And just because an area doesn’t get much sun, doesn’t mean that certain plants won’t grow well, especially in pots or containers.
Shade often gets a bad rap. So many people tell me they wish they could grow things but their space is too shady. But shade containers are an opportunity to play with foliage colors and textures and create something tropical and beautiful you may not normally plant. I truly enjoy container gardening in the shade, but it does help to start off with some basic knowledge.
So, if you’ve decided you want to play a bit with containers this season, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve compiled some of my best advice that I can lend when it comes to planting a successful and colorful shade garden with containers. Let’s jump in!
- 1 Define Your Shady Location
- 2 Choose The Right Container
- 3 Use The Right Soil
- 4 Water Modestly
- 5 Fertilize Appropriately
- 6 Stay on Top of Maintenance
- 7 Thriller, Filler, Spiller
- 8 Pick The Right Shade Flowers
- 9 Choosing Foliage Over Flowers
- 10 Brighten With White Foliage and Flowers
- 11 Shop the Houseplants
- 12 Have Fun With Edibles
- 13 Use Plenty of Perennials
- 14 If Things Don’t Quite Work Out…
- 15 Use Hanging Baskets
- 16 Properly Overwinter in Cold Locations
- 17 Have Fun With Design
- 18 Final Thoughts
Define Your Shady Location
Part shade is defined as an area of the garden that receives 4-6 hours of sun. Full shade is defined as an area of the garden that receives 4 or fewer hours of sun.
Part shade is better for growing flowering plants. Full shade can be a bit trickier, but there are definitely some options for full shade growing. This is where playing with foliage texture and color will become important.
Choose The Right Container
There are a lot of possibilities for shade containers. Go with one large container or multiple smaller ones. The great thing about the shade over the sun is that sun containers need to be watered every day, sometimes twice a day. A shady pot might only need a drink once a week. So small pots grouped together with one plant in each are very manageable in the shade.
Make sure whichever pot you choose has drainage. Just putting pebbles in the bottom of a pot before filling it with soil isn’t enough. Especially in the shade. You will end up with soggy pots that will rot the plants and smell like rotten eggs.
Water must be able to drain out the bottom of the pot. So pick a pot that has a hole or holes in the bottom. If you can’t drill holes in the bottom of a pot, use a liner pot that has holes in the bottom. A plastic nursery pot is fine. Then you can pull it out and drain any excess water from the container and put it back in.
Shade can really let you be creative with your pots since they don’t dry out as quickly. So play around and find some funky pots. I have a few small head planters that have ivy and coleus “hair” growing out of them. Shade is also a great place to play around with “funky junk” planters. Old teacups, jars, and even boots come to mind. Just make sure it has drainage, or use a liner pot.
Use The Right Soil
When I think of what soil a certain plant would like I think of how it would grow in its native conditions. Shade plants in nature grow on the bottom of the forest floor. This space is covered by a canopy of trees where leaves fall and trees turn over and the soil is light and fluffy and rich and full of organic matter.
These big trees grow near water so the plants underneath grow near water as well. So what you are looking for when it comes to most shade plants is light fluffy soil that is full of organic matter. To achieve this in containers, a good quality all-purpose potting soil mixed with ⅓ compost will be perfect. You can also get a tropical blend that will work great.
When planting a shade container, do not mound the soil over the pot. This will make watering messy and the water will all run off and not soak in. Keep the soil underneath the rim of the pot. If you are working with a very small pot you might have to remove, or gently tease the roots of your plant apart to get it low enough in the pot that it isn’t forming a mound above the pot.
The nice thing about shade containers is they don’t need to be watered once or twice a day like pots in full sun may need. A large container might only need to be watered once or twice a week.
Don’t let your shade container dry out, check it often until you find a groove with how often it needs to be watered. Moisture meters can be purchased, but your index finger is free. Stick in your finger and if it is dry past your first knuckle give it a drink.
Water long and deep as opposed to short and shallow. You will have to water less frequently and have plants with bigger stronger roots.
Water plants in well after initially planting them. They might look wilty and pout, but they should perk back up in a day or two, but make sure they do not dry out.
Fertilizers can be an important part of keeping containers healthy and beautiful. This really depends on what is in your containers. Here is a quick rundown on fertilizer depending on what is planted in your shade containers:
Tropicals and Annuals
If you have a beautiful display of tropicals mixed in with flowering annuals, fertilizer will make them grow bigger and better throughout the season. I recommend an all-purpose 20-20-20 fertilizer. Fertilize once every two weeks.
This will keep everything growing happy and healthy since flowering annuals and some tropical plants can be heavy feeders. Make sure to water the container first before applying the fertilizer as to not burn the plants.
Perennials and Edibles
I don’t fertilize perennials or edible plants with liquid or powder fertilizer. Before planting them I will mix in ⅓ compost, aged manure, sea soil, or worm castings into the potting soil. This will give them all the nutrients they need over the season. If the perennials are overwintered in the pot, just add a top dressing of one of those and it will seep into the soil.
Stay on Top of Maintenance
Container gardening is great because it is lower maintenance and requires less bending than a traditional garden bed. It only takes a bit of work to keep them looking great.
Deadheading is a very important job. Trim of pinch off and dying or fading flower to make room for new blooms.
Prune any dying leaves or stems from plants to make room for new growth and to keep your pots looking green.
Trim back any long or straggly-looking plants. This will make them grow thicker and bushier.
Keep things in their space. Some plants, like a senecio ivy, for example, will take over if they aren’t trimmed. They will keep and grow and strangle other plants. So get in there and snip them and keep them growing where they belong.
Thriller, Filler, Spiller
This concept works for all containers, not just shade containers. But it will make a shade container look lush and have lots of interest. This concept can be applied to a single pot with all three elements. Or it can be used in a variety of pots, with one pot having a thriller and other pots containing fillers and spillers. But the pots are all in a grouping to give the same effect.
The thriller is the focal point of the pot. It is usually taller or larger than the rest. I put the thriller plant either in the center or back of a container. This is the anchor. The classic thriller in a container is a green spike of dracaena (these actually work in shade). It provides structure and a place for the eye to land in a container. I like using large plants like palms, alocasia, or cedar for a strong thriller in the shade.
Fillers are the plants that surround the areas around and underneath the thriller. This is where there is the most variety. It can be foliage, it can be flowers, it can be texture, it can be color. Begonias, spider plants, hydrangeas, and all coleus varieties are just a few of the many, many options for shade filler plants.
Spiller plants are the trailing plants that spill out and down a container. There are lots of options for shady spiller plants. Some of my favorites include golden lysimachia, Senecio ivy, or trailing mint.
Pick The Right Shade Flowers
There are plenty of flowers that will bloom in shady containers. In fact, some of my favorite flowers are shade blossoms. Here are some blossoms that thrive in shade containers:
These flowers come to my mind first when it comes to shade blooms. Some of the tuberous varieties have the biggest blossoms of any annual. The NonStop series, for instance, features large double flowers that resemble roses. They make a statement in the shade, and begonias grow quite well in containers.
Impatiens are a classic shade choice. They are small bushy plants with large tropical looking blossoms. They are a great choice for a shade filler flower in a container.
These flowers are a container staple that can grow in partial shade conditions. It has dainty blue, purple, or white flowers that spill out of the edges of pots.
These are an interesting and less common option for shade. It is a small bushy filler plant that has a profusion of white or purple blooms. This is a great option because it blooms continuously and does not require deadheading.
Choosing Foliage Over Flowers
Don’t get me wrong, I do love a container spilling over with flowers. But this look can sometimes be difficult to achieve in the shade, especially in full shade. But flowers aren’t always necessary to make a statement. Foliage texture and colors can create interesting and eye-catching combinations without flowers.
When choosing foliage plants I will pick things that contrast with each other. Like a chartreuse lemon cypress filling the back of the pot. Then I could add a deep purple heuchera to make that lemony green color pop. Here are some shady leafy marvels that thrive in shade containers.
Rex Begonias thrive in the shade and have the most intricate foliage colors and patterns. They make a statement all on their own, or pair them with neutral green plants, such as a tall alocasia. My favorite rex begonia varieties are T rex painter’s palette and escargot.
Shade marvels that come in so many colors and textures. Coleus is easy to grow in containers, and can be grown with other types of coleus. You can also use them with other foliage plants and create interesting and colorful combinations without a flower.
One of my favorite shade perennials to grow in containers. They come in so many different colors. Deep purple, bright red, lime green, frosted, and berry purple to name a few. Have fun mixing and matching them.
Ferns add texture and depth to shade containers with their ruffled feathery foliage. There are so many varieties of ferns. Large Boston ferns can be the thriller in a pot or maidenhair ferns that add airy texture as the filler in a pot. Japanese painted ferns can even add a color variation with their frosty white-colored foliage.
Brighten With White Foliage and Flowers
Brightening dark corners with containers filled with white flowers and foliage is a great way to brighten up shady corners. This is a really crisp and beautiful design that works great in the shade. Here are a few options for white foliage or flowers for shade containers:
White Feather Hosta
White Feather Hosta is a pure white hosta that looks amazing in containers. It is small and will remain papery white when planted in full shade. They make a great filler plant to add pops of bright white in a dark green shade container.
Nonstop White Begonia
These begonias are bright and elegant when used in shade containers. It has large double white blossoms that would look great in an all-green container. They will glow brightly in a night garden.
Spider plants have a stripe of bright white through their glossy green foliage. They add a pop of bright color along with a different texture with their long narrow leaves. They are commonly used as thrillers and fillers in containers.
Annabelle Hydrangea is a perennial that could be used as a thriller in a container. The blooms are large and white and long-lasting. Plant green fillers and spillers underneath for an elegant and bright container design. Hydrangeas can be a bit pickier about their sun needs, which makes them perfect for container growing.
Shop the Houseplants
I search for shade options for containers in the houseplant section. This is especially true if you are only a short-season gardener like myself. I find even houseplants that like full sun can thrive in the shade for a season. Alocasias, yuccas, spider plants, and majesty palms are great options.
If you live in an area where shade containers can live outdoors year-round, choose true shade-loving houseplants. ZZplants, sansevieria, or spider plants come to mind.
Here are a few of my favorite houseplants to use in shady containers:
Alocasia or elephant ears are a striking choice for a tropical container display. Use it as the main thriller in a pot and plant a variety of flowers and plants all around. Colocasia also works great.
Sansevieria or snake plant works as a classic dracena spike in a container, but it adds a bit of extra lushness and interest. The best part of sansevieria is that it grows in almost no light and it can handle a lot of neglect. There are lots of varieties. ‘Silver Queen’ is a light silvery gray color, or ‘Laurentii’ is green with a sharp yellow margin.
Majesty Palm is a really easy shade thriller to use. They are usually at the garden center and are inexpensive. Plant flowers or foliage underneath for an instant tropical design.
Boston Fern looks great in a hanging basket, or in a planter. They are easy to find and love being in an outdoor shady container. They look great in a pot all on their own or plant it in the center with shade flowers all around.
Have Fun With Edibles
Vegetable gardening has gained so much popularity in the past few years. Which is great, growing your own food saves money and tastes amazing.
Container vegetable gardening has become even more popular. But it is often assumed that only full sun containers can grow vegetables. While that is true for fruiting plants (tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, etc), there are fruits and vegetables that can be grown in part shade containers.
Edible containers can still be beautiful. You can still apply the thriller filler spiller concept to edibles in containers. Rhubarb in the center of a shady container would make a great, and delicious, thriller plant. Or chives would be a delicious ‘spike’ that can be used as a thriller.
Lettuce, radishes, or an edible flower like a pansy can be used as a filler. Then a trailing variety of mint can spill out of a container. Here are a few examples of shade-loving edibles for containers:
Rhubarb is a fruit you can grow in part shade. I live in zone 3 and rhubarb is one of the only plants in my area that will overwinter in a pot. It is a great perennial option. Harvest the stems in the spring when the stems are bright red. Pull and twist the stem to remove it as opposed to cutting so it signals the plant to shoot up more new stems.
Chives are another option for a dracena-like spike in the center of a pot. It will also come back in a container in zones as low as 3. Enjoy the look of them in a mixed container, and then snip or pull out bits of them for your baked potatoes and scrambled eggs.
Mint is perfect for containers because mint grows rapidly in the garden. There are so many varieties of mint. I had a client that I made mint containers for so she could make tea. I used peppermint, spearmint, trailing chocolate mint, mojito mint, orange mint, and even pineapple mint to create a container full of different textures. It smelled amazing!
Lettuce does great in containers and it doesn’t have to be boring. Choose blended cutting mixes that have purple, green, and curly leaves. Or try speckled romaine, it is a classic size and shape of romaine but is speckled with reddish spots. Frisee has a great texture that would add interest to a container. Make a pot filled with different lettuce and it will be anything but boring.
Use Plenty of Perennials
For longer-lasting shade containers consider using perennials. The general rule for perennials to survive in containers is to plant ones that are rated for 2 zones colder than your own. So if you live in zone 5, zone 3 perennials will come back in a container.
If you are like me and live in a very cold climate, you cannot leave most perennials in pots over winter. You can plant perennials into containers and then take them out and plant them in your garden in the fall. I do this with golden lysimachia. It comes back every spring, I dig it up and plant it in my containers and then put it back in the ground in the fall.
The other option is to dig a hole and sink the entire pot into the ground. Then mulch it over and dig it up in the spring. Only do this with a plastic pot, as ceramic and concrete will shatter.
These are some of my favorite perennials to use in containers:
Also known as the king of the shade, Hostas have big wide-brimmed leaves that come in lots of sizes and color variations. Smaller varieties like ‘Mouse Ears’ would make a great filler plant. A large ‘Sum and Substance’ could act as the big thriller in a pot. Play with the color of their leaves with other plants and flowers, the possibilities are endless.
Lysimachia is one of my favorite trailing plants, and bonus, it’s perennial! Like I mentioned earlier you can use it, plant it and reuse it over and over again.
Golden lysimachia is my favorite variety. The bright yellow foliage brightens up shade containers and plays against other foliage plants that have yellow in them (hostas, sansevieria, coleus to name a few). Sometimes you will find lysimachia in the annual section when the bedding plants are out as a basket stuffer, but it is a perennial.
Bleeding hearts are a very popular shade perennial in a garden. If you love this plant but don’t have a garden it is possible to grow it in a container.
It will bloom once a season in the spring and then it will be a nice bushy foliage plant until it dies back in the late summer/early fall. It would look great in a pot on its own surrounded by other pots with single plants in them. Or put it in as a thriller in a mixed container.
While it technically isn’t a perennial, cedar is an evergreen tree that can live indefinitely in a container. They provide year-round greenery and can be planted with other flowers and plants around them for a very elegant and formal design.
If Things Don’t Quite Work Out…
If you try something out, like a glorious fern, and then you go away for the weekend and it is brown when you return. Don’t give up on your pots for the whole season.
Rotate dead and dying plants out and find something new. Houseplants are relatively inexpensive at large super centers. Pick something and swap it out.
If you have a bunch of small containers, just rotate things in and out based on how they look and the season. I will sometimes shop the floral department of grocery stores and find small ferns, begonias, cyclamen, or even an African violet. These are usually not too expensive and easy to swap in and out.
If things don’t work out and there still is time, choose something fast-growing and easy to take its place. Some lettuce varieties, arugula, and radishes take less than 30 days to harvest. Or coleus on clearance at the garden center will grow quickly.
If the end of the season is coming and things are starting to look rough, swap them out for decorations. I will pull things that look bad and then sneak in little ornamental gourds for the fall. Or terrible-looking plants covered in fake spider webs are always a hit at Halloween!
Use Hanging Baskets
If space is a concern, but you still want to add a touch of greenery to your outdoor space, consider adding some shady hanging baskets. You can purchase pre-made hanging baskets, or build your own.
If purchasing pre-made baskets look for ones with begonias, impatiens, coleus, and ivy. These are great plants for shade. Or look in the houseplant section of the garden center and pick out ferns, spider plants, or tradescantia for a lush look.
To make your own basket simply get a container with a hook (make sure it has drainage) and fill it with nice fluffy potting soil. Then fill with any combination of your favorite shade plants. I like using a wire hanging basket with a coconut coir slip liner. You can cut small holes in the bottom and put some plants out of the bottom to make a ball of flowers and/or plants.
Properly Overwinter in Cold Locations
If you live in a tropical climate, there is no need to even read this. Your pots will thrive outdoors year-round. But for the rest of us, the season will come to an end.
If you live in an area where only an occasional frost happens, keep an eye on the weather. If a frost is coming either bring the container indoors or take a sheet or frost cloth and cover the container. I do this to prolong the length of my container garden season if we are expected to have an early frost in my area.
If you live in an area with a defined winter and have a favorite plant you don’t want to say goodbye to, or you want to keep a tropical plant for next season, you can overwinter them. Do this by digging up the plant you wish to keep and putting it into a smaller container that you can bring into the house (if the plant is already in a manageable container skip this step).
Then give the plant a good wash. Either with the hose or shower. Give it a blast. I also recommend using insecticidal soap on it for a few weeks after. This will ensure no critters are on it (aphids, spider mites, etc). Then bring it indoors into a bright location for the winter. Check the specific requirements for the plant.
Have Fun With Design
Now that I’ve (hopefully) inspired you to plant up some containers in the shade I will give some examples based on my tips for a shade container:
Try a large elephant ear alocasia in the center of a pot with nonstop begonias all around (deep rose, red, white, yellow etc) and then have golden lysimachia spilling out the edges.
Make a delicious part-shade container by placing a large dinosaur kale in the center, with a cutting blend of lettuce all around, and then use wave pansies to trail beautiful edible flowers out the sides of the pot.
Green and White Design
Use a majesty palm in the center of a pot and then plant white impatiens underneath mixed in with a few small spider plants. Then plant Senecio ivy to spill out underneath.
A simple design with dark purple heuchera with golden lysimachia spilling out the bottom is perfect. Add an ostrich fern in to add some height if you want.
Shady spaces do not mean you can’t grow anything. I actually prefer planting containers in shady areas! They are less maintenance, and they have a lush tropical feel. With these shade container tips, you should be well on your way to creating a beautiful lush outdoor space in the shade.