9 Understory Plants for a Permaculture Garden

Are you wondering what you can grow in the shaded areas of your permaculture garden? There are plenty of shade-loving permaculture-compatible plants you can choose from. In this article, gardening enthusiast Liessa Bowen will introduce nine fantastic understory plants for your permaculture landscape.

A close up of a cluster of plump ripe blueberries sitting atop green foliage.

Permaculture is an excellent way to use your land in an environmentally sustainable way. It’s an agricultural practice designed to grow useful plants that benefit people, animals, and the earth. If you want to build your permaculture garden, you’ll need to make a plan for understory plants that add value to the landscape.

The practice of permaculture emphasizes your yard and garden as an edible landscape where you can grow crops that you can eat. But permaculture isn’t just about edible crops. It’s about sustainability and long-term plans for a healthy ecosystem.


Getting Started in Permaculture

The practice of permaculture has many components.

The main goals are to:

  • Grow edible plants.
  • Share some seeds, berries, and flowers with the birds.
  • Grow flowers and host plants to support pollinators.
  • Choose native species when possible.
  • Use your plants to provide shade, privacy, or other practical services.
  • Enrich your soil with compost rather than chemicals.
  • Incorporate many perennials and shrubs for long-term enjoyment.

You can start a permaculture garden in a small yard or large acreage. No matter where you live or your climate type, you can start a permaculture garden. If you have shady areas, you’ll want to incorporate shade-loving perennials that thrive in those locations. These plants include trees, shrubs, vines, ferns, or herbaceous perennial wildflowers. 

When you start planning your permaculture landscape, you’ll need some time to gather ideas. Sketch your yard and the existing landscape features, such as trees, structures, or water sources. Decide how much space you have for planting and how many new plants your yard can support. Take some time for the planning process. Then comes the fun part: choosing your plants, planting them, and watching them grow!

Permaculture gardens are compatible with both sun and shade. Be intentional about creating multiple layers of your edible forest, with taller sun-seeking varieties in the top layer and more shade-tolerant species to handle decreased sunlight in the lower levels.  Keep reading to learn about an excellent assortment of shade-loving plants for your permaculture understory.

American Holly

Close-up of American holly in the garden. Ilex opaca, commonly known as American holly, is an evergreen tree or shrub. American holly features glossy, dark green leaves that are oval to elliptical in shape and have spiny margins. The plant produces bright red berries.
It blooms with small white flowers in spring, followed by abundant red berries that feed wildlife.
botanical-name botanical name Ilex opaca
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 15 – 30 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 5 – 9

American holly is a familiar small to medium-sized tree native to the woodlands of the central and eastern United States.  Hollies are easy to grow and low-maintenance. Holly trees grow well in full sun and also in considerable shade.

They prefer average-quality, well-drained soil. Holly has glossy, bright green leaves that stay evergreen throughout the year. The leaves grow densely along many branches, making these plants excellent privacy hedges or windbreaks along the edge of your landscape.

Holly trees bloom in the spring, but the small, white flowers are fairly inconspicuous. After flowering, hollies produce an abundance of bright red berries. Birds and small mammals eat the berries throughout the fall and winter months. Those that aren’t eaten remain on the tree for an attractive display. 


Close-up of Blueberry with ripe berries, in a sunny garden. Vaccinium corymbosum, commonly known as highbush blueberry, is a deciduous shrub. The plant features slender, woody stems covered in small green leaves with serrated edges. Blueberry produces clusters of small berries. These blueberries are round, plump, and range in color from deep blue to purple.
These attractive shrubs feature bell-like spring flowers and mid-summer harvests of sweet blueberries.
botanical-name botanical name Vaccinium corymbosum
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 3 – 8 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 5 – 7

Blueberry shrubs make a great addition to a permaculture garden. These plants are native to central and eastern North America, growing in open woodlands and forest edges. Since blueberries are fairly shade tolerant, you can grow them as an understory shrub.

Make sure the soil is medium-moisture and well-drained. Blueberries also like acidic soil with a pH of 4.8 to 5.2. Those grown in the shade won’t be as prolific as those grown in full sun, but they still produce fruits.

Blueberries make attractive understory plants in a permaculture garden. They bloom with small, white, bell-like flowers in the spring. By mid-summer, you’ll be harvesting your first fruits. The little round blueberries are sweet and tasty and can be eaten raw, baked into pies, or preserved. Blueberry shrubs attract pollinators during flowering and birds during their fruiting phase. In late fall, the blueberry leaves turn vibrant shades of orange and red. 


Close-up of a blooming Allium schoenoprasum in a garden. Allium schoenoprasum, commonly known as chives, is a herbaceous perennial plant known for its distinctive appearance.It features slender, tubular, and hollow leaves that are vibrant green. Сhives produce small, globe-shaped clusters of edible lavender to pinkish-purple flowers held on long, slender stalks.
This versatile culinary herb thrives in sunny or shaded gardens with medium moisture and well-drained soil.
botanical-name botanical name Allium schoenoprasum
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 1 – 1.5 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 4 – 8

Chives are a familiar culinary herb in the onion family. They can be easily grown in a sunny vegetable garden, herb garden, or flower garden. Chives are also remarkably tolerant of shade and grow well as a permaculture understory plant in a location with dappled sunlight. Give them medium moisture, well-drained soil. Chives also grow well in containers.

Chives plants are herbaceous perennials that grow from small bulbs. They are easily started from seed or can be purchased as bedding plants. Chives form dense clusters of hollow, tubular, onion-scented edible leaves as they mature. In the springtime, they bloom with beautiful fluffy pinkish-purple flowers that attract pollinators.

Hardy Kiwi

Close-up of Actinidia arguta with ripe fruits. Actinidia arguta, commonly known as hardy kiwi, is a deciduous vine with a distinct appearance. Its heart-shaped leaves are bright green and have serrated edges. The plant produces clusters of small, smooth-skinned, and edible fruits that resemble mini kiwis. These fruits are green and covered with fine, short hairs.
This plant thrives in many lighting conditions and yields fruits by late summer, benefiting pollinators and wildlife.
botanical-name botanical name Actinidia arguta
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 25 – 20 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3 – 8

Hardy kiwi plants are native to the temperate regions of eastern Asia. Hardy kiwis are fast-growing vines that can grow long and would benefit from a wall, fence, or trellis for support. Give your hardy kiwi average-quality, moist, well-drained soil. They grow well in full sun, but because their native habitat is woodlands, they are well-adapted to growing as a shaded understory plant. 

Hardy kiwi blooms in the spring and has masses of fragrant greenish-white flowers. By late summer, you can start to harvest the tasty edible fruits. This plant also benefits wildlife because pollinators will visit the flowers, and birds will eat some of the fruits. Be sure to keep your hardy kiwi vine well-pruned. These vines can grow very large and thick and are prone to growing aggressively in ideal conditions, spreading by root suckers.


Close-up of Lettuce growing in a garden bed in full sun. Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is a leafy green vegetable known for its distinctive appearance. It forms a compact rosette of crisp, bright green tender leaves. The leaves are slightly crinkled, with wavy edges, and their shape is rounded.
This cool-season annual is excellent for permaculture gardens.
botanical-name botanical name Lactuca sativa
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 0.5 – 1.0 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 2 – 11

Lettuce is an annual leafy green vegetable at its prime in the cooler spring and fall months. In the warmer months, lettuce typically bolts and then dies back.

While permaculture gardening often focuses on perennial plants, you can incorporate some annuals into the understory mix. Interplant lettuce with other shade plants, and by the time you have harvested and eaten your spring lettuce, the other plants will be ready to take over the plot. 

For the best luck growing lettuce in the shade, stick with the leaf lettuce varieties rather than larger head lettuce varieties. Lettuce is easy to start from seed as long as you can keep the soil moist while the seeds are germinating. Protect your plants from extreme cold and heat; they will thrive in a moderately cool temperature range. Lettuce is also a great candidate for raised bed gardening. 

Ostrich Fern

Close-up of a growing Ostrich Fern in a sunny garden. Matteuccia struthiopteris, commonly known as the Ostrich Fern, is a striking perennial fern with a distinctive appearance. The plant has elegant, feathery fronds that resemble the plumes of an ostrich. Ostrich Ferns produce spore-bearing structures on the underside of the fronds called sporangia, which add to their unique appearance.
Ferns thrive in shaded permaculture gardens with regular moisture and a cooler climate.
botanical-name botanical name Matteuccia struthiopteris
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 3 – 6 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3 – 7

Ostrich ferns are shade-loving ferns with beautiful green foliage that make a great addition to a permaculture shade garden. Ostrich ferns are native to Europe, eastern Asia, and eastern North America. They grow naturally in moist, shaded woodlands. They tolerate considerable shade as long as they have regular soil moisture and a cooler climate. Ostrich ferns don’t appreciate long, hot summers.

Many people don’t realize that the young spring fiddleheads of the ostrich fern are edible. They should first be cleaned and then boiled or steamed before eating. Deer and rabbits don’t bother ferns, so you won’t need to worry about competition for the tasty greens.

Don’t harvest all the fiddleheads – you will want some to develop into beautiful fronds. Even if you don’t want to eat them, these attractive understory plants will be well-appreciated in your permaculture shade garden.


Krupyn plan of ripe fruit on the branches of Asimina triloba. Asimina triloba, commonly known as the Pawpaw tree, is a small deciduous tree native to the southeastern United States. The Pawpaw tree features simple, alternate, oblong leaves that are dark green in color. The plant produces greenish-yellow, banana-like fruits.
This native tree thrives in understory forests and has adaptable sun and moisture requirements.
botanical-name botanical name Asimina triloba
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 15 – 30 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 5 – 9

Pawpaw is an understory tree in rich, moist forests of the southeastern United States. Pawpaw does well in full sun and also in locations with considerable shade. This small tree prefers medium to moist soil but will tolerate dryer conditions. Pawpaw is a native tree that is a great addition to an understory forest habitat.

Pawpaw has somewhat unusual burgundy-brown flowers that bloom in the springtime. Pawpaws must be cross-pollinated to develop fruits, so you’ll want to plant two nearby to enjoy some tasty fruits.

Pawpaw fruits ripen in late summer, looking and tasting like a cross between a banana and a pear. Pawpaw fruits are delicious but have soft skins and don’t store well for a long time, so you’ll want to eat them soon after harvesting. Consider them along with other fast-growing fruit-producing trees.

Red Buckeye

Close-up of a blooming Red Buckeye in a sunny garden. Aesculus pavia, commonly known as Red Buckeye, is a native small tree. The plant features attractive palmate leaves and showcases striking spikes of bright red, tubular flowers.
Its vibrant red tubular flowers, blooming in early spring, attract hummingbirds and pollinators.
botanical-name botanical name Aesculus pavia
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 12 – 15 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 4 – 8

Red buckeye is a smaller deciduous shrub native to the eastern and central United States. It thrives in moist forests with dappled sunlight. If you have a shaded, medium-moisture location in your landscape, check out the red buckeye for a welcome addition to your permaculture garden.

In the early spring, red buckeye bursts into bloom with a showy spike of bright red, tubular flowers. The flowers are a favorite of early-season hummingbirds and many insect pollinators. Grow red buckeye as part of a shaded hedge row or as an attractive small shrub surrounded by other woodland plants, such as ferns.


Close-up of the branches of a Serviceberry plant in a sunny garden. Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) is a small tree. The tree has simple oval dark green leaves with serrated edges. The plant produces small, round, and edible fruits resembling berries that range from reddish-purple to black when ripe.
This tree adapts well to open woodlands, thriving in full sun or partial shade.
botanical-name botanical name Amelanchier arborea
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 15 – 25 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 4 – 9

Serviceberry is native to eastern North America and grows up to 25 feet tall. As an understory tree, it will likely stay smaller and more shrublike. Serviceberry is well-adapted to growing in open woodlands and will do well in full sun or partial shade. Soil should be average-quality, medium-moisture, and well-drained. 

In the springtime, serviceberry blooms with a profusion of showy, fragrant white flowers. The flowers attract butterflies and other pollinators.

By mid-summer, serviceberries develop bright red round fruits much loved by birds. If the birds don’t eat them all, you can harvest the ripe fruits and use them for jams, jellies, and pies. Enjoy its brilliant yellow-orange foliage in the autumn months. 

Final Thoughts

You can grow plenty of interesting shade-loving plants in your woodland garden. Here, it’s important to cultivate an assortment of easy-to-grow edible plants for a sustainable permaculture landscape. Grow plants to benefit birds, butterflies, and other wildlife to diversify your local ecosystem. Ensure the species you choose are well-adapted to your site, and don’t be afraid to try a mix of annuals and perennials that you can use to maximize your available space, especially in the spring and fall. Any plot of land you have has the potential to grow interesting and useful plants that you can enjoy and harvest throughout the year.

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