27 Shade Loving Perennials For Zone 3 Shade Gardens

Looking for some perennials to plant in your zone 3 shade garden? Yes, there are several fantastic perennials that can grow in cold and shady climates. In this article, certified master gardener Laura Elsner walks through some cold weather shade garden tips, as well as listing out her favorite perennial plants for shade gardens in zone 3.

zone 3 shade perennials

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Full disclosure, I love shade gardens! I think it’s because I live in a dry, cold, zone 3 climate and shade gardens provide me with that lushness that I crave. Finding perennials for zone 3 gardens can be less challenging, if you know what to plant and where to plant them. When it comes to shade gardens, I love the challenge. I have so many clients call me and complain that nothing grows in zone 3.

When I go out to take a look, I see the problem right away. Growing the wrong plant in the wrong area. No, you can’t have a peony there, it’s too shady. I can see the look of disappointment on their face.

But don’t worry, there are zone 3 friendly shade blooming perennials that will knock your socks off, and foliage color combinations that can only happen in the shade. Let’s dive in and take a deeper look at what you’ll need to set up your shade garden, and some of my favorite plants that you can include when you start.

Setting up a Zone 3 Shade Garden

Zone 3 Perennial Shade Garden
When setting up a shade garden in zone 3, there’s several factors to consider.

To create a garden full of shade friendly perennial flowers and plants, you will have to consider amending your garden to make the conditions right for these plants to thrive and grow to their full potential. Take the time to set things up so you will have success with your plants and create a lush garden, not one that struggles to grow. Soil, and water are two important factors.

Soil Requirements

Shade plants like moisture, and they like rich, humus soil for the most part (there are some exceptions). So start by amending your soil with peat or coconut coir (I always try to use coir as it is a renewable resource, where peat moss is not) to loosen it. Then add a good top dressing of compost, aged manure, worm castings, or sea soil.

A way around all this would be to buy a product called triple mix that is a blend of topsoil, compost, and peat. Make sure you have a nice rich base for your shade plants. Your soil should be a dark rich color, and when you pick up a handful and squeeze it, it should not be able to hold the ball shape. It should crumble back to nothing.

This is a good base soil for your shade plants. I top dress my gardens with compost in the early spring, about every second season. I also water with a worm casting tea a couple times in the season (there are also good one’s made out of seaweed and fish poo).

Water Requirements

Shade plants generally like more moist conditions. Having the loose rich soil will help hold on to the moisture, but adding extra water, especially on hot summer days, is necessary. I use a drip hose that I twine through my garden and will run for a couple hours 1-2 times a week depending on the weather.

There are a few exceptions, which I will mention in the list, of plants that tolerate dry shady conditions. But for the most part, for a lush shade garden, evenly moist soil is important.

Under dense trees

If your garden is shady because it is under a spruce tree, it will need to be heavily amended. Or you will be limited in your choices for shade plants (I will make a note of the few that do ok in the dry shade). Spruce trees have shallow fibrous roots that steal every ounce of water and nutrients it can. Growing under a spruce is difficult and will require a lot of extra water and care.

Normally once a garden is established, there is less that needs to be done in terms of adding soil and watering. However, if it is under a large spruce or other evergreen, it will require water and compost on a regular basis. This is something to keep in mind if low maintenance is your thing.

Made for the Shade

Now onto the fun part. I love playing with the height, texture, and foliage colors of plants along with the flowers. Flowers on zone 3 perennials generally last for a 2-3 week period. So while they will come and go, the main foliage and texture will remain throughout the season. So when choosing plants, choose ones that have more to offer than just flowers, or make sure you’re adding plants with interesting texture and foliage colors alongside the flowering ones.

Bloom time is also important. Along with the 2-3 week bloom period of most perennials, there is a window of time they bloom. Just like an orchestra playing a symphony, every flower is an instrument that gets its time to shine.

If all the instruments play their solos at the same time it sounds like a crazy mush, and then when it’s done, it’s just background music to finish. Same with flowers, if you stack all spring bloomers, you’ll have a crazy explosion for a month, and then bland gardens with no flowers for the rest of the summer. The key is to stagger the blooms so that when one flower finishes their solo the next is ready to pick up the next part.

I find people will grab everything in bloom at the garden center since that is what draws their eye, and then they are stuck with a one season blooming garden. Pay attention to bloom times, I will let you know the bloom times in my list to help guide you through creating your own shade floral symphony.

Shade Loving Zone 3 Perennials

So let’s get to it. Now that you know how to properly setup a shade garden in a colder hardiness zone, here are some of my favorite zone 3 shade perennials. There will be some crossover with zone 4 perennials, as well as other hardiness zones, just due to climate similarities. Let’s take a look at each of our favorites, with pictures and specifications of each!

Ostrich Fern

Ostrich Fern in Garden
The ostrich fern does quite well in shady areas.
  • Height: 36”
  • Width: 12”
  • Bloom Time: N/A
  • Scientific Name: Matteuccia struthiopteris

Ostrich ferns are what create a lush fullness in a shade garden. They have beautiful feathery fronds of green foliage. When they unfurl from the ground in spring, they unwind and look like tiny seahorses. These guys will spread and grow from every nook and cranny and fill space in the midline and back of your garden.

Some people find them pesky because of their spreading nature. I actually find them less of a problem than some other spreaders (which are coming up on the list). Ostrich ferns can be dug up from unwanted areas and transplanted or given away to garden friends.

They transplant beautifully, hardly noticing that they’ve been dug up and plopped somewhere else. Ostrich ferns look great in the spring and early summer, but they start to get tattered and die off in the very early fall. I cut them to the base once they start looking bad.

Hosta

Hostas in Garden
The hosta does well in shade gardens, and some varieties do even better in limited sun.
  • Height: 6”-6’ 
  • Width: 6”-6’ 
  • Bloom Time: Mid-late summer
  • Scientific Name: Hosta

Hostas are the reigning kings of the shade. This little blurb I’m about to write hardly does them justice. If hostas are your thing and you want to learn more about them, hop over to my other articles that dive deeper into hosta varieties and hosta care.

There are 3000s varieties of hostas! They range in sizes, shapes, and colors. If you have a shady space, there’s a hosta that can fill it. Or a grouping of hostas. Play with the various colors, pair ones with chartreuse margins with ones with chartreuse centers (eg. Hosta ‘Stained Glass’ and Hosta ‘Guacamole’). 

Hostas do bloom in the mid to late summer, depending on the variety. But I sometimes will cut off the flowers if it is just a distraction from the main foliage. They normally have lavender, sometimes white flowers that rise straight up out of the plant.

Hostas are one of the last perennials to come up in a zone 3 garden, I do recommend mixing in some other perennials that emerge earlier (perhaps lysimachia), or else you’ll just have a big bare garden until mid June when they finally decide it’s time to wake up.

False Goat’s Beard

Astilbe
False Goat’s Beard looks almost like a tuft of cotton candy.
  • Height: 12-36”
  • Width: 24”
  • Bloom Time: Midsummer
  • Scientific Name: Astilbe

Astilbe are these wonderful cotton candy tufted plants that just add wonderful textures and colors into gardens. They are low growing perennials, that don’t get higher than 3 feet tall in most cases. You will really have to amend heavy soil with coir and compost to get these guys to grow full and lush in a zone 3 garden.

They like lots of water, but not soggy, and lots of rich humus soil. So pair them with other perennials with the same likes, hostas, heuchera, and brunnera comes to mind. They have delicate lacey foliage that stands out next to more solid rounded leaves (like a hosta).

But that’s not even the best part, their blooms are like tufts of cotton candy, or coral reef. They come in reds, pinks, and whites and add an eye catching display when they bloom. Astilbe are not meant for the deep shade, they won’t bloom. They like early morning light, or later afternoon sun.

Bugleweed

Bugleweed
Ajuga makes a great groundcover in shade gardens.
  • Height: 2”
  • Width: 24”+ 
  • Bloom Time: late spring/ early summer
  • Scientific Name: Ajuga

Ajuga is a handy groundcover. It will cover a lot of ground, very quickly (check to see if it is invasive in your area). Bugleweed has purple foliage which provides a lovely contrast to a lot of the green that is found in shade. It likes moist soil, but it’s not overly picky about the quality.

I like this one underneath a blue globe spruce, the contrast of sharp blue needles and soft burgundy wine leaves spilling out underneath it is lovely. It blooms short sprays of bluish purple flowers that the bees go nuts for. It is a mover and a shaker, but I find the roots are shallow enough that it isn’t too annoying to pull and keep in its place.

Sweet Woodruff

Sweet Woodruff
Another white-flowering shade perennial is sweet woodruff, which is a popular ground cover.
  • Height: 8”
  • Spread: 24”+ 
  • Bloom Time: Spring
  • Scientifc Name: Galium odoratum

I can’t get enough of sweet woodruff. It’s a lovely little woodland perennial ground cover, It has delicate shiny green foliage that explodes into tiny white perennial flowers in the spring. It does spread a lot, so it’s not for everyone. But if you’re looking to fill a space, it looks great. I don’t like seeing much exposed soil in my gardens, so this will fill into spaces, but it allows for other plants to still be able to shoot up through it.

Another benefit to Sweet Woodruff is that it transplants like a dream, it doesn’t even pout for a second. Just dig it up and plop it in and it grows like nothing. After it blooms it can start looking shaggy and messy. I will take the hedge clippers (or just tear it by hand) and give it a good shearing and it will grow a second flush of leaves.

Lily of the Valley

Lily of the Valley in Garden
Some people love lily of the valley, while others tend to steer clear of this plant.
  • Height: 6”
  • Spread: 12”+
  • Bloom Time: Spring
  • Scientific name: Convallaria majalis

Love it or hate it, Lily of the Valley is on the list of shade plants. Use caution with this one, extreme caution. I can’t say I dislike it, it has a heavenly scent, and the green leaves fill a space and are low maintenance. It’s a popular runner plant, but it will take over your garden if you let it.

Let me tell you, sometimes when you go to a perennial plant exchange in your community, there will be a lot of plants that people have out because they have too much of it. Lily of the valley is one of them. You rarely see people giving away peonies and hostas and other well behaved plants.

Then an eager unexpected new gardener plants this in the middle of a garden bed and it’s all over. The roots are long and deep and hard to dig up. But that being said. If you have a dry shady area where nothing grows (under that spruce) give it a try. My advice: keep it contained!!

Annabelle Hydrangea

Hydrangea arborescens
The Annabelle Hydrangea is a gorgeous white flowered hydrangea that’s great in the shade.
  • Height: 36-48”
  • Spread: 48-60”
  • Bloom Time: mid-late summer-fall
  • Scientific Name: Hydrangea arborescens

Annabelle hydrangeas are straight out of a fairy tale. Enormous white blossoms and beautiful chartreuse leaves. I do say perennials have a two week window, but annabelles blooms will last from mid- late summer until the end of the season.

I leave my large pom pom flowerheads on for the winter months as well, but some people cut them down. Annabelles require lots of water, and some sun. Although they are touted as shade plants, I have seen them growing in full sun, as long as they are getting a lot of water. They won’t bloom at all if they are kept in the deep shade.

Annabelle blossoms can get so large and heavy that they require staking. There are new varieties on the market that have sturdier stems to hold the blossoms on their own. Look for ‘Incrediball’ at your local garden center or nursery.

Joe Pye Weed

Eutrochium purpureum
Joe Pye Weed is brightly colored, and does very well in shade.
  • Height: 8’
  • Width: 36”
  • Bloom Time: late summer
  • Scientific name: Eutrochium purpureum

Joe pye weed is like Jack’s beanstalk. This tall perennial flower grows from nothing to an incredible 8’ tall perennial in a single season. Then I chop it down in the fall, or spring, and it starts all over again. It has large puffs of pink flowers that bees and butterflies love.

Joe pye weed can be weedy and invasive, check to see if it is in your area. It likes wet, boggy areas and will tolerate full sun if it gets enough water, but doesn’t tolerate deep shade. I like putting Joe pye weed behind annabelle hydrangeas. By the time the hydrangea leaves start to grow and fill in, the Joe pye weed already has grown above them and then it will continue to rise and they will bloom around the same time.

Lysimachia

Lysimachia growing on wall
Another popular shade loving ground cover is Lysimachia.
  • Height: 2” 
  • Width: 24”+
  • Bloom Time: Early summer
  • Scientific name: Lysimachia

Lysimachia, also known as creeping Jenny, is one of my favorite perennial ground covers. It is slightly aggressive and spreads, so be careful with it. But I use it as a natural mulch in shade gardens. It covers the ground and holds in moisture. The green variety blooms yellow blossoms in the early summer.

But my personal favorite is golden lysimachia, which doesn’t bloom but the sharp golden color contrasts beautifully with lots of things in a shade garden. Have it growing underneath hostas with chartreuse in their leaves (e.g. Hosta Guacamole) to make it pop. I also use this vine in a lot of my annual container designs as a trailing plant.

It spills out golden and looks great in shady pots. You can even dig it up in the spring, plant it in your pots, then take it out of your pots and sink it back in the ground in the fall. It’s a never ending supply of free container plants.

Tatting Fern

Tatting Fern in Garden
The tatting fern grows very well in cold climate shade gardens.
  • Height: 12”
  • Width: 18”
  • Bloom Time: N/A
  • Scientific name: Athyrium Filix-Femina

Tatting fern is a hidden gem. I don’t often see this one in gardens, but I wish I did more. It is a specialty fern that belongs in the front of garden beds where its unique appearance can be appreciated. It is small with spider-like fronds coming out that are swirled in an S shape along the stem.

Specialty ferns are hard to grow where I’m from (ostrich ferns are easy), So I was skeptical about growing the tatting fern. However, It overwinters fine and comes back reliable, getting only slightly bigger every season. You will probably need to go to a specialty garden center or nursery to track one down. If you find one, scoop it, and put it in front of your hostas, or cuddle it up to a garden rock to soften it.

Bergenia

Bergenia in Garden
The bergenia is a beautiful shade loving plant that has pink flowers.
  • Height: 25”
  • Spread: 24”+
  • Bloom Time: Spring
  • Scientific name: Bergenia

Bergenia is often known as elephant’s ear. However I find that name confusing as there are at least three other plants I can think of that go by that name. So I stick to just calling it by its latin name, bergenia. This perennial has large  glossy evergreen foliage. Then large stalks of beautiful flowers emerge in the spring.

Bergenia does not need to be cut in the fall or spring, the leaves stay on through winter. However, if the leaves are looking tattered and brown, cut them back to the tuberous stem and let it regrow fresh new foliage.

Bergenia is one one of the few shade perennials that like poor quality soil, and dry shaded areas. It could be planted under a spruce tree. I see it as a border under the tree well of a giant spruce quite often. It might not bloom, or bloom less, under these conditions, but it still will have that nice glossy green foliage.

Lady’s Mantle

Ladys Mantle in Garden
The Ladys Mantle is another yellow flowered shade garden favorite.
  • Height: 18”
  • Width: 18”
  • Bloom time: Midsummer
  • Scientific name: Alchemilla

While lady’s mantle blooms in the midsummer, I think it is most beautiful in the spring. When its small ruffled leaves emerge from the ground and are small little cups that hold on to the morning dew and sparkle like gemstones. As the summer goes on the green foliage gets bigger and floppier, and then it flowers sprays of yellow flowers.

I have been known to cut off these flowers, sometimes they flop and look messy. The flowers do make a good cut flower, making a good alternative to baby’s breath in homemade bouquets. Sometimes I like the yellow flowers if the are contrasting against something else. It really depends on the garden if I leave them on.

Lady’s mantle does spread, not like crazy, but you will find babies growing near the main plant and eventually they will form a mass. Just dig up any unwanted plants and leave the ones you want.

Coral Bells

Coral Bells
Coral bells have many different varieties, and have some delicate flowers during bloom.
  • Height: 18”
  • Width: 18”
  • Bloom Time: Summer
  • Scientific Name: Heuchera

I love heuchera. It has beautiful ruffled foliage and sprays of delicate flowers. It comes in so many colors. I love the bright chartreuse varieties like Lemon Love, they shine in the shade. There are dark burgundy purple varieties, like Primo Black Pearl, which is so purple it is almost black. It looks great with golden creeping jenny all around it.

There are also golden rust colored ones, like Dolce Cinnamon Curls, which gives fall foliage in summer vibes. Then there are varieties that are frosted in white highlights on their darker colored leaves, like Frosted Violet. I love mixing heucheras in and amongst hostas and brunneras for a little change in foliage color and texture. I also will use heuchera in shade containers. Then at the end of the season I sink it into the garden bed and it comes back the next year.

Brunnera

Brunnera in Shade Garden
Another popular foliage plant is brunnera, with violet-colored flowers.
  • Height: 24”
  • Width: 18”
  • Bloom Time: Spring
  • Scientific name: Brunnera

Brunnera is another foliage marvel. It has beautiful frosted heart shaped leaves. They bloom light blue flowers in the spring (this actually depends on the variety), but their foliage is attractive all season long. Brunnera looks great in a hosta garden since it provides beautiful foliage that is just a bit different. There are many varieties available, my favorite is Jack Frost.

Monkshood

Aconitum
Monkshood has very beautiful purple flowers and does well in the shade.
  • Height: 36-60”
  • Width: 24”
  • Bloom Time: Late summer
  • Scientific name: Aconitum

Monkshood gets a bad rap because it is very, very toxic. But I see this perennial in almost every garden. I feel like if monkshood was out there poisoning people, it would be all over the news. But, if you have small orally fixated children or pets, maybe reconsider having this perennial in your garden. It is tall and resembles delphinium, but it’s stalks are much sturdier and do not require staking.

It has purple, purple and white, or pink flowers and if you look closely at them they resemble little hoods worn by monks. I like placing this one against fences and in the back of garden beds. Then I will layer other perennials underneath it.

Monkshood will not take deep shade and will just grow stringy stalks that never bloom. It does spread, but it stays in its place. It is hard to get rid of once it is planted, you will need to dig it up a few times to completely get rid of it. But it transplants beautifully and is a great perennial to share. Monkshood can tolerate slightly warmer climates with shade, depending on the heat.

Ligularia

Yellow Ligularia in Garden
A very unique looking plant, certain varieties of ligularia have tall yellow flowers.
  • Height: 36-60” 
  • Width: 24-36”
  • Bloom time: Late summer
  • Scientific name: Ligularia

Ligularia is one of my favorites. This perennial has beautiful yellow flowers that bloom in the late summer, which I find is sometimes a tricky time to find a shade bloomer. These guys like being wet. You have never seen a sadder plant than the pouting droopy foliage of a ligularia that needs a drink.

Then like magic, give it water and it will revive like cinderella going to the ball. I’ve actually seen ligularia growing wonderfully in full sun, it just needs a lot of water. You can place it near a rain gutter and have water pour into it and it will be happy.

My favorite variety is called The Rocket, it has  large green jagged leaves and then thick stalks of yellow flowers shoot straight up and out of it. Other varieties have more rounded leaves and clusters of yellow, daisy-like flowers. Another interesting variety is Othello which has large round lily-pad shaped leaves that have a reddish burgundy tinge to the underside of the leaf.

Lungwort

Lungwort in Garden
Another great plant for ground cover that blooms in spring is pulmonaria.
  • Height: 12”
  • Spread: 24”+
  • Bloom Time: Early spring
  • Scientific name: Pulmonaria

Pulunaria, more commonly known as lungwort, is a lovely early spring shade bloomer. Lungwort got its name because it was once thought to cure diseases of the lung. People thought that because of the lung shaped spots on its leaves, it must be good for lungs.

Turns out it’s not. But the name stuck. Wort is an old English word that means plant, root, or herb. This is why there are spiderwort, lungwort, St. John’s wort etc. It’s not the prettiest sounding name, for some of the prettiest looking plants. Anyways, lungwort is a low growing plant that is one of the first bloomers in my garden.

I love it, it is just the thing I need to see early in the spring when everything is still brown and asleep. The bees love it since it is one of the only flowers out at this time. In the late summer it’s leaves are large and spotted. The flowers are trumpet shaped with shades of pink and purple. They almost always get powdery mildew later on.

I either rip or cut all the leaves down and let it regrow a smaller second flush of flowers and leaves. The leaves on pulmonaria are fuzzy and prickly, use gloves when handling, they will irritate your skin. This is another shade perennial that can handle dry shade, it can go under a spruce. It does spread, but I find it is easy to dig up and keep in check. This perennial has blue flowers, as well as pink and violet.

Vinca Vine

Vinca Vine in garden
The vinca vine is another great vine that’s great for ground cover.
  • Height: 4-6”
  • Spread: 24”+
  • Bloom Time: Early spring
  • Scientific name: Vinca major

Vinca vine is an evergreen perennial that is showy with periwinkle flowers in the early spring. This is a nice groundcover, it creates a mat on the soil and keeps weeds down. I like this vine under my hosta garden. It comes in solid green, and variegated with white or yellow. I also like the glossy foliage in containers. This one can spread like crazy, I rip it and dig it to keep it in check.

Maidenhair Fern

Maidenhair Fern in Garden
The maidenhair fern is another fantastic option for shade gardens.
  • Height: 24”
  • Width: 24”
  • Bloom Time: N/A
  • Scientific name: Adiantum

Maidenhair fern has a great fine texture that just sparkles when hit with the morning dew. I use it to soften hard edges, like rocks, or a path. It’s low growing and lovely, and makes it feel like a fairy garden. I also will use maidenhair fern in pots and then sink it into the ground after. Choose a protected location for this plant, tucked in away from wind and weather.

Rhubarb

Rhubarb in Garden
The rhubarb plant makes an excellent shade garden addition, and can make great jam!
  • Height: 18-36”
  • Spread: 18-36”
  • Bloom Time: N/A
  • Scientific name: Rheum rhabarbarum

I often push rhubarb to clients, and I get a lot of pushback. Some people find it an old fashioned plant that only belongs in old granny gardens. But I love it. It has these huge leaves on bright red stems. It emerges from the ground very early in the spring and it looks like a crinkled brain that eventually rises up and unfolds into beautiful full leaves.

I push it because it grows in poor conditions, dry soil, shade, under large spruce trees, whatever, it grows.  I sometimes refer to it as a poor man’s hosta, it has great large foliage like a hosta, but it’s cheap and in every garden center. Or people will eagerly divide and share it. Plus it’s delicious.

I put N/A for blooming for rhubarb, although it does bloom, but as soon as you see that center stalk shoot up with a knob of white flowers you want to get in there and cut it off. It doesn’t always bloom, if it is having a tough year, not enough early water, it will send out a shoot and then it makes the leaves smaller and the fruit bitter.

When harvesting rhubarb, pull and twist from the plant, don’t cut it. It grows back if it is twisted out and not cut. There is nothing hardier than rhubarb. It’s one of the few perennials that I’ve seen successfully overwinter in a pot outside in my zone 3 climate.

Bugbane

Bugbane in Garden
Another unique option for zone 3 shade gardens is Bugbane.
  • Height: 36-48”
  • Width: 24”
  • Bloom Time: late summer-early fall
  • Scientific name: Cimicifuga

Bugbane is a great addition to a shade garden. It has lacey dark purple foliage and then it makes stalks of light, baby pink, feathery flowers. They smell amazing, and the bees love them. They are one of the last plants to flower in a zone 3 garden, so I like having one or two of them in the garden as a last hurrah.

Black Negligee is my favorite variety as it is reliable to bloom and it grows tall. It looks nice when it is planted between Rocket Ligularia, the contrast of the jagged green leaves and the lacy burgundy leaves looks great. Then the ligularia blooms and finishes and then the bugbane will take over with it’s fragrant delicate flowers.

Blue Bird Clematis

Clematis Blue Bird Variety
The blue bird variety of clematis has purple flowers and is quite beautiful.
  • Height: 6-12’
  • Spread: 36-60”
  • Bloom Time: Spring
  • Scientific name: Clematis macropetala

Check and see if alpine clematis is invasive in your area. We have a yellow variety here called Tangutica that is highly invasive. The blue bird clematis is allowed, and it is a vigorous climbing vine.  It has lovely light green foliage, and then in the spring it explodes with beautiful bluish flowers that hang delicately downwards.

After it flowers, it forms a puff ball seed head that looks like it’s from a Dr. Seuss book. You might want to trim those off before they blow off and you end up with little vines all over the garden. Bluebird clematis does not need to be cut down and grows and blooms on old wood. However if it is getting too big and crazy go ahead and chop it down and it will regrow just fine. This vine will completely cover rences, trellises, arbors.

Bleeding Heart

Bleeding Heart Plant in Garden
The bleeding heart is a lovely shade perennial that’s quite unique.
  • Height: 25-48”
  • Width: 24-36”
  • Bloom Time: Spring
  • Scientific name: Lamprocapnos

Here it is, the classic shade plant, bleeding heart. It has beautiful green lacy foliage. This perennial blooms beautiful red (or white, or pink) heart shaped flowers that dangle delicately from thin arching stems. I love how big and full this plant gets, it really fills a space in the garden.

It likes nice moist, rich soil, but it is not too picky, it just won’t get as large and lush in poorer conditions. I like placing this plant behind other things, after it blooms in the spring and is at its height of beauty, it is a slow decline. Then it is a droopy yellow mess come August. I cut it down once this happens.

This is why I don’t mass plant these as a hedge or a row in front of a deck or house, I will add pops of them spread out as anchors in a garden. If you plant a huge row of them they will look great and then all of a sudden flop and die and leave a big hole.

Solomon’s Seal

Polygonatum with water on leaves
Solomons seal is another beautiful white flowered plant that loves the shade.
  • Height: 12-36”
  • Spread: 24”+
  • Bloom Time: Spring
  • Scientific name: Polygonatum

There is an imposter known as false Solomon’s seal, which is a small woodland plant that acts like lily of the valley. But the real Solomon’s seal is large and fern-like. It’s large arched stems that rise from the ground reminds me of something that would be found in Jurassic park. It has little white bell shaped flowers that hang from its stem. It really adds a lush feel into shade gardens. They do spread and get larger, but it’s not invasive.

Goatsbeard

Aruncus dioicus
Goatsbeard has some very unique looking white flowers, and loves shade.
  • Height: 36”-6’
  • Width: 24-48”
  • Bloom Time: Summer
  • Scientific name: Aruncus dioicus

Goatsbeard is the plant to plant in the area where nothing grows. Be careful with it, it will spread. Iit does get big and it blooms sprays of white flowers. Use this on hills to stop erosion, and in darker areas of the garden. It doesn’t mind poorer soils and will grow just about anywhere.

There is a dwarf variety that I like, it is reminiscent of astilbe. I find some people can’t get astilbe to bloom, the dwarf goatsbeard is a reliable bloomer with an astilbe-like feel. So give it a try if you’re not having luck with astilbe.

Snowdrop Anemone

Anemone sylvestris
The snowdrop anemone is a popular shade perennial that is low-maintenance.
  • Height: 12-18”
  • Spread: 24”+
  • Bloom Time: Spring
  • Scientific name: Anemone sylvestris

Snowdrop anemone is a vigorous flowering ground cover. It has lovely white blossoms that bloom on thin stems from a lacy green foliage plant. In the spring when they are blooming I am constantly being flooded with pictures from people asking what this plant is. When it blooms it is spectacular.

It’s very low maintenance, and spreads, but isn’t annoying and can be easily dug up and given away to eager recipients. The white flowers are perfect for brightening up the shade. I cut off the spent blossoms with hedge shears once they are done and then it remains a nice green ground cover for the rest of the season. Sometimes you’ll even get a smaller second flush of flowers late in the season.

Sun King Aralia

Sun King Aralia
Another beautiful plant with vibrant colors, sun king aralia enjoys the shade.
  • Height: 36”
  • Width: 36”
  • Bloom Time: Late Summer
  • Scientific name: Cordata

This is a new discovery for me. Sun king aralia has the most vibrant golden color and it grows large  enough to fill a space in a shade garden. Place it behind hostas as a beautiful background canvas for the chartreuse colors in the hosta leaves to play off of.

This plant likes the same rich loose moist soil as hosta, fern, heuchera etc. So it’s an easy plant to add into the mix. I’m so glad I found it and am using it in my zone 3 shade gardens. It also will grow in full sun, as long as it is getting lots of water. They do bloom sprays of fluffy white flowers, but it is not it’s main feature and they can be cut off if you don’t like them.

Final Thoughts

I am just scratching the surface with the possibilities of shade plants in your zone 3 gardens. I went on a vacation to Florida and the layers of lush foliage really caught my eye. Ultimately, I think that is what many northern climate gardeners crave for their own garden. Let me tell you it is entirely possible to recreate that lush foliage in our climate.

With proper soil amendments and watering, the plants will fill in and you will have layers of foliage and pops of flowers all summer long. Remember to keep bloom times in mind. Fill in gaps in your bloom timing with striking foliage colors and interesting textures. I will often add pops of annuals such as begonias and coleus into the garden for continuous color.

 Also consider the layers of your garden. Choose something taller as a background plant, like a Japanese sun aralia, then a midline, like big beautiful green hostas, and then golden lysimachia creeping around their feet in the front of the bed. That’s just an example of three layers, but you could have more. Vary the heights, layer things in. This will create a lush full tropical vibe garden in the shade. Happy gardening!

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