Choosing plants for a north-facing garden

Val Bourne / 09 June 2021

There are a surprising amount of plants that can thrive in a north-facing garden. Discover what flowers, shrubs and foliage you can grow in a shady border.



There are lots of plants capable of thriving in a north-facing position because, although it’s largely sunless for most of the year, north-facing tends to be sheltered by a wall, a fence or a large tree.

Leafy woodlanders do particularly well and rich-green foliage will dominate these areas, so be prepared to mix and match the shapes and textures to create your own green tapestry.

Planning your north-facing garden

There will be differences according to position. Western edges will get evening sunshine in midsummer, making them more benign, and they’ll also catch more rain from prevailing south-westerly winds. Conversely any eastern edges might get savage easterly winds in winter, so they’ll be harsher and you’ll need to use toughies.

Ferns, ivies and evergreen shrubs love shade and many are beautifully glossy and green, but their foliage comes in all sort of shapes so you need to exploit this by placing divided or ferny foliage next to scalloped and rounded foliage. You can add more interest by using variegated foliage in moderation, but bear in mind that there are cool-toned silvers and pale-creams, or much brasher golds and greens. Generally, the two don’t mix although both will add light and shade. If you plan to use both, separate them with a buffer-zone of green foliage.

Most north-facing sites tend to miss out on a lot of rainfall so plant small if possible, because smaller plants get less water-stressed than larger specimens and they soon grow away. Stressed larger plants often sit there and sulk, or worse still die.

Use the puddling-in method. Dig your hole and take the plant out of the pot and have it to hand. Using a watering can, fill the hole brimful with water and place the plant in the hole immediately and cover with soil as fast as you can. As the water drains from the hole and into the ground, it pulls the soil downwards and gives the plant a damp foundation of moist soil at the base. The success of this technique relies on being speedy - don’t be tempted to watch the water drain away before you backfill.

Water all newly planted acquisitions in their first growing season. Don’t dribble the hose on them, because this will make the fine roots come to the surface. Use a hose, or cans of water, to drench the area round the plants between April and August. Do this weekly.

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Ferns

Avoid thirsty deciduous ferns, such as the Shuttlecock fern or Matteuccia struthiopteris, because they need lots of summer moisture and a more-open situation. Opt for wintergreen ferns instead. They do very well in shade and they don’t need copious amounts of rain. Go for forms of the King fern, Dryopteris filix-mas and it’s useful to remember the first three letters of Dryopteris, eg DRY, because most commonly available forms of Dryopteris tolerate dry conditions. If the fronds are dark-green, they also tolerate shade. Those with lighter fronds need dappled shade, rather than deep shade.

Dryopteris ferns vary in texture and shape from finely cut, to lacy, to ones with crested topknots and side tips. They all need cutting back in November or December, because their foliage gets ragged by midwinter. This reveals their handsome brown knuckles and they can have snowdrops planted close by. By the time the new fronds begin to appear, in April, the snowdrop foliage will have died down ‘Virdipice’, a green-tipped single and the double ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’ are modestly priced. Try Avon Bulbs.

Good named dryopteris forms include the narrow-fronded ‘Barnesii’, the crested ‘Cristata Jackson’ and the finely cut ‘Linearis’. ‘Whiteside’ has more intricate fronds. Hart’s Tongue ferns, forms of Asplenium scolopendrium, are affectionately known as scollies. They have long tongues of evergreen foliage and they tend to be upright in habit. There are wavy-edged and crested forms, but they all need more shelter positions because cold weather damages the fronds so they are not for an eastern edge. Cut the fronds back in spring. You can also use polypodies and polystichums. Fibrex Nurseries are the best and they will advise.

Ivies

English ivies (Hedera helix) are extremely useful in shady woodland borders because they’re very hardy. They vary in habit and foliage colour, from the ruched-edged green-leaves climber ‘Parsley Crested’ to the neat ground cover ones like ‘Anita’, ‘Duckfoot’ and ‘Ivalace’. There are also variegated slow-growing groundcover ivies and the silver-toned compact ‘Silver Ferny’ and ‘Shaefer Three’ are both excellent. Most variegated ivies are green and gold, but the brighter gold varieties (such as ‘Buttercup’) will not colour up in deep shade. ‘Ceridwen’, ‘Chester’ or ‘Gold Ingot’ will all do well though. Fibrex have the National Collection of Ivies, and they sell a full range.

More luscious green plants

The fine, rice-like beads of a dainty wood millet grass named Melica uniflora f. albida, often find their way into Chelsea show gardens. This grass does spread and self-seed, but It looks terrific popping up among ferns with wood sage, Teucrium scorodonia ‘Crispum’. Both will contrast with the rounded, shinty pennies of Asarum europaeum, the European Wild Ginger. This is another Chelsea favourite, often used by Tom Stuart-Smith, and it makes a soft curvaceous edging against a path of framing box balls.

Cool silvers

Silver foliage shines against bare earth and it also mixes well with pink and white flowers. The pink-flowered ornamental deadnettle Lamium maculatum ‘Silver Beacon’ and the white-flowered L. maculatum ‘White Nancy’ both produce bee-friendly flowers in early spring. Both have green-edged frosted foliage that’s highly useful on a border edge.

Heuchera ‘Silver Scrolls’ has silver leaves infused with burgundy and it will cope in dappled shade, as will Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’. The latter bears wands of bright-blue flowers held above frosted silver leaves finely veined and edged in green. You can also use the violet-flowered pulmonaria ‘Diana Clare’, which has silver foliage colour-washed in verdigris. Don’t cut her back after flowering. She minds!

There are fine forms of the autumn-flowering Cyclamen hederifolium and they produce good autumn and winter foliage in a variety of silver forms. Do bear in mind that the corms get to dinner-plate size when they mature, creating a summer gap before they spring into life in autumn. If there’s an area of deep shade, the variegated cuckoo pint, Arum italicum ‘Marmoratum, produces heavily patterned dark-green leaves dissected by white veins. This summer-dormant plant is excellent in winter and spring and it’s one of the best dry shade plants.

Golden glimmers

Touches of gold add light and shade and the deciduous Japanese Hakon grass emerges in spring to form a sweep of curtseying foliage. There are several forms. Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’ is lime-yellow when grown in shade, but brighter in full sun. ‘Alboaurea’ has striped yellow and green foliage. Cut these grasses back in autumn, because the leaves disintegrate in winter and make a real mess.

You could also use Bowles’ Golden Grass, Milium effusum ‘Aureum’ for its yellow winter foliage. In April the airy wands produce a golden veil, although seedlings often follow. The small-leafed evergreen Euonymus fortune is a small shrub and there are many variegated forms. ‘Blondy’ has green and bright-yellow foliage and it’s neater in colour than the more common ‘Emerald ‘n Green’. Finally, hostas can be extremely effective, although they die down in winter. Hoe round them when they’re dormant to disturb any slugs and their eggs and carry on in spring. The gold and green foliage of ‘Stained Glass’, ‘Liberty’ and ‘Guacamole’ will all glimmer and glisten in shade.

Flowers suitable for a shady north-facing garden
Clockwise from top left: Euphorbia amygdaloides Purpurea, Anemone nemorosa, Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) and Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost'

Flowers for a north-facing border

Spring is the natural flowering season of many woodland shade plants. March and April are prime time for wood anemones, Anemone nemorosa, and there are many forms. The pure-white double ‘Vestal’ is highly desirable, but later flowering than most. Wood anemones do spread to form a carpet. Another spreader is Lily of the Valley, Convallaria majalis, so both are best in larger semi-wild north-facing borders.

May-flowering aquilegias (A. vulgaris) also do well in shade along with honesty (Lunaria annua). Both will set seeds and pop up unannounced. Lunaria ‘Corfu Blue’ flowers for longer and there is also a perennial form with scented flowers named Lunaria rediviva.

Other shade lovers include euphorbias and there are four useful spurges grown for their almost everlasting heads of colourful bracts. The evergreen E. amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’ has downy beetroot rosettes of foliage and heads of lime-green flowers. E. amygdaloides var. robbiae has green rosettes topped by yellow heads of flower, but this one rambles towards the light. It’s also prone to damage in cold weather.

The deciduous E. epithymoides (previously named E. polychrome) produces a foot high mound of acid-yellow just as the bluebells flower. The showy Euphorbia griffithii bears bright-orange heads In May and the foliage is olive-green. ‘Dixter and ‘Fireglow’ are readily available forms of this rambling and suckering euphorbia, but don’t let that put you off. They’re fine statuesque plants in shade. Euphorbias have milky sap that irritates the skin and eyes. Care must be taken when cutting them back and they all benefit from a summer trim, with the exception of E. griffithii. This gets cut down in autumn.

I’d also find room for Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum x hybridum ) for its arching stems and pendent cream flowers. Beware though, it emerges late so do mark its position. Other possibilities are the white form of Dutchman’s breeches, Lamprocapnos spectabilis ‘Alba’, which glows in shade, especially when planted close to ‘Spring Green’ tulips. Other shade-loving bulbs include the cobalt-blue scilla, S. siberica, and this will seed about. Native bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) will also do well and our wild form has a superior colour and elegant arching habit. You could also try Martagon lilies (Lilium martagon) to add summer colour.

Finally, add a touch of autumn splendour with the pure-white Japanese anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’. It wands of pure-white flower are a blessing in shade, although this will also ramble. Hardy fuchsias will also perform in bright shade as long as the ground is not too dry and you can go for the substantial singe -red and purple flowers of ‘Mrs Popple’ or the more refined small flowered blush-pink slender flowers of ‘Hawkshead’. They’ll both thrive either towards the front of the border, or on the western edge and they’ll continue until frost calls a halt.

Shrubs for a north-facing garden

South American plants perform from the second half of summer onwards and some grow in shady places. Fuchsias can flower well in brighter parts of a north-facing soil and they all like summer moisture, so they made need extra water in dry summers. The following are hardy and will survive in winter, as long as they’re not waterlogged. Cut back to the emerging buds in late spring.

Fuchsia magellanica AGM

Dainty, slender flowers in purple and red, suspended on tiered stems, on a medium-sized shrub that can be clipped in spring. The foliage is small and the new stems are reddish. This hardy fuchsia is at its best in August, when much of the garden is tired. 3m/10ft.

Fuchsia ‘Riccartonii’ AGM

A more colourful and hardier form of F. magellanica, with scarlet-red and deep violet flowers. The protruding anthers are longer and, from a distance, this forms a bright-red haze. 2m/6ft.

Fuchsia magellanica ‘Lady Boothby’ AGM

A climbing fuchsia (which means that it’s tall and upright) with spectacular vivid-red and deep-purple flowers. The green leaves have red midribs. 3m/10ft at most.

Fuchsia ‘Mrs Popple’ AGM

Rounded crimson-red flowers, showing a chink of purple, on a hardy fuchsia that’s been around for almost a hundred years of more. Enduring and reliable. 2m/7ft.

Crinodendron hookerianum AGM

A challenging, acid-loving evergreen to grow, this is often called the Chilean lantern tree because the buds develop in autumn, redden up over winter and then open in June. Like all Chilean plants, it needs to be cool at the root so it doesn’t enjoy dry warm springs, or hot summers. It’s most successful on milder, west coast gardens in the Lake District etc, because the climate’s moist and temperate. It’s also an acid soil plant, so you’ll need ericaceous compost in your pot, or border. 5m/16ft – if you’re lucky.

Planting against a wall

Some evergreens will cope and they include some cotoneasters, pyracanthas and berberis. These will provide bee-friendly flowers and brightly coloured berries for the birds. Pyracantha ‘Orange Glow’ could be trained onto wires, or left free-standing. Or you could plant a large-leaved ivy, Hedera colchica 'Dentata Variegata', for its heart-shaped golden and green leaves. You could also plant another grey-green leaved shrub, Garrya elliptica, and this would produce green tassels in winter.

Read more about planting against a north-facing wall, or visit our gardening section for growing guides and planting strategies

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