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Shrubs or Small Trees for Narrow Shade Garden

13 years ago

I have a strip on the north side of my house, which is mostly full shade. It receives 1-2 hours of late afternoon sun in summer, but no direct sun in spring and fall. It was a horribly boring strip of grass, so I have begun turning it into a shade garden with hostas, heucheras, ferns and bruneras.

The problem is the strip is quite long and narrow. It is 50 feet long and only 5 feet wide. I would like to plant 3 shrubs or small trees about 15 feet apart to break up the space and give it some height. I'm looking for suggestions on what I could use.

I would like something that would reach 4-5 feet tall and maybe 3 feet wide. I would be flexible on the height, but 4 feet would be the absolute maximum width, and even that is probably too wide. Flowers would be nice, but they aren't necessary. I can't be too picky given my restrictions.

I have considered Rhododendrons, but I'm not really crazy about them, and I'd rather not worry about amending the ph of my soil in what is otherwise a fairly low-maintenance garden.

So, again, a shrub or small tree, hardy to zone 5, 4-5 feet tall and maybe 3 feet wide that does well in full shade.

I would appreciate any suggestions anyone may have. Thanks!

Comments (15)

  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    I've been doing some research all winter long for small shrub or tree for full shade with 1 1/2 hrs mid day sun for my narrow nyc plot so I have some ideas for you but no in the ground experience.

    ink berry
    irish yew

    these are on the larger side but they have compact cultivars.
    hydrangea quercifolia
    hydrangea annabelle
    kerria japanica
    maple leaf viburnum (there are a lot of good threads on viburnums on gw so you might want to do a search for that).

    As for trees you could look into quince. I remember reading that they a good amount of shade.

    You could also try elephant ears bulbs. I do have in the ground experience and they will get tall but they don't really hit their stride until it gets good and warm so consider them for a spot near some spring flowering plants that die back.

    Good luck and let me know if you come up with any ideas. Our situations are so similar except that I have the heat of mid day sun to contend with... uggh.

  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Here is what has worked for me in my ten years gardening a small and very shady backyard in Brooklyn. Some of these would work for both of you, but some only for NYC.

    These will take a colder climate:
    Rhodotypos - Jetbead. Doesn't flower very much in deep shade but has slightly pleated leaves in a nice shade of green and has a drooping shape. You could keep it easily on the smaller side.
    Kerria japonica - I like the single blossom type and even when it doesn't bloom much the green stems and leaves are lovely.
    Meserve holly Blue Prince and Blue Princess. This has stayed at about 3 feet without much pruning.
    Clethra - stays naturally at around 3-4 feet high and wide and there are some smaller varieties.
    Calycanthus floridus - this sprouts new stems from the ground and the width can be kept in check by cutting back. Mine is now about six feet high.
    Itea virginica - this did okay for me for awhile but died. I think it would work for others.
    Hydrangea "Blue Billow". This is a bit tender but others in 5B seem to make it work. You can search this site for comments. DBGardener do you have consistent snow cover? If you do, you can probably make this work. This hydrangea has bloomed consistently for me since it got established. It can get big, but you can always cut it back.

    THese are more tender, but have done really well in Brooklyn:
    Aucuba - They are a little leggier in the shade, but I think they look better that way.
    Sarcococca - not very tall and the flowers are insignificant but they smell fabulous.
    Edgeworthia - if you can find it. Very early spring flowers that look like upside down umbrellas and big tropical looking leaves. The scent is amazing and quite strong.
    Here are some things that are "shrub-like" and could add some height. They are a bit out of the ordinary, so you'd probably have to mail-order.
    Saruma henryi - looks like a fuzzy ginger on steroids. It can get to 2.5 ft high and gets little pale yellow flowers. It self-seeds too. Does great for me no matter where I put it.
    Deinanthe caerulea - a hydrangea cousin with wide felty leaves and pale white or lilac flowers. It seems to thrive in shade. Mine was really unhappy when I took some trees down.
    Kirengeshoma koreana - big maple shaped leaves. Can reach 3 feet. Does fine almost anywhere.
    Hardy begonia - I have a pink flowered variety that gets to be 2-3 feet tall each year and has large spear-shaped leaves. It also readily self-seeds, which I find to be a plus. I had so much shade I was excited when weeds sprouted up.

    One thing I've found about growing shrubs in the shade is that you should get the biggest you can find or handle. If you plant little ones, they will have a much harder time getting going than if they were planted in the sun. If I ordered a small one by mail, it seemed to help if I put it in a big container with some good potting soil for the first year so it could get somes roots going.
    Hope this helps.

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  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Thanks for all of the wonderful suggestions. Lolagardner, I really like your suggestions of the Irish Yew I have been considering a Yew, as year-round green (or even better, yellow) would add some winter interest to what is otherwise a barren bed 5 months a year. I'm fairly certain Yews would survive, but my concern is if they would ever grow.

    I also like the idea of a Maple Leaf Viburnum. Viburnum is my favorite group of shrubs. From my research, I see that Maple Leaf is perhaps the most shade-tolerant viburnum. I would still have some concerns about it in full-shade, but it's hard to resist planting a Viburnum.

    Hottohort, I appreciate you sharing your experiences. I have a lot of little shady spots in my yard, so I could have a use for many of those shrubs. I also think you are absolutely correct about starting with a big shrub. If you start big, you don't have to worry so much about the plants not growing.

    For my narrow shade garden, I think I'm leaning toward Itea Virginica. Everything I have read has indicated it grows well in full shade and it has 4 seasons of interest: bright green foliage in spring, dark green foliage and white flowers in early summer, good fall color and red branches in the winter. What more could you ask of a shrub? And, it's the right size (probably no more than 4 ft. by 4 ft. in full shade).

    I won't completely rule out a viburnum or even a yew, but if I find 3 big Itea virginicas this spring, that's what I'm going with.

    Thanks for the suggestions! Maybe I'll put a picture up when I have the shrubs in the ground.

  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    DBGardener. Yes please do keep us posted with pics! Itea Virginica sounds like a good solid plan. And...the yellow yews are beautiful. A Way to Garden website has a lovely pic of her's. I attached the link below.

    Hottohort. Wow how helpful! So glad to hear of your in ground experience in Brooklyn. I actually saw a photo of Deinanthe Caerulea a while ago and have been trying to figure it out ever since! So thank you. I'll definitely keep my eyes out for that and the others.

    As for myself I think I can do a little more height (10-15') than DBGardener and I'd like to be able to see under the bush or tree a into the rest of the garden so a shrub that can be pruned as a tree is what I'm leaning towards. Right now I'm thinking a smaller service berry or cornus racemosa. I do have other spots to fill so it was good to hear of all the other suggestions.

    Happy gardening and keep me posted on what you find!

    Here is a link that might be useful: spreading golden yew

  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Hey, DBGardener!
    I have to Itea Virginica Henry's Garnet in full shade in the back of my garden. Have had them for 3 years. You might want to check into them more: they are wider than they are tall and they are somewhat indifferent bloomers in full shade. If you are looking for taller for the height, these are not the bushes for your spot. I hate to put a damper on your plans...:-)


    That's it in the background (the red bush) 2 summers ago.


  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    My Hammemalis Virginica has done very well planted about 3 ft away from the base of a Norway maple. The only bummer about this native is that the flower bloom is obscured by the leaf. It blooms yellow at the same time the yellow fall foliage occurs. I don't care though. It has grown about 10 in in the first year and has a graceful appearance. I tried this shrub because I researched what grows naturally in the understory of maple-basswood forests for my area. Because the area is dry I looked up the plants listed in upland forests and not the flood plain areas.

    I found this info at

    Upland forests are typically mixed-hardwood, dominated by sugar maple (Acer saccharum) with white, black, and red oak (Quercus alba, Q. velutina, and Q. rubra), white ash (Fraxinus americana), tulip tree, black birch (Betula lenta), yellow birch, red maple, basswood, beech (Fagus grandifolia), and hickories (Carya spp.); understory trees include hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana), and shrubs include maple-leaved viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium), black haw (Viburnum prunifolium), spicebush, and beaked hazel (Corylus cornuta).

  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    I love the suggestion of Spicebush! I would like most to plant something native to our area that attracts wildlife, so I hope that it would do well in dry shade. I'm still looking around for more information on it online, and as usual, I'm finding some info that says full sun, some that says full shade. Does anybody have any hands-on experience with Spicebush?

  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago


    I hope you get this. I don't know where in Brooklyn you garden but my favorite garden center in Red Hook is being evicted!!!!! Its the one on the pier on Van Dyke street called Liberty Sunset Garden Center. Please see my post in nymetro gardening. I don't think a lot of people check it that frequently so I may post in the shade forum as well. They need help from the community to save their plant collection.

    Here is a link that might be useful: NY Metro Link.. Call to action

  • PRO
    13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    hottohort: your plant selections sound very interesting. I am also a Brooklyn gardener with a a very shady back yard (shaded by a huge linden tree). Where do you buy your unusual plants?

  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    wink in training - not sure that Spicebush will like dry shade, it really needs some moisture. Consider Sweetshrub (Calycanthus) and Mapleleaf Viburnum instead. As mentioned above, Beaked hazelnut would do well also.

  • 12 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    My small Brooklyn garden has a 100 year old maple at one end, so this discussion has been particularly interesting for me. I've been trying, without success, to find a local source for Sarcococca confusa (the one that's supposed to smell the best!) The garden stores only seem to carry Sarcococca hookerana humilis. Why? Is it hardier? Any ideas out there? (or sources?)

  • 12 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

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  • 12 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    hottohort wrote:

    Kerria japonica - I like the single blossom type and even when it doesn't bloom much the green stems and leaves are lovely.

    I too love this bush when it blooms in the spring even in deep shade. And its wonderful green stems do provide winter interest BUT I am considering getting rid of it as invariably it develops rust/blight during the summer and it looks terrible. I have two such japonicas and they are very far apart (one in the front and the other in the back) and both get 'struck' each summer. Anyone else see similarly? Any remedy?

  • 11 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    I posted a similar quandry last year and was influenced to try a brilliant red chokeberry. My "strip" is dry shade, so I only planted one specimen to see how it did, before investing large sums of money. I enjoyed the fall foliage and berries, then dainty flowers in the spring. It has seemed to tolerate the less than ideal conditions, so I plan to add several more to the border. I had transplanted a pjm rhododendrum nearby, but it didn't like the dryness.