Shady business: a container garden for a dark corner

by Drucilla James

Town gardens can often be rather gloomy, overshadowed as they are by neighbouring houses, trees and boundary screens. And they’re positively dazzling compared to the dim and dingy corners such as light wells, passageways and basements that could often become verdant hideaways with the addition of just a few plants. So brighten up your dark corners with sparkling container gardens filled with shade-loving plants.

Things you’ll need

  • A collection of containers
  • Plants appropriate for shade
  • Trowel
  • Potting compost
  • Water-absorbing granules
  • Mulch

Step by step

side views

Designing with containers

  • Pick your spot and measure up the space that is available. Think about what you will you use as the backdrop – for example would a wall or fence look better painted?  Can you include a surprise element – discovering the container collection as you round a corner for example? Check how much sun that part of the garden gets each day.
  • If you wish, draw the space to scale on a piece of graph paper putting in windows, walls etc


  • Draw up your planting plan, ensuring all the pots will be easily reachable so that you can water them, weed them and carry out general care and maintenance. Check growing plants will not obstruct the light from any windows.
  •  Include plants of different height to add interest.
  • Plan a colour scheme – this could be green!  Stick to 2 or 3 main colours and plan how colour echoes will carry the eye back and forth through the planting. Use plants which make a good foil for each other.
Plants 3

Stipa tenuifolia, Salvia,Polystichum and Erodium, Aubretia and Houstonia

  • Put in a variety of forms and shapes to create architectural interest – sometimes known as mound, spikey, frilly, thriller, spiller and filler plants. Plan for plants potted as singles and grouped in mixed clusters.
  • Succession planting: Think about how to sustain interest through the seasons. The choices include all-year evergreens and ornamental grasses, spring bulbs,  herbaceous perennials which die back in winter but provide a main framework of colour for spring, summer and autumn, summer bedding and shrubs or small trees particularly ones with outstanding autumn colour.
plants 1

Astilbe, Dicentra and Scabious, Polemonium,Tiarella and Veronica

Choose the Plants

Plants we used

Plant Height Spread Flowering/ Foliage Period Shape, colour, texture
Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’ 4m 4m Spring to Early Winter Tall, bright green
Hebe ‘Pink Elephant’ 60 cm 80 cm Evergreen Round bushy / thriller
Astilbe ‘Younique’ 50 cm 50 cm Spring to Autumn Tall spikes, deep pink
Polemonium ‘Stairway to Heaven’ 40 cm 40 Cm Summer Variegated, frilly, pale blue
Verbena Lanai ‘Sweet Stripe’ 40 cm 40 cm Spring & Summer Round flower, bright pink
Hosta ‘June’ 38 cm 70 cm Spring to Autumn Acid green
Scabious ‘Pink Mist’ 45 cm 50 cm Spring & Summer Round flowers, rose pink
Salvia nem ‘Sensation Deep Rose’ 40 cm 30 cm Spring to Autumn Spikes, deep pink
Veronica ‘Tissington White’ 50 cm 50 cm Spring & Summer Spikes white/blue
Stipa tenuifolia ‘Pony Tails’ 60 cm 30 cm Evergreen Spiller/filler
Dicentra ‘Gold Heart’ 80 cm 50 cm Spring to Autumn Yellow/green foliage, pink, frilly
Polystichum braunii 60cm 60cm Evergreen Frilly
Brachyscome ‘Strawberry Pink’ 40 cm 35 cm Spring to Autumn  Round, pink
Tiarella ‘Spring Symphony’ 40 cm 40 cm Spring & Early Summer Spikes white/pink
Heucherella ‘Sweet Tea’ 20 cm 40 cm Spring to Autumn Thriller, pink/bronze
Impatiens ‘Violet’ 25 cm 20 cm Spring to Autumn Low deep purple rounds
Aubretia Dr Mules Variegata 5 cm 40 cm Spring and Early  Summer Frilly, violet, variegated
Houstonia Millards variety 10 cm 20 cm Spring & Summer  Blue, frilly,spiller
Erodium Bishops Form 5 cm 15 cm Spring & Summer Pink rounds, grey foliage
Mazus reptans ‘Purple’ 5 cm 30 cm Spring & Summer  Frilly, purple,spiller
plants 2

Hebe, Heucherella and Impatiens,Brachyscome,Verbena and Mazus

Choose the containers

Choose pots of various shapes and sizes to create visual interest but stick to one or two materials.  Containers also need  to be in proportion to their plants- trees or shrubs need wide-brimmed pots for example. Steps using bricks or upturned pots can be used to create different heights.

We chose a collection of terra cotta pots.

‘Plant’ your garden

  1. Plant up your chosen containers with the selected plants. Put in drainage material, fill with compost, tease out bare roots before planting, mulch and water each pot. See for guidance on re-potting from nursery containers.
  2. Gradually place the containers according to your plan, checking the spacing as you add each pot. Build from the tallest specimens at the back to the lowest planting at the front. After establishing the highest points, place plants which will define the width of the design.
  3. As plants grow you can move your containers further apart.You can also add plants and take some away to keep the look fresh and you can build gradually if you don’t want to put the plan in place all at once – that is the beauty of container gardening.

Shady business

shady business 2

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