North-Facing Garden

Master gardener Paul James dresses up his mother's north-facing garden beds with hydrangeas, heucheras, ferns and other shade tolerant plants.


The daffodils were planted in clumps of 12 across the front of the garden.

The daffodils were planted in clumps of 12 across the front of the garden.

Related To:

Master gardener Paul James decides to spruce up one of his mother's planting beds for her upcoming birthday. He selects a narrow bed along a sidewalk that leads to a patio where his parents spend their time outdoors. Located on the north side of the house, it lies in heavy shade most of the day with filtered light peeking through during the afternoon.

Preparing the planting bed

James first removes the existing plants. He saves those that fit into the new planting scheme and finds new homes for the other plants elsewhere in the landscape.

The next step is to amend the soil. James adds several bags of composted potting mix loaded with organic matter. This particular mix is made specifically for azaleas and contains a good amount of peat moss. Peat moss is acidic, but by blending the potting mix with the existing soil, the resulting pH will be only slightly acidic, which is ideal for the plants he plans to use. Using a shovel, he turns it into the top few inches of soil until it has been worked in.

The addition of the potting mix will also raise the level of the bed to promote good drainage. By making the bed higher in the rear, water will move toward the front of the bed onto the sidewalk, allowing it to drain away from the plants. With the soil ready, it's time to plant.



Shade-loving plants, including hydrangea, heuchera, autumn fern, golden Japanese sweet flag and ivy, are selected for the new bed. James also uses pansies and daffodil bulbs for seasonal color. The three hydrangeas chosen are a relatively new introduction called 'Endless Summer'. Hardy to USDA Zone 5, they grow to about five feet tall and in time will help to soften the nearby brick wall. 'Endless Summer' blooms nonstop throughout the summer, which is unusual for hydrangeas. The blooms are blue in acidic soil and pink in alkaline soil.

The hydrangeas also serve as solid anchors in the bed, especially because each plant will be equally spaced between the plants. "Ordinarily, I shun this kind of symmetry, but given the linear look of the bed and the sidewalk, I decided to go with it rather than fight it," says James.

To further soften the brick wall, Boston ivy is planted along the back of the bed. The vine will eventually cling to the brick, adding a green background.


Next he plants autumn ferns (Dryopteris erythrosora) which are hardy to USDA Zone 3 and evergreen to Zone 6. They ultimately grow to about two feet tall and don't require a lot of maintenance.


To complement the green foliage of the ferns, Heuchera 'Palace Purple' is planted for its contrasting purple leaves. This classic variety of heuchera is the 1991 Perennial Plant of the Year.


Although grass-like plants aren't often thought to be placed in a shade garden, there are some that do quite well. One example is Japanese sweet flag (Acorus gramineus). It grows well in moist and wet soils but also does well with regular watering in a drier soil. Another perk of this plant is that it's easily propagated by division. After removing the plant from its container, you can simply take a clean, sharp knife and cut right through the middle of the clump, creating two separate plants.


A single evergreen specimen, Hinoki cypress, is added to the west end of the main bed. This plant has a twisted form and reaches eight feet tall and three feet wide. It's a quick grower, growing up to two feet a year.

Adding seasonal color


Once the garden's framework is established, James adds seasonal fall color like daffodils and pansies to the bed. Planting them in groups of 12 in the front of the bed, he uses a daffodil cultivar named 'Tete-a-Tete' for its bright yellow blooms that grow to about eight inches tall. On top of the bulbs, James adds several bicolor pansies named 'Ultima Morpho'.

Once everything is planted, he waters all the plants well, making sure to deep soak them so the moisture reaches the root zones. Finally, a three-inch layer of aromatic cedar bark mulch is added as the perfect finishing touch to this garden bed.

Next Up

The Reluctant Botanist

Learn about a wildflower that is a favorite for shade gardens and was also an ancient disease remedy.

How to Grow Pachysandra

Meet one of the best groundcovers for shade that delivers evergreen color year round.

How to Grow Lily of the Valley

Dress up your yard’s shady spots with the fragrant blooms of lily of the valley flowers — an old-fashioned favorite.

Growing and Caring for Impatiens

Brighten shady — and sunny — nooks with one of the most goof-proof annuals: impatiens.

Cast Iron Plant: How to Grow and Use This Houseplant and Garden Evergreen

Cast iron plants are easy to grow even if you have a brown thumb.

Squash Bugs and Squash Vine Borers in the Garden

Having problems with your squash plants? It might be squash bugs or squash vine borers. Both can cause significant damage to squash, gourds, pumpkins and zucchini plants. Learn how to detect these pests and preserve your crops.

10 Garden Starter Kits Perfect for Beginners

Get your grow on with these easy-to-follow gardening kits for beginners.

How Often Do You Water New Sod?

Thorough watering is crucial to your new lawn’s ability to develop strong roots. We’ll help you develop a system to stay on top of the most important part of lawn care.

How to Water Your Lawn the Right Way

Learn the ins and outs of lawn irrigation, including expert tips on how long to run the sprinkler.

4 Ways to Convert Lawn to a Flower Bed

There are multiple methods for removing grass to create garden beds. Some are labor intensive while others just take time and patience. Here are four chemical-free ways to turn your lawn into your garden.

Go Shopping

Get product recommendations from HGTV editors, plus can’t-miss sales and deals.


Follow Us Everywhere

Join the party! Don't miss HGTV in your favorite social media feeds.