What Are the Best Plants for a Shady Courtyard Garden in a UK City?

A shady courtyard might seem like a challenging space to fill with life and colour, but with the right choice of plants, it can transform into a lush, green oasis. In this article, we’ll guide you through some of the best plants that thrive in the shade, suitable for a courtyard garden in a UK city. We’ll discuss their features, flowering periods, and general care tips to help you create a stunning garden even in those tricky shady areas.

Understanding the Shades in Your Garden

Before diving into the pool of suitable plants, it’s crucial to understand the different types of shade that might exist in your garden. This will help you choose the right plants that can adapt and flourish in particular shaded conditions.

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Three major kinds of shade prevail in gardens: light, partial, and full. Light shade refers to areas where sunlight filters through an open canopy for a part of the day. Partial shade means the space gets direct sun for only a few hours, usually in the early morning or late afternoon. Full shade is where areas get no direct sunlight at all.

Knowing the difference between these shades is crucial because some plants require a small amount of direct or indirect light to grow, while others thrive in full shade.

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Evergreen Plants for Year-Round Colour

Evergreen plants are a gardener’s best friend. They keep their leaves all year round, providing constant color and structure to your shady courtyard garden.

One variety of evergreen plants that do well in the shade is the Holly. This plant, bearing glossy, dark green leaves and bright red berries in the winter, can add a festive touch to your courtyard garden. Another suitable evergreen for shady areas is Boxwood, often used for hedges or topiary designs. Its small, dense green leaves can give your garden an elegant, formal look.

Flowering Plants for a Colourful Spring and Summer

Flowering plants can bring a splash of color to your shady courtyard garden, especially during the vibrant spring and summer seasons.

Astilbe is a beautiful choice, with its feathery, fern-like leaves and a profusion of flowers in hues of pink, red, white, and purple. They are low maintenance and thrive in partial to full shade. Bleeding Heart is also a gorgeous spring flower that enjoys the shade. Its white or pink heart-shaped flowers with dangling tips create a dramatic, romantic image in the garden.

Low-Light Loving Ferns

Ferns are an excellent addition to any shady courtyard garden due to their adaptability and the unique texture they bring. These plants are known for their feathery, finely-divided leaves which come in a variety of green shades, from light chartreuse to a dark, almost blue-green.

The Japanese Painted Fern stands out with its silver and burgundy leaves. Meanwhile, the Maidenhair Fern offers a delicate appearance with its small, light green leaves on dark, wiry stems. These plants enjoy damp, shady conditions and will bring a sense of tranquillity to your garden.

Shade-Loving Trees for Structure and Privacy

In your courtyard garden, trees can be used to provide structure, privacy, and a much-needed refuge for city-dwelling wildlife.

The Serviceberry tree is a good option. It’s a small tree that can tolerate shade and produces white flowers in spring followed by edible berries. The leaves turn a fiery red in autumn, providing year-round interest. Another shade-loving tree is the Yew. It’s an evergreen tree that can tolerate heavy shade and can be pruned into various shapes.

Incorporating White Blooms for a Moonlit Effect

To brighten up your shady courtyard garden, consider incorporating plants with white flowers or silvery foliage. These plants can reflect any available light and create a magical, moonlit effect in the garden.

Snowdrops are one of the first flowers to bloom in spring and can even push through snow if necessary. They can create a beautiful carpet of white in the undergrowth. Meanwhile, Lamium maculatum White Nancy is a great ground cover plant which has silver foliage and white flowers, making it shine in the shade.

As you design your shady courtyard garden, remember that the key to a successful shade garden is layering. Mix different types of plants – evergreens, flowering plants, ferns, and trees – to create depth and interest. Most importantly, ensure each plant has the space it needs to grow and flourish. Happy gardening!

Hardy Shrubs for a Stunning North Facing Garden

Properly chosen, hardy shrubs can offer a variety of attractive textures and colours throughout the year, and many thrive in partial shade or full sun. These resilient species can truly transform a north facing garden into a delightful green retreat in the heart of the city.

An essential addition to any shady courtyard garden is the Helleborus, commonly known as the Christmas Rose. This robust plant manifests particularly dark green leaves that stay lush even in the coldest months. Moreover, the creamy white or pink flowers it produces in late winter and early spring can add a pop of colour when most other plants are still dormant.

Mahonia is another shrub that thrives in dry shade, boasting glossy, dark green, holly-like leaves. In autumn, sprays of fragrant, sunny yellow flowers adorn this shrub, followed by clusters of blue-black berries which can attract wildlife.

Additionally, Rhododendrons can create a stunning backdrop in your shaded courtyard. They are well-loved for their large, evergreen leaves and spectacular clusters of blooms in late spring, ranging from white and pastel pinks to vibrant purples and reds. These shrubs are not only a feast for the eyes; they also provide a vital source of nectar for bees early in the year.

When planting these shrubs, remember to provide ample space between them to prevent overcrowding. This helps each plant receive adequate light and air circulation, promoting overall plant health.

Fruit Trees to Enhance Your Courtyard Garden

Despite common belief, some fruit trees can actually thrive in partial shade. These can add an extra element of interest to your courtyard garden and, of course, a supply of fresh fruits!

One compact tree perfect for smaller, shaded spaces is the Morello Cherry. This self-fertile tree produces a generous yield of tart cherries, perfect for making preserves or baking.

The Fig is another fruit tree that can tolerate shady conditions. It can be grown in a large container to restrict root growth, encouraging a better fruit yield. Just imagine picking fresh figs from your own garden in the heart of the city!

Finally, Apple trees can be a great addition to your courtyard garden too. There are numerous cultivars to choose from, many of which can cope with limited sunlight. Consider espalier or fan-trained varieties for a decorative and space-saving solution.

Remember, the right placement of trees can also help in creating depth in your garden design. Position larger trees towards the back and smaller ones towards the front to create a sense of perspective.


Designing a shady courtyard garden can indeed be challenging, but with the right knowledge and plant selection, you can transform your north facing garden into a tranquil, verdant haven. From evergreens to flowering plants, ferns to shade-loving trees, and even hardy shrubs and fruit trees, there’s a wide array of suitable plants that can thrive in varying degrees of shade.

Remember, layering is key to creating depth, interest, and year-round colour. And don’t forget to incorporate plants with white flowers or silvery foliage to capture any available light and add a touch of magic to your garden.

Even in the heart of a city, surrounded by concrete and skyscrapers, your courtyard garden can become an oasis of calm and beauty. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned gardener, we hope these garden ideas inspire you to create your own unique, shaded retreat.

Image credit: Thompson & Morgan, for providing inspiring garden design ideas and valuable plant information.

Happy gardening, and may your courtyard garden bring you joy year round!