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Best perennials for shade and full sun

Australian tree fern next to yellow rudbeckia flowers

Perennial plants last for many years and offer a cost-effective way to fill a garden. Some are evergreen, while others die back in the winter before bursting into life again in spring. The trick to success is getting the right plant in the right place. 

Whether you need perennial plants for shade or have a south-facing border to fill with sun-loving varieties, horticultural expert Sophie Essex shares her favourite suggestions to help you choose. For even more inspiration, browse our full range of perennial plants.

Best perennials for deep shade

Purple geranium phaeum flowers
Geranium phaeum ‘Joseph Green’ provides a welcome spark of colour in deep shade
Image: Geranium phaeum ‘Joseph Green’ from Suttons (©Branded Garden Products Ltd)

Deep shade describes parts of the garden that get less than 2 hours of sunlight a day. This type of shade is commonly found under evergreen hedging and mature trees, and in heavily built-up areas. There are, however, a number of plants that positively thrive in such conditions. Here are some of my favourite perennials for deep shade:

  • Brunnera ‘Jack Of Diamonds’: This is the perfect shade-loving foliage plant. Its huge, silvery, heart-shaped leaves reach 24cm across and feature beautiful green veins. Sprays of bright blue flowers appear in spring.
  • Hosta ‘Blue Angel’: Particularly good for damp shade, it produces large blue-tinted foliage with pretty, bell-shaped white blooms in June. Reaching 90cm high and 120cm wide, this is a great specimen plant for a gloomy corner.
  • Dryopteris Affinis: A hero in tricky dry shade, the pale green fronds of this structural fern unfurl with a golden hue and mature to a dark, rich green. 
  • Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’: This evergreen ornamental grass features icy-blue spear-like foliage that’s just the thing to illuminate deep shade. A hard-working plant with a compact height of 30cm.
  • Alchemilla Mollis: This is a superb shade plant that performs reliably. Very popular with designers, it has lime green flowers throughout summer and frothy, scalloped foliage. Reaches a height of 60cm. 
  • Astrantia ‘Florence’: Boasting lavender-pink blooms reminiscent of pin cushions, these shade-tolerant plants attract pollinators from June onwards. Spiky, airy foliage adds to the appeal while the seed heads are especially striking in winter. 

Best perennials for dappled shade

Pink speckled hellebore flowers
Hellebore ‘Hello Amber’ loves dappled shade and flowers in early spring
Image: Hellebore ‘Hello Amber’ from Suttons (©Hoogeveen / Visions BV, Netherlands)

Dappled shade is commonly found in woodland gardens, describing the way that sunlight hits the ground in a ‘dappled’ pattern after filtering through the trees. Because any sun that reaches the plants underneath is filtered, it’s far more gentle than direct light. A layer of bark chip mulch is a good way to keep the soil moist and cool for these lovely plants. Here are my favourite perennials for dappled shade:

  • Australian tree fern: Holding an RHS ‘Award of Garden Merit’, this tree fern is highly structural with delicate fronds that unfurl daintily in a fresh, light green. Hardy to -5℃, it reaches a height of 4m.
  • Geranium himalayense: Fantastic for herbaceous ground cover, this cranesbill features purple-blue flowers that pollinators love. Flowering starts in June and ends with the first frosts.
  • Dryopteris affinis ‘Cristata: This elegant fern with intricately branched fronds holds an RHS ‘Award of Garden Merit’. Reaching 1.2m tall, it’s perfect for the middle of a border.
  • Lamium maculatum ‘Beacon Silver’: With shimmering silver foliage supporting delicate mauve flower spikes, this tough little plant flowers from mid-April to mid-summer. Excellent ground cover. 
  • Heucherella ‘Pink Revolution’: A cross between heuchera and tiarella, this variety has the best of both with eye-catching pink flowers and attractive foliage.
  • Sarcococca confusa: A perennial shrub that reaches 2m at maturity, this evergreen variety has lots to offer. Strong scented flowers are followed by shiny black berries, and it makes an excellent low-growing hedge or container feature. 

Best perennials for full sun

Field of purple lavender flowers
Lavender has delightful silvery, scented leaves topped with mauve flower spikes
Image: Lavandula × intermedia ‘Phenomenal’ from Suttons

Full sun typically means a spot that receives over 6 hours of full sunlight every day during the summer. Usually prone to dry soil, it’s best suited to drought-tolerant plants that originate from warm climes like the Mediterranean. Many sun-tolerant plants have scented, silvery leaves that help them deal with direct heat. Did you know that certain vegetables are perennial too? These ornamental edibles provide crops for years, some with striking flowers and foliage. Here are my favourite perennials to grow in full sun:

  • Stachys byzantina ‘Big Ears’: Furry silver leaves lend this evergreen perennial the nickname ‘lambs ears’ and provide all year round interest. In summer, pink whorled flowers appear on 60cm tall stems. 
  • Euphorbia x martini: This hardy, evergreen plant has striking acid green flowers with red centres in spring. Suitable for coastal gardens.
  • Eryngium Planum: A fantastic way to add texture, this eye-catching perennial features electric blue stems and silvery, spiky blue flowers at the end of summer. 
  • Stipa tenuissima: This evergreen ornamental grass provides mid-height softness. It’s a popular choice with garden designers who typically pair this with the swaying purple heads of verbena bonariensis.
  • Aeonium arboreum ‘Tip Top’: An intriguing take on aeonium, this tender evergreen variety matures at 30cm tall so is perfect for growing in a patio pot. It has vibrant purple leaf spears and yellow blooms in spring but needs to be moved indoors over winter to a spot over 5℃. 
  • Jerusalem artichoke ‘Papas’: These superb yellow sunflower-like blooms rise on tall stems that easily reach 3 metres tall! Plant in poor soil where the vigorous plants can block prevailing wind. Harvest the roots and roast to enjoy their rich, nutty flavour. 

Sun-loving herbaceous perennials benefit from a prune in early summer called the ‘Chelsea Chop’. By removing a third of growth in May, you can enjoy later flowering, bushier plants and stronger stems. Read our guide to the Chelsea chop for more advice.

Best perennials for part-sun

Potted yellow clematis
Compact yellow clematis ‘Little Lemons’ is perfect for a pot in part-sun
Image: Clematis ‘Little Lemons’ from Suttons (©Plantipp / Visions BV, Netherlands)

Part-sun typically means between 3 and 6 hours of direct sunlight in the summer. This type of exposure is common next to a house or garden wall. East-facing borders receive the gentle morning light while west-facing borders receive the hotter afternoon sun. Provide a good layer of mulch around these plants to keep their roots moist and cool. My favourite perennials for part-sun include:

  • Carex oshimensis ‘Everest’: This ornamental grass has striking variegated strap-like leaves in white and acid green. Feathery blooms pop up in summer. 
  • Anemone x hybrida ‘September Charm’: From mid to late-summer, this plant produces tall, open, pink blooms on stems that reach 90cm. A very free-flowering anemone, it holds an RHS ‘Award of Garden Merit’ so reliable performance is guaranteed. 
  • Dicentra spectabilis: The low-growing foliage of this attractive plant spreads year after year, but at a slow and steady rate. In spring, pink and white dangling heart shaped blooms appear. It’s perfect for east-facing cottage garden borders, provided you can keep the soil moist. 
  • Pulmonaria ‘Raspberry Splash’: This low-growing hardy perennial has beautiful silver-spotted foliage along with raspberry tri-coloured blooms. Spring is the main season of interest but the attractive foliage can be semi-evergreen in milder areas.
  • Coreopsis ‘Sunkiss’: This is a must in any border. Large, bi-coloured yellow and chocolate flowers bloom throughout the summer months. These herbaceous perennials die back in winter. 
  • Rudbeckia fulgida var sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’: Bright yellow petals surround the black conical centre of these show-stopping blooms. Multi-headed stems rise from the base on this bushy, popular herbaceous perennial making it a firm favourite in our top 5 perennial plants.
  • Rhubarb ‘Fulton’s Strawberry Surprise’: If you have a cottage garden or like to throw in a few edibles, the bright red stems of this vigorous plant brighten up the front of a mixed border that receives part-sun. They taste fantastic too! 

If you have a patio or balcony that receives part-sun, you might be interested in our top 3 perennials for pots. These stunning flowers are all carefully chosen for container-growing, providing colour, hardiness, and a long flowering season. 

We hope you’ve found some fabulous options for all parts of your garden. When you’ve made your choice, read our article on getting the best from your perennial plants to really help them thrive. Perennials are a cost-effective choice as they return year after year, but if you’re looking for more help to create a border on a budget, we’ve got you covered. 

Lead image: Australian Tree Fern from Suttons (©Branded Garden Products)

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About Sophie Essex

Sophie Essex is a freelance garden writer with a passion for horticulture and environmental conservation. With a BSc in Botany/Plant Biology from the University of Plymouth, she further honed her expertise through a Masters of Science in Biodiversity and Taxonomy of Plants from The University of Edinburgh. Sophie has also worked as a professional gardener and landscaper, showcasing her practical skills by transforming outdoor spaces. Her commitment to fieldwork is further evident in her acquisition of a Certificate in Field Botany from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and over the years, she has interned at the Eden Project, Cornwall, the National Trust for Scotland and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Find more information about Sophie over at LinkedIn.

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