A shady garden doesn’t mean you can’t plant for pollinators. Sure, it’s easy to lure them into a sunny garden filled with loads of colorful blooms; after all bees, butterflies and hummingbirds are solar-powered creatures themselves. Yet there are plenty of options for shade, and, in my opinion, it shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying and supporting pollinators. Besides, I love a challenge.
While volunteering at “Ask a Master Gardener” tents at various local farmers markets, I get the shade/pollinator question quite often. I always give a few solid plant suggestions each time, but I felt there had to be more and was inspired to dive deeper.
To begin with, a little background: bees, butterflies and hummingbirds prefer the sun so they don’t have to expend precious energy maintaining their body temperatures. In sunny gardens where you see lots of bees in large numbers, look closer and you’ll notice lots of honeybees. They’re out and about throughout the growing season. Honeybees tend to be fair-weather foragers, needing warm temps and dry weather to gather nectar and pollen for their hives. Bumblebees are tougher and can soldier on through cooler, rainier and windier weather. Bumblebees emerge earlier in spring looking for food and will venture into shadier gardens throughout the season.
There are a host of other pollinators that may go unnoticed if you aren’t looking for them. Lots of native bees, or as they are also known, solitary bees, are out there, too. Different species emerge at various times throughout the summer. Many are much smaller than expected or don’t have typical bee coloring and markings. Even with my best bee-senses, I still have to focus tighter to see some of the tiny sweat bees or drab mining bees buzzing about my garden, many times in the shadier areas, depending upon what’s blooming. A hint: Native bees are looking for native plants.
Butterflies need warm weather to fly, so they flock to sunny flower beds, but you’ll see them patrolling lightly shaded areas, too, stopping briefly to feed on various blooms, before recharging in sunnier areas.
Hummingbirds seeking spiders and other insects (surprisingly, their main diet) will stop and sip shade-loving flowers while they’re at it. Hummingbirds like good old hosta flowers, too.
While you won’t experience the same level of pollinator activity in a shadier garden, plant wisely and look closer, and you will be rewarded for your efforts.
To choose plants for shade, you should know that lots of plants will survive in shade. But to be of use to pollinators, you want healthy plants that thrive, not just survive. Be sure to check out the labels for sun-exposure requirements. Ask questions about soil preferences, too.
What kind of shade?
First things first: It helps to know exactly what kind of shade you’re dealing with in your particular garden. You’ll see the terms partial sun and partial shade used interchangeably, but they mean different things. Partial sun means plants that require at least four to six hours of sun, while partial shade means they can probably tolerate four to six hours of sun. Plants listed for partial shade usually need protection from harsh afternoon sun.
Then there’s always that poetic term “dappled shade,” which refers to the changeable light filtered through a tree canopy. Dappled shade is closer to partial shade than partial sun.
But wait, there’s more to it; soil moisture is important, too. Some shady yards have either wet or dry conditions that add to the confusion on what to plant. Dry shade is difficult because many of the woodland-type plants we associate with shade gardens need moist soil. However, large trees, thirsty tree roots and building overhangs often create dry shade conditions in home landscapes. Other times shady areas in backyards seem to be perpetually wet, with clay soil sometimes contributing to the problem.
Every yard is unique, and you may have to experiment with some plants until you find the right fit. The following list highlights pollinator-attractive plants that generally do well in partial shade and regular conditions, but also notes which ones can tolerate dry or wet soil, as well.
Aster (New England, Sky Blue, large-leaved, Short’s, Calico)
Pagoda dogwood (tree)
Partial shade/tolerates dry soil
New Jersey tea (shrub)
Partial shade/tolerates wet soil
Red twig dogwood (shrub)
Wild Golden Glow
Master Gardener Rhonda Fleming Hayes is a Minneapolis-based writer who blogs at thegardenbuzz.com. She is the author of “Pollinator-Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and Other Pollinators,” available at Amazon.com.