How to Plant a Fragrant Shade Garden

My Garden Life
March 25, 2020
Table of Contents
Too often, gardeners give up on the shady spaces in their landscapes–the dark corner of a deck, the area under a stand of trees, or a border garden against the house. So many of the most popular colorful plants and flowers seem to need full sun that it’s tempting to throw a few impatience in the shady bed and call it a day. Don’t do it!
With little effort, you can plant your own shade garden that’s full of color and–an added bonus–sweet fragrance. Here’s how:

First you’ll need to select a combination of some, or all, of the following shade-loving, fragrant perennials:

Reeves Skimmia

Skimmia japonica subsp. reevesiana
Skimmia japonica subsp reevesiana, Reeves Skimmia

An evergreen shrub growing 18-36″ (46-91 cm), reeves skimmia sports white flowers in spring, red fruits through summer and fall, and glossy green leaves all year round.

Sweet Woodruff

Galium odoratum
Galium odoratum, Sweet Woodruff plant

Easy-care sweet woodruff, which grows to between 12″ and 18″ (30-46 cm), has fragrant leaves as well as fragrant white flowers, which bloom from late spring to summer.

Hardy Geranium

Geranium cantabrigiense
Geranium x cantabrigiense, Hardy geranium

The drought-tolerant hardy geranium’s masses of pink or white blooms on 9-12″ (23-30 cm) plants make this sweet-smelling stunner perfect for groundcover in shady spots.

Fragrant Hosta

Hosta plantaginea

Along with the attractive, large oval leaves you’d expect in a hosta, the fragrant hosta, which can grow up to 24″ tall (60 cm), throws up trumpet-shaped white blossoms on 30″ (75 cm) scapes in late summer and early fall.

Lily-of-the-Valley

Convallaria majalis
Convallaria majalis, Lily of the Valley plant

Fast growing and hardy, the 6-9″ (15-23 cm) lily-of-the-valley’s bell-shaped and perfumed flowers are one of the most welcome signs of spring.

English Bluebells

Hyacinthoides non-scripta

The 8-16″ (20-40 cm) English bluebells thrives under trees and in woods, where just a few bulbs will transform into a landscape of abundant blue flowers.

Directions:

For a basic 4′ x 10′ (1.2 x 3 m) border garden with one side against a fence or structure:

1. Evaluate Your Shady Space

Make sure your border or bed has decent soil enriched with a high-quality compost (read more here on how to test your soil). And though you don’t have to worry about sunlight, do place your shade garden near a source of water if possible so you can keep it well hydrated.

2. Make a Shopping List

How many of each plant you’ll want to buy will depend on how much space you have. Sketch your bed and note the dimensions.

3. Arranging the Plants for a 4′ x 10′ Bed

  • 2 Reeves skimmia: back row, centered with 36” (91 cm) between the two bushes.
  • 6-8 Fragrant hosta: left and right ends, staggered.
  • 6-8 Hardy geranium: staggered in the center of the bed, 15″ (38 cm) between the plants.
  • 8 Lily-of-the-valley: In front of hardy geranium, 12″ (30 cm) between the plants.
  • Alternate masses of sweet woodruff and English bluebells on the left and right interior, between the fragrant hosta and the hardy geranium.

Variation: Container Shade Garden

Any of these plants can thrive in containers. Arrange them in that shady corner of your deck, using different sized pots and stands to achieve a pleasing mix of heights and textures. Check out Fragrant Plants for Containers for some ideas for other plants that might enhance your display. Or put the containers directly in your shade garden beds, which allows you to prop up some of the shorter plants. And finally, place containers of blooming annuals in your perennial bed to add additional color through the summer.
Pro Tip: Lilies-of-the-valley and English bluebells may spread beyond where you would like them in your garden and placing them in containers helps keep them in their place.

Variation: Planting Under Tree

A classic woodland look is a carpet of lilies-of-the-valley and English bluebells spreading out from under your favorite shade tree. For a more formal design, build a raised bed around the tree and plant up to all six of the featured shade plants above. If roots of the tree keep you from digging the soil around it, then arrange your fragrant shade-lovers in containers.
Don’t let a shady spot keep you from planting a garden that smells as good as it looks. Mix and match these fragrant shade-loving perennials for an easy-to-make, easy-to-maintain garden feature.
Get more ideas on shade gardening in our article, How to Create a Shady Retreat Garden.

6 Comments

  1. Suman

    Very helpful and informative 😊
    Thank you.

    Reply
    • My Garden Life

      Thank you Suman. We’re glad you found the information useful!

      Reply
  2. Diane Hitt

    How fast can sweet pea vine cover a 4’X6’ lattice fence. I live in Texas, DFW area. Or is there something better with a sweet smell for fast climbing. Also how many plants would you suggest?

    Reply
    • My Garden Life

      Hi Diane,
      We recommend spacing sweet pea plants 12-15” apart. The rate of growth is going to vary depending on growing conditions. For the maximum growth rate you’ll want to be sure that your plants are well-nourished and consistently watered. You can enrich the soil with organic matter before planting or apply fertilizer through the growing season. You can choose a slow-release, granular fertilizer or for more rapid uptake of nutrients use a liquid fertilizer. When choosing sweet peas, try to find the perennial everlasting sweet pea. There are hybrid sweet peas that come in a larger range of colors but may not be as fragrant, or grow as tall as you’d like. Hybrid sweet peas are often annual as well. If you’re seeking a permanent solution, you’ll want a perennial vine. We found an interesting article on the Top 7 Native Texas Vines that you should have a look at before you make your final decision. Native vines help restore habitats that your local native wildlife depend on.

      Reply
  3. Bill Murphy

    Love your plan for the fragrant shade garden.
    I want to make one but I live in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand.
    Can you suggest the plants I should use to achieve the fragrant shade garden.

    Reply
    • My Garden Life

      Hi Bill,
      You should check with a local grower or botanical garden for more ideas on fragrant plants specific to the Chiang Mai region, but a few that would probably do well for you are: Plumeria, Chinese Jasmine, magnolia species suited to your region, and ginger lilies. (Click on each plant listed here for links to additional information.)

      Reply

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