Conifers Made for the Shade


Yew hedges (Taxus x cuspidata ‘Hicksii’) create an intimate corner in this semi-shady garden. Source:

Gardeners often wrongly believe that conifers are for sunny spots only and won’t grow in the shade, but in fact there are some species that are perfectly at ease in part to even full shade. Here are some examples:

20181019B T. cus. Emerald Spreader

Taxus cuspidata ‘Emerald Spreader’. Source:

Yews (Taxus spp.) are probably the conifers best suited to shade. There is a wide range of cultivars, large or small, with upright, spreading or creeping habits. Some are even variegated! Also, yews are one of the rare conifers that can be pruned harshly, yet regenerate completely, making them invaluable for hedging.

However, winter hardiness of many yews makes them a marginal choice in very cold regions. Cold climate gardeners could try the Canada yew (Taxus canadensis, zone 2), a creeping variety, or the Japanese yew (T. cuspidata, zone 4), which comes in all shapes and sizes. The anglojap yew (Taxus x media), which also comes in a wide range of forms, is almost as hardy: zone 5. In cold climates, plant even hardy yews in a spot protected from the wind.

Yews are slow-growing in any climate: you may want to buy a larger plant for faster results.

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Cephalotaxus harringtonia. Source: Fernando Lopez Anido, Wikipedia Commons

In more temperate regions (zones 7 to 9), plum yews (Cephalotaxus spp.) can replace yews. They look much like yews, but are faster growing.

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Tsuga canadensis ‘Bennett’, a popular dwarf variety of eastern hemlock. Source:

Hemlocks (Tsuga spp.) grow naturally in deep forests and tolerate partial shade and shade particularly well. The species most commonly offered is the eastern hemlock (T. canadensis, zone 4). It comes in a wide range of forms (upright, creeping, weeping, etc.) and sizes (from miniature to tree-size) and some varieties are variegated (green with white stem tips). Like yews, though, hemlocks like protection from drying winter winds, so place them with care.

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Microbiota decussata makes a great groundcover. Source:

The Russian Cypress (Microbiota decussata, zone 3), with its distinctly creeping habit, looks a lot like the popular but sun-loving creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis and its cultivars) and can easily replace it in shade to partial shade.

In Partial Shade

Your choice of conifers improves significantly in partial shade and you can dare to try spruces (Picea spp.), false cypresses (Chamaecyparis spp.), arborvitaes (Thuja spp.) and firs (Abies spp.), among others. Be forewarned, though, their growth in partial shade is often less dense than it would have been in full sun.


The winter effect of conifers is magical. Source:

Use these conifers in shady spots where you want greenery 12 months a year, as the great advantage of conifers is, of course, that they look beautiful in all seasons.


Sun, Partial Shade or Shade?


20171013A .jpgMost horticultural experts try to explain the degree of sun or shade of a garden location by the number of hours of direct sunlight it receives.

That sounds great, but have you ever heard any one of these experts explain how to actually determine that magic number? Do you really need to sit in the spot with a stopwatch and count the minutes the sun shines, making a total at the end of the day? Because my experience is that most spots slide back and forth from full sun to sun filtered through overhanging branches (and how do you measure that?) to no sun at all several times a day.

And if you’re expected to measure the number of hours of sunlight spot by spot throughout your garden (which is apparently what you’d have to do, since sunshine varies enormously from one location to another), during which month of the year are you supposed to take the measurement? Because clearly day length (and thus the number of hours of sunlight) is going be vary vastly from December to June, even more strikingly so in northern latitudes.


You essentially can’t count the number of hours of sunlight for each spot in your garden. Illus.:

I have never seen an answer to these questions. So, garden experts have been sending you on an impossible mission all these years. In actual fact, the number of hours of sun per day a spot in your garden receives is essentially impossible to determine!

I think the proof that these same experts don’t know what they are talking about is that they can’t even agree among themselves about the result. One says 6 hours or more of direct sunlight per day counts as full sun… and another says 4 hours. Yet another says that should be 8. Partial shade is theoretically between 2 and 4 hours of sun… or is that between 4 and 6 hours? And what about shade? Some say less than 4 hours of direct sunlight per day is shade, others claim less than 2 hours per day, and yet others say no sun at all. How confusing!

Using Your Own Eyes: the Empirical Method

20171013B Inkflo, Pixabay

The empirical method: if it looks shady, it probably is! Photo: Inkflo, Pixabay

If you can’t physically count the number of hours of sunshine in a given location, however, it is actually fairly easy to determine if a location is sunny, shady or partially shaded using the empirical method.

If the location seems to receive full sun most of the day, it’s sunny. If it appears to be in the shade most of the time, it probably is shady. And if it is between sunny or shady, it would logically be in part shade. At least 99% of gardeners use this method, usually with fairly good success.

But the empirical method isn’t perfect: sometimes you’ll find shade plants burning from too much sun in a spot you thought was partially shady or sun plants doing really well in a spot that seems only in partial sun to you. So you end up moving plants around, making endless adjustments.

Petunia Test to the Rescue

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There’s nothing like testing a real plant to determine the true situation about light penetration. Photo: Amber, Pixabay

However, there is a much more concrete method: the petunia test.

Just plant petunias wherever you want to determine the whether a spot is sunny, partly shaded or shaded. Where petunias grow well and bloom beautifully, consider the spot sunny. Where they grow and flower, but with less vigor, that’s partial shade. And where they grow little and bloom less, you’ve got shade.

Simple, isn’t it!302.K