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Shade Gardens: A Bright Idea

You don't need a lot of sun to create a spectacular outdoor space (and P.S., it's cool in there!)


For most of the year, I’m full-on for full sun. Bright flowers, lush herbs, homegrown vegetables and fruits fill my winter planning sessions and summer working days. Then comes August, reminding me what a special love I have for the shade garden.

It’s cool in there. Trees block the searing sun. Eyes wearied by the proverbial riot of color in the cutting garden find rest and refreshment in the shade garden’s subtle play of green on green and its occasional touches of white, pink and lavender.

Another nice thing: large, low-maintenance plants. Broad-leaved hostas shade out weeds and provide a great background for more delicate plants. Ferns form dense colonies, further discouraging the weeds, and the procession of shade flowers — including columbines in spring, astilbes in summer and bugbanes in autumn — are just about trouble-free.

Not all shade is created equal; there are many degrees, from the “dappled light” I enjoy to near darkness. And since many “shade plants” do need some sun, it’s wise to know what you’re dealing with before you start making choices. There’s no real consensus, but this shade definition chart gives you the general idea.

Of course, knowing your own conditions isn’t the same as being happy with them, so it’s good to realize that you can change at least some of those conditions.

To get more light: Where the problem is a canopy of branches, remove lower limbs or, if there’s still too much shade, take down one or more trees. (We cut down several extra wild apples and alders.) Shade that comes from buildings can’t really be altered, but painting walls white can add a lot of brightness. And if sun hits the walls but not the ground, you know it’s up there, so try putting pots on pedestals so the light can reach them.

To block the sun: Planting trees seems obvious, and it’s fine for those with either time — decades — or money. (You can buy and install a 40-footer if you have $10,000 or $12,000 you’re not doing anything else with.) Quicker, easier and slightly less costly remedies include pergolas, arbors, simple arches and screens.

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Shade Garden Perennial All-Stars: Ferns and Hostas

Ferns: These are the workhorses of any shade garden, in part because they’ll grow in any shade garden. Settings with a fair amount of filtered light are better for some varieties, like royal ferns, but maidenhair ferns and licorice ferns will grow well even in deeply shaded areas.

The Hardy Fern Society has a very useful list of ferns organized by proposed location: deep shade, sun, containers and more. One warning: Some ferns can spread aggressively. Hay-scented fern, ostrich fern and cinnamon fern, for instance, are notorious for this. To avoid being inundated, Google whatever catches your eye before adopting it, to see how much it spreads.

Hostas: There are about 3,000 named varieties registered with the American Hosta Society, so don’t talk to me about the limitations of green — or green with white or yellow. There are blues, too (the color comes from a waxy coating on the leaves).

The older I get, the more I appreciate plants large enough to impress with sheer mass, so most of my hostas are giants like Sum and Substance. Just one three-by-five-foot specimen rising among the ferns is a garden all by itself, and a ribbon of giants at the edge of the woods is as calm as a stone wall. But there’s no shortage of miniatures, many of which are ideal for containers.

The old-fashioned name for hosta is plantain lily, a good reminder that these invaluable foliage plants also produce flowers. Although colors are limited to white and lavender, bloom times vary widely, so you can enjoy the tall spires all summer. Most are unscented, but there are a few that are fragrant.

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Three Favorite Flowers for Shade

All of these, incidentally, can handle quite a bit of sun.

Columbine (spring/early summer): Few perennials offer a wider range of colors, from deep maroon and dark purple to pale pink and pure white, with stops along the way at red, yellow and true blue. There are multicolors as well. “Multicolors” is also what you will eventually be growing if you plant an assortment and let them self-seed. They cross-pollinate, morphing as they multiply.

Astilbe (all summer long): Although the plumes of flowers come only in white, red, pink and lavender, the variety within those colors is extensive. There are lots of choices for plant size, too; astilbes may be anywhere from 14 inches to four feet tall (give or take). All have handsome, ferny foliage and are hardy and long-lived.

Bugbane, aka black snakeroot, black cohosh and fairy candles (late summer/fall): For most of my gardening life, these were all common names for cimicifuga racemosa. Now, thanks to botanical reclassification, they are the common names of actaea racemosa. I mention this because this statuesque beauty is still sometimes sold under the old name and I wouldn’t want anybody to miss its splendors.

The plants are large — as much as three feet wide and six feet tall — so you do need space for the best display; the striking black-leaved varieties need some sun to color up well; and the very fragrant bottlebrush flowers come only in white. On the upside, they bloom late, and they’re stone gorgeous.

Many More: There is a rich assortment of plants, from large trees to small annuals, that do well with less than full sun. This guide to annual and perennial shade plants from Clemson University is a good place to start looking.

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