One of the challenges of gardening can be dealing with shade, particularly dry shade. Often it’s under the canopy of trees so rainwater is deflected away and plants need to compete for moisture, root space, nutrients, even airflow. Narrow spaces between buildings or under north-facing eaves offer the same challenge.
Moisture and sunlight are essential to plants. When those things are limited the plant possibilities are somewhat narrowed, or at least less familiar. This may be because plants for shade tend to be less showy—blooming less and for shorter periods of time. Shadows darken and mute any color, so some of the best plants for shade are ones with pale or variegated foliage or blossoms that can stand out against a dark backdrop. In shade, characteristics like texture and form are just as important as color.
Fortunately there are many plants that can thrive in areas with minimal moisture and sunlight. Hostas are perhaps the best-known, loved and most-used of shade perennials… and for good reason. They’re hardy and long-lived and they come in an amazing variety of sizes, textures and colors. They spread slowly and reliably, just enough to make them the perfect plant for sharing!
Coral bells are available in a huge range also, with foliage ranging from purple to chartreuse to bronze. Like hosta and astilbe, they are stalwarts of the shade garden. Very similar but less familiar is foam flower or Tiarella. Some cultivars have dark purple veins and foliage persists into winter. The flowers are delicate and smoky but the foliage is the real star.
|Jack Frost Brunnera|
Green is the predominant color for shade plants, but using plants of varying size and texture can provide as interesting a contrast as even the boldest color difference. Ferns, with their delicate cut foliage, arching stems and unfurling leaves, are a wonderful contrast to large, glossy-leaved hostas. For subtle but effective color contrast, try Japanese painted fern with purple, silver and almost metallic tones.
Other lesser-known beauties for shade include Solomon’s seal with beautiful, bending stems from which flowers and later berries dangle below the foliage. The new variegated ‘Jack Frost’ Brunnera has finally brought more attention to this genus with large, deeply-veined, heart-shaped leaves and starry blue flowers in early spring. Corydalis has small yellow flowers and finely cut, silvery foliage. Like the other plants mentioned above, these are all tough plants that can handle difficult conditions.
For seasonal beauty midwinter, the bright red stems of red twig dogwood and berries of viburnums, cotoneaster and coralberry offer color. For persistent or semi-persistent green, there’s periwinkle, creeping mahonia, Hypericum and Myrica. In early spring, Lenten roses and snowdrops can bloom right through the cover of snow. Both have beautiful blossoms, but the subtle greenish purples and pinks of the former and the close-to-the-ground greens and whites of the latter demand close attention. The tiny bulb squill, or Scilla, has bright blue flowers in early spring, then goes dormant as summer approaches.
For groundcovers, good options are lamb’s ear, periwinkle, Lamium, lily of the valley, Pachysandra, snow-in-summer, lady’s mantle, wild ginger, Epimedium and perennial Geranium. Almost any plants for shade work as groundcovers, as they tend to be grown for foliage more than flower and tend to spread and cover.
Few shade plants are grown for their blossoms alone but daylilies can bloom in fairly dense shade, and columbine, foxglove, coral bells, Brunnera, Bergenia, Geranium, Corydalis, foam flower and sedum all offer beautiful flowers. Understory shrubs, many with spring blossoms, include viburnum, black jetbead, snowberry, dogwood, witch hazel, Kerria and Carolina allspice.
When planting shade-lovers, consider adding organic matter to increase moisture retention and enrich the soil. Though they can handle dry shade, like all plants they need regular watering until their roots are established.A final, seasonal idea for shady outdoor spaces is to put houseplants out for the summer. They’ll repay you with healthy new foliage when you bring them back inside in early fall. You can leave them in their pots, plant them into soil or bury them, pots and all until it’s time to bring them indoors. They’ll enjoy the shade and shelter outdoors just as much as you do.