When my husband and I moved to our current house, I felt like a novice gardener all over again. Having lovingly planted and tended gardens in full sun for years, we had moved to a place where I would be gardening in the shade and I had no idea what would grow there. Five years later, I’m still learning through trial and error what does best in my dimly lit yard in which some spots hold water like a sponge and others are as dry as parchment thanks to three big oak trees. Though I miss having a vegetable garden and rows of raspberries like we used to, I’ve come to love the shade in all its cool, blue-green, understated beauty.
So I’d like to share what I’ve learned in the hope that other gardeners who are struggling with shady gardens, or even shady spots in the yard, might also find ways to see a lack of sun as a virtue rather than a curse. Let’s do the hardest thing first. Deep breath — OK, now let go of the idea that bloom is a vitally important part of a garden. I know how hard this is. What’s a garden without flowers, right? Well, I’m here to tell you, all is not lost without them.
The trick to having a shade garden that isn’t a snooze and keeps you interested in taking care of it is to keep exploring ways to vary plant height and foliage color and texture to create a palette you love as much as you used to love flowers. I don’t think this is easy, and those of you who have seen my yard know I’m still learning, too. But when shade gardens are done well they take your breath away with their peaceful, almost painterly beauty. (See for yourself right now by visiting the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden before all of the spring flowers are gone.)
Believe it or not, there really are a lot of shade plants with good-looking foliage. Some of my favorites are: lungwort (Pulmonaria), Siberian bugloss, Japanese painted fern, snakeroot (Cimicifuga), lady fern, epimedium, coral bells (Heuchera) and variegated Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’). When combining plants, you can create a more dramatic look by using a variety of plants with big, bold leaves and fine, feathery foliage. If you don’t have dense shade, you can also plant grasses, including ribbon grass, light blue fescues (they’re beautiful), silver spike grass and Japanese forest grass. (A great place to shop for grasses, and all plants, really, is: highcountrygardens.com.)
Groundcovers are also an important part of shade gardens because they help create the layered look that can make shady areas so interesting. Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is by far my favorite groundcover for shade. Foliage is bright green and looks great all summer while the white flowers that appear early in spring are more fleeting. Each plant spreads about a foot, so you can buy a pack of six and you’ll be amazed how much space they cover in a season.
Wild ginger is another great groundcover, which you’ll often find growing naturally in the understory of deciduous forests because it can tolerate light to heavy shade. Like sweet woodruff, wild ginger spreads quickly, creating a carpet of heart-shaped green leaves that will look good all summer. Established plants can be divided and transplanted easily, so you can spread these throughout your garden. You might also want to try spotted deadnettle, bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), periwinkle or the evergreen groundcover Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis). When you use groundcovers, I would recommend going light on mulch, or not using mulch in the area at all, because it tends to inhibit the spread of plants.
And now that I’ve nattered on about how you have to live without flowers, I will say here that there are some flowering perennials that do very well in shade — and not just in the first few weeks of spring like Virginia bluebells, which are amazing in the short time they’re out and about. If you want something long lasting, you really can’t beat astilbe, which you can find in a variety of colors. Foam flowers offer beautiful foliage and flowers. (‘Mint Chocolate’, for example, has mint-green leaves with chocolate-colored veins and white flowers.) White snakeroot is a late-season bloomer that I would recommend highly. Big-root geranium is also a winner, particularly if you are dealing with dry shade. Not only does it spread out quickly, it has white or pink flowers that last and last. Turtlehead, bleeding heart, spiderwort and primrose are also good choices.
As usual, I’ve run out of space, but if you’d like to learn more about what you can plant in all types of shade, check out the publications on this subject that the University of Minnesota Extension Service offers at: extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/dg8464.html.
Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer. If you’ve got a gardening question you’d like her to address in her column, you can email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.