Nancy Szerlag is a freelance garden writer.

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Make the Best of the Shade Garden
by Nancy Szerlag       #Advice   #How to   #Shade

‘Trevi Fountain’ lungwort (Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’) is insect and disease resistant and a perfect companion for spring-blooming bulbs.

The secret to growing a healthy, easy care garden is finding the right plant for the right place. And, nowhere is that more important than in a shade garden. The first thing to access is how much sun the plants will actually get. And that can vary in different parts of garden.  

In a part-shade garden, the area may get direct sun for a few hours a day and then the sunlight is filtered through leaves for several hours. If the total sunlight equals four hours of sun a day, part shade plants will thrive there. However, if all or part of the garden gets only filtered sun, that area is a true shade garden.

‘Burgundy Lace’ painted fern complements broad-leaf perennials, such as hosta.

Competition for Space and Nutrients 

No matter how rich the soil, how well plants are watered and how much they are fertilized, part shade plants will fail to thrive if they don’t get enough sun. Although sun-starved plants may not die in a season, they may not produce flowers and are often plagued with pests, such as slugs, and diseases, such as powdery mildew.  

Shade gardens planted with deciduous or evergreen trees have another issue – root competition for water and nutrients. Adding organic material, such as shredded leaves, composted bark fines and compost, to the soil when planting and as mulch will help to hold moisture, as well as feed the soil.   

Many plants will adapt to a dry shade garden if care is taken to get them well established the first season. Begin at planting time by watering the garden well a day or two before planting. Soak the roots of plants in water for a few hours prior to planting. 

Start With Smaller Plants  

Plants in 4½-inch or quart-size containers often are easier to plant in soil where there are a lot of tree roots. In the first year, they will probably need watering weekly and possibly more often when the temperatures reach into the 80s. A good tool to help monitor the soil’s moisture content is a Luster Leaf moisture meter, available in the houseplant section of garden centers. A rain gauge, also available at garden centers, will help to monitor the amount of rainfall the area receives. Dry shade gardens need 1 to 1½ inches of water weekly. However, that amount may increase if planting in sandy soil. 

Shade-loving, evergreen hellebores bloom in winter and are deer resistant.

Apply a Natural Mulch 

After planting the shade garden, I mulch the surface of the soil with a lasagna layering of organic materials, beginning with ¼ to ½ inch of compost.  

Next comes an inch or more of shredded leaves recycled from my yard in fall. I top off the mix with an inch of composted bark fines. If you have fresh wood chips or pine needles available, they will do nicely, too.    

Shade Seasons

Most shade garden plants bloom in spring or early summer. However, the garden can be colored up by planting easy-care annuals, such as begonias (B. spp.), most of which bloom non-stop throughout the season. The large varieties, such as begonia Big and Whopper (B. x benariensis) and Dragon Wing (B. x hybrida) fit in beautifully and adapt well to dry shade.

‘Purple Dragon’ spotted dead nettle brightens a shade garden.



Recommended Shade-Loving Perennials

Here are some plants that do well in shade gardens, and once established, are able to compete successfully with tree roots. 

Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides
This tough-as-nails North American native fern thrives in shade and part-shade gardens. Disease and pest free, it’s also resistant to nibbles from deer and other animals. Hardy to Zone 3.

Spotted Dead Nettle (Lamium maculatum
Used as a ground cover, its green and white foliage, which varies by variety, brightens up shaded gardens almost year around. Newer varieties, such as ‘Purple Dragon’, bloom off and on through the end of summer. Hardy to Zone 3.

‘Patriot’ and other hostas, which have cream or white markings on the leaves, brighten the shade garden. Hostas come in many leaf textures, colors, patterns and sizes.

Hosta spp.
The classic plant for the part- to full-shade garden, these workhorses come in all sizes and leaf shapes, along with a variety of textures, colors and patterns. Many new varieties produce showy and fragrant flowers. Hardy to Zone 3.  

Japanese Painted Ferns (Athyrium niponicum) 
These silvery-fringed leaf lovelies thrive in my dry shade garden. Hardy to a frosty Zone 4, they self-sow their spores readily in the humus rich, moss covered soil in my garden. They add season-long color and texture.

Lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.) 
The leaves of lungworts may be speckled or splotched or totally frosted with silver white that seems to glow in the shade garden. Lovely pink or blue flowers emerge in spring followed by their delightful leaves that last for three seasons or more. ‘Mrs. Moon’ is a dependable variety and if she takes, you may consider becoming a collector of the many new varieties. Slugs don’t usually bother lungwort. Hardy to Zone 3

Lenten Rose (Helleborus x hybridus) 
Flowering as early as December, the blooms on these evergreen perennials last for months in the shade or part-shade garden. Newer varieties are hardy to Zone 4. Colors come in white and shades of pink, coral, green and burgundy. Hellebores are deer resistant. 


A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries,, and Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp.


Posted: 06/30/16   RSS | Print


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