A shady garden is much more than a place that is not dominated by sun. A leafy ceiling, a soft brown floor and pretty plants that come and go with the seasons make a shade garden an irresistible spot to relax and feel the cool beauty of Mother Nature as she likes things to be. After all, if we did not need open spaces for our houses and roads, the forests that once covered the South would slowly return.
Thinking of a shade garden as a small spot of forest simplifies decisions about which plants should win spaces between tree roots or perhaps in your side yard where your house casts its shadow. Beneath tall oaks, pines and poplars, nature’s version of a shade garden is planted with perennials. Many bloom but for a short time, and a few such as ferns never bloom at all. Yet well-chosen perennials do a magical job of providing delightful splashes of color before gracefully stepping aside for the next act. The result is a constantly changing tapestry of subtle beauty that amplifies the richness of a shade garden, which should always feel restful, but never be dull.
Native plants are well represented in the shade gardener’s palette, but hellebores, especially the Oriental hybrids, make an unbeatable season opener. The waxy green leaves spring up in late winter, followed quickly by nodding flowers. Best planted in raised beds or on slopes where the rose-like blossoms can easily be seen, hellebores often naturalize under trees when given rich, moist soil.
Bulbs in Blue
Some shade gardens tend to be dry or are so riddled with roots that planting pockets are difficult to find. This is an ideal situation for spring-blooming bulbs, which rest in summer when dry conditions prevail. One of my favorites is little muscari, often called grape hyacinth, which thrives on winter sun. The grasslike leaves appear in fall with upright purple blossoms that last until trees bulk up with new leaves. An informal drift of muscari settled in beneath a spreading dogwood or other small deciduous tree will persist for decades, becoming more lush and dramatic with each passing year.
If you want a bigger bulb to mask the bases of trees, plant wood hyacinths, also called Spanish bluebells and usually classified as Hyacinthoides hispanica. Most varieties bloom blue, but a few such as ‘Dainty Maid’ and ‘Queen of Pinks’ bear pink bell-shaped flowers on 12-inch-long upright stems. Long-lived and dependable, wood hyacinths mix well with ferns, and the spikes make excellent cut flowers.
One of the joys of a Southern shade garden is the opportunity to share company with native wildflowers. Among these, every shade garden should have a drift or two of foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), the definitive sign that winter is finally at an end. Foamflower is also available in many improved versions that feature fuzzy leaves elegantly blotched with black, and some varieties which have pink rather than white bottlebrush flowers. When well situated in moist soil amended with organic matter, foamflower’s showy leaves persist until fall, when cool weather coaxes them to blush with shades of bronze or pink.
Foamflower is easy to team up with colorful companions, such as woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata). Phlox divaricata is classified as an herbaceous perennial. Strains may bloom blue, pink or white, and the plants tend to fade out quickly after the flowers are gone. However, as long as some plants are allowed to hold seeds until they ripen, numerous small seedlings appear in fall, slowly gaining strength through winter. Woodland phlox is at its best when allowed to sprawl along the edges of a mulched walkway, or when used to dress the base of a rustic stone wall.
The same sites where foamflower and woodland phlox bloom in spring can host late-blooming cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Grown at the edge of a clump of foamflower or other ephemeral spring bloomers, cardinal flower stays small until midsummer, when it suddenly begins to reach for the sky. The 4- to 5-foot-tall flower spikes, clad in deep red florets, also attract hummingbirds. In most areas, cardinal flower persists through winter as a small rosette of green, a wise trick this plant uses to avail itself of winter sun.
Once these spring bloomers are gone, you will welcome the appearance of spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana), which now comes in hybrid versions that bloom longer and stronger than the native species and sometimes becomes weedy. Yet even hybrid forms, such as ‘Concord Grape’, need deadheading to keep them looking neat and to encourage reblooming. Keeping spiderwort in closely spaced clumps capitalizes on its reedy texture, an important attribute in the summer garden where green invariably becomes the dominant color.
In most of the South, hostas are anchor plants in shade gardens. Hostas are usually rated as adapted to Zone 9, but they often struggle in the humid heat of Zone 8. Yet hostas have so much to offer that they are always worth a try, especially varieties that light up the shade with chartreuse or white-variegated leaves. Use large-leafed hostas in areas that provide room for ample root growth, and use small to medium-sized varieties in spots where the plants must compete with tree roots.
If you’re new to hostas, keep in mind that you should never judge a plant based on its first-season performance. Hostas need a year or two to settle in before they really strut their stuff. Whether you plant them in mounds or ribbons, hostas tend to evoke a formal mood in the shade garden. If you want a more relaxed scene, give ferns a free rein in some areas.
Deciduous native species that die back in winter such as Southern shield fern (Thelypteris kunthii) are vigorous growers that knit into a tight ground cover and thrive with little care. Colorful painted ferns (Athyrium spp.) bring silvery highlights into the garden. Their slow growth makes them perfectly suited as a low-maintenance plant for high visibility spots.
For midsummer highlights in an otherwise green shade garden, I love ‘Monroe White’ liriope, whether it is used to edge a path or grown in clumps. The dark green leaves frame the white flower spikes beautifully, proving that a plain plant we sometimes tend to take for granted possesses a spark of Cinderella spirit after all.
Depending on your space and taste, there are many more lovely perennials for shade. To keep things interesting, try to include plants that bloom at unusual times, such as wood aster (Aster divaricatus) in autumn and hardy baby cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) in early winter.
Beyond plants, a cozy sitting area should always be a priority because a shade garden, like a forest, is a place to linger, breathe deeply and feel at one with all things green.
Shade Gardening Tips
• Get a small “border” spade or a child-sized shovel for digging planting holes between tree rots. Before you plant anything, generously amend the soil with organic matter.
• Instead of digging beneath dogwoods and other shallow-rooted trees, import enough good topsoil to create raised berms for selected perennials.
• When planting near maples, birches and other trees with dense surface roots, plant perennials in black plastic nursery liners, buried up to their rims.
• To improve air circulation while creating a spacious feel, keep some areas mulched with pine straw or other fine-textured material, or help moss to colonize by blowing off leaves and pulling out grasses and weeds.
• Use containers of white impatiens and caladium to light up deep shade in summer. In all seasons, light-colored stone brings structure and texture to shady places.
(From State-by-State Gardening February 2005)