Just a few years ago, the words “shade garden” brought to mind hostas, ferns, impatiens and maybe some astilbe. Shade gardens were viewed as a fine place to rest awhile on the garden bench, but not nearly as exciting as a sunny border.
Flowers for shade are still more limited than those for sun—especially now that impatiens no longer thrive in many areas due to a fast-spreading fatal disease. But foliage colors have exploded. And, oh, the possibilities! Today we can spice up our shade gardens with bright lime, orange, pink, red, burgundy, purple, chocolate, near-black and every shade in between. Foliage plants are no longer considered accents: They are the foundation and the “flowers.”
Today’s splendid palette lets us use foliage plants as we would blossoms, creating color combinations that last all season. Easy-to-grow coleus, for instance, now comes in an unbelievable selection of luscious colors, with leaves ranging from simple shapes to frilly ruffles, in heights from 8 inches to 3 feet. As a bonus, the flowers also attract hummingbirds.
The tiny flowers of heuchera attract hummers, too, but it’s the sumptuous apricot, caramel, rose, lime or plum leaves of the new varieties that steal the show in the garden.
Even ferns have left good old green behind. Take a look at the Lady in Red cultivar, with her lacy fronds and blood-red stems, or silver and burgundy Japanese painted fern, or the autumn fern Brilliance, which starts out coppery pink in spring, turns green for summer, then colors up again for fall.
It’s easy to get carried away and come home with one of everything. But instead of throwing them all together, give your fancy plants room to shine beside quieter companions. Remember that serenity is one of the best things about a shade garden. Keep that peaceful feeling by separating different kinds of variegated plants with plainer companions so the leaves aren’t fighting each other for the spotlight. Use dark-leaved plants, such as Osiris Café Noir ligularia, Hillside Black Beauty actaea or Chocoholic cimicifuga to create “shadows” between your bright-colored beauties so your eyes have a resting place.
Playing with color is the new trend for gardening with full shade plants. Free your fuchsias from the hanging basket and partner them with smoldering red coleus for close-up hummingbird watching. Spice up summer with copper plant (Acalypha wilkesiana), pink Dragon Wings begonia, pink polka-dot plant and red fuchsias.
Add zing to serene green and white hostas and ferns with a pool of blue Summer Wave torenia and an unexpected dash of hot sauce from orange and pink coleus. Mix and match whatever tickles your fancy, combining annuals and perennials with foliage plants that echo or contrast with their colors. For more of our picks for colorful perennials and annuals for shade, be sure to check out the box on the previous page.
Choosing the Right Shade Tolerant Plants
Sure, you can get technical, plotting the arc of the sun and keeping track of how many hours your shady yard gets direct light, in which part of the day, in every season. But if you have a shady part of the yard, you already know it. Most shade plants do best in part shade or light shade—the usual conditions, even in many forests. Partial shade means a few hours of sun every day; light or dappled shade, created by shifting leaves, may get no direct sun at all, but it gets a good amount of light.
Deep shade is an area where even indirect light rarely penetrates. It’s an uncommon situation, but you may have that, too, if you have buildings blocking the sun or other barriers. Most shade plants are very adaptable when it comes to the degree of shade they prefer. They’ll quickly tell you if you’ve guessed wrong. If they start looking weak and leggy, there’s not enough light. If their leaves crisp or curl or start looking bleached or browned, and you find yourself watering way too much, there’s too much sun. Move them, and try something that’s better suited to the original spot.
Garden centers make it easy by corralling shade plants into separate sections, at least when it comes to perennials, hostas, ferns and annuals. Stroll the shrubs and trees to seek out azaleas and rhododendrons, eastern redbud, dogwood, serviceberry, red-flowering currant, white sweetspire and the shrub Fuchsia magellanica, all good bloomers in shade.
Consider houseplants, too. The filtered light in our houses is similar to outdoor shade, and croton, polka dot plant, Moses-in-the-boat, asparagus fern, Swedish ivy and abutilon (flowering maple) will thrive in the ground or in containers for a summer vacation.
Shade gardening is full of interesting possibilities, once you start looking on the bright side. Just think of foliage as flowers, and you’ll have it made in the shade.
Colorful Shade Tolerant Plants to Try
- Perennial: Astilbe, bleeding heart, fern-leaf bleeding heart, foxglove, Geranium cinereum ‘Ballerina’, hellebore, winter cyclamen
- Annual: Begonias, fuchsia, torenia
- Perennial: Astilbe, eastern and western red columbines, fire pink
- Annual: Fuchsia, begonias
- Perennial: Lamium Hermann’s Pride, kirengeshoma, ligularia, wood poppy, woodland sunflower, yellow corydalis
- Annual: Monkeyflower, tuberous begonia
- Perennial: Hellebore
- Annual: Nicotiana langsdorfii
Blue and Purples
- Perennial: Blue wood aster, brunnera, Brookside hardy geranium, Jacob’s ladder, liriope, lungwort, monkshood, Phlox divaricata, Phlox stolonifera, Rocky Mountain columbine, Scilla siberica, toad lilies, Virginia bluebells
- Annual: Browallia, Summer Wave torenia
- Perennial: Astilbe, bear’s-breeches, Biokovo hardy geranium, hellebore, White Nancy lamium, lily-of-the-valley, snowdrops, tiarella, white wood aster
- Annual: Fuchsia, woodland tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris)