Made in the shade: Plants for sun-challenged gardens

Last modified: Sunday, July 20, 2014
Too much shade! It doesn’t seem possible on a hot July day, but that is the complaint of many gardeners. They just don’t get enough sun in their yards to grow the things they want to grow. Rather than cutting down trees and clearing wide swaths of land to bring in more light, view this as an opportunity to embrace your shady spots and make the most of them.

So how shady is it? There are varying degrees of shade from dappled to dense. Early morning sun and afternoon shade is an ideal location for many plants. Dappled shade under tall, deeply rooted trees is not so bad, either. Since it mimics their natural setting, woodland plants are well suited for growing under trees. Wild ginger, bunchberry, spring beauty, trillium, tiarella, forget-me-nots and pulmonaria will start the garden off in the spring. It can be the perfect spot for native plants, such as Solomon’s seal, Jack-in-the-pulpit, ferns, snakeroot, sweet woodruff, black cohosh and bloodroot.

After determining the amount of light, take a look at the soil, is it moist or always dry? The canopy of a mature tree acts like an umbrella, keeping rain from reaching the ground. Any moisture that does make it through is quickly absorbed by greedy tree roots leaving smaller plants parched. Dry shade under moisture-sucking maples and other shallow-rooted trees is the most difficult situation a gardener faces but it is not impossible. One way to deal with this dilemma is to enrich each planting hole with compost at planting time to give plants a fighting chance. Another is to create raised areas on top of the existing soil in which to plant. Be careful not to cover the entire root zone of the tree, which can suffocate it, and keep extra soil and plantings away from the base of the trunk. Look for drought-tolerant varieties and be sure to give newly planted things some extra TLC while they are getting established.

Many plants that would be invasive in an ideal location are perfect for dry shade. They will grow well enough but are kept in check by the growing conditions. Try ground covers, like ajuga, vinca, lamium,\ or geranium macrorrhizum. Rampant growers, such as lily-of-the-valley, goat’s beard, gooseneck loosestrife and dame’s rocket also do well in dry shade. Epimedium is the premier dry shade plant. Several varieties are hardy in our zone and have red, white, pink or yellow flowers early in the spring. New leaves are light green splashed with red or amber and some have dark red or purple borders. Best of all, deer don’t like them. Heuchera, or coral bells, come in an astonishing array of foliage and flower colors range from white to pink and red. Plant breeders have done an excellent job of creating must-have plants. One of these is the intergeneric hybrid heucherella, a cross between heuchera and tiarella, it combines the best of each parent – the colorful leaves of the heuchera with the large fluffy flower spikes of the tiarella – into one plant. This one is also deer resistant.

My personal favorites for dry shade are the self-sowing plants, like foxgloves, especially yellow Digitalis grandiflora, and forget-me-nots. Instead of trying to dig planting holes between the tree roots you can just sprinkle seeds where you want them to grow. Hellebores, columbine, candytuft, Jacob’s ladder, mallows, ligularia, yellow waxbells, fringed leaf bleeding heart, lady’s mantle and Japanese anemone add more color to the dry shade garden. And there are always violets – don’t groan! There are actually some well-behaved violets, like tiny “Silver Gem,” with its frosted foliage. It stays compact and does not try to take over the earth.

If you have moist shade, plants like astilbe, trollius, red-leaved mukdenia, brunnera and most primroses will do well. Foliage plants, like hostas, ferns, shiny European ginger, big-leaved rodgersia and the shredded umbrella plant will fill large spaces with their lush leaves and lend their interesting textures to the garden.

Gardens change over time, and, thanks to an old oak tree that grows higher and wider every year, my once sunny garden is now in shade most of the day. Searching for inspiration, I took a trip to Uncanoonuc Mountain Perennials in Goffstown last month and was really impressed with the collection of shade plants they have to offer. There are big display gardens that show off the plants in their element and give examples of combinations that work. If you also are in need of inspiration, check it out.

There is a new book on shade gardening called The Shady Lady’s Guide to Northeast Shade Gardening by Amy Ziffer. It has a large section of plants appropriate for our zone. The list of backbone plants would be very helpful to get you started on planning and planting your shade garden. This time of year wouldn’t you rather be working in the shade than out in the blazing sun?