I Never Promised You a Shade Garden
The thermometer on the car hit 104 the other day, and that was inside the garage. The curtains and blinds have been regularly closed trying to keep the sun’s rays and heat from penetrating our abode. Not having many shade trees around the building feels like it’s a hapless endeavor, but we persist. Thoughts of spending time in a lush shade garden cross my mind, with color, texture, and fragrance lifting me to an exotic landscape.
Dwelling on a shade garden inspired me to write a piece on the joys and tribulations of having such a space. Gardening in the shade presents a host of constraints, none being more important than lack of sunlight. It is the process of photosynthesis by which all plants make their food, and some can get away with less than others.
The most common plants for shade are hostas and ferns. There are dozens of varieties that exhibit a plethora of colors, shapes, and sizes. I am quite fond of the bigger leaf types of hosta that cover the most ground and provide texture throughout the garden. The larger leaves contrast well with the finer texture of ferns. Add coral bells to the mix and it begins to look like a painter’s palette.
Coral bells are another shade loving plant that come in array of colors. They are mostly known for their leaf shape and hues even though they also provide a decent display of small bell-shaped flowers on tall stems. With a similar leaf shape, foamflower plays well when planted among coral bells. Foamflower is a native plant that acts like a groundcover and is at home in the woodland garden. When in bloom and planted in mass, their spikes of white flowers look like foam above their deeply lobed, heart-shaped leaves.
Another groundcover to consider in the shade garden is wild ginger. Its heart-shaped leaves cover the ground like a carpet. It spreads by rhizomes and produces small bell-shaped flowers close to the ground, but they are inconspicuous to the eye.
Other shade loving plants to try under a shady tree canopy or on the shady side of the house are astilbe, Solomon’s seal, bugleweed, monkshood, goatsbeard, and bleeding heart. Dead nettle is also shade loving and can cover an area rather quickly. Be careful to look after it, because dead nettle can be aggressive. It spreads by rhizomes and is difficult to remove if you become unhappy with it.
Then there are ferns, of which I have a love-hate relationship. Just like hostas, there are dozens and dozens of ferns to choose from. Some are native; many are not. Of the native species, hay-scented fern is common to use when trying to cover a large area. The impact of them when planted in mass is a sight to behold. However, they can also be aggressive and hard to restrict to one spot. It gets its name from the scent of hay when its fronds are crushed.
Other ferns common at the nurseries are ostrich fern, cinnamon fern, maidenhair fern, Japanese painted fern, robusta fern, and the list goes on. Ferns come in many sizes and colors. Choose the ones that suit your garden best. It’s always a good idea to plant the taller ones in the back and the shorter ones in the front (as with any garden bed). This allows the onlooker to see all the layers, textures, and colors in front of them.
If you have a shady area of your garden, try some of these plants and see where it takes you. You will never know unless you try.
Stay well and let’s garden together.
Eric W. Wah is a landscape architect, artist, and President of the Delaware Native Plant Society.