Think a shady spot can’t have a garden? Think again. Shady gardens can also be fantastic places to showcase foliage color, texture and blooms.
The key to designing a shade garden is simple. Select plants that can grow in partial shade to full shade conditions. For reference, a plant that likes partial shade prefers about four to six hours of direct sunlight per day. A plant that needs full shade prefers less than four hours of direct sunlight per day.
This sun/shade preference can easily be found on plant labels at nurseries or online. There are many shade-loving plants, from annuals to perennials and even shrubs.
Annuals don’t have to be limited to pots. They can be strategically added to perennial gardens to fill in gaps or add pops of consistent color throughout the season. Shade-tolerant annuals like impatiens (Impatiens spp.), fuchsia (Fuchsia spp.), begonia (Begonia spp.) and lobelia (Lobelia spp.), come in a variety of foliage colors and flowers and would give any garden an instant boost.
Sweet alyssum, an annual with masses of tiny white flowers, is a powerful plant that attracts beneficial insects that help protect your garden from unwanted pests. Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) grows less than 10 inches tall and tolerates partial shade.
Many shade-loving perennials come in a wide range of foliage colors. Plants such as coral bells (Heuchera spp.) and moss flower (Tiarella spp.) have foliage with scalloped edges. They stand less than 12 inches tall and have delicate flower stalks that emerge in early summer.
Coral bells are known for their nearly endless foliage colors, with varieties that range from lime green to orange, purple and red. If you are interested in native plants, moss flower is a native perennial with more subtle foliage with soft star-shaped flowers on its stems.
Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) is a native perennial that likes medium to moist soil and partial to full shade. Fern fronds are light green, which stand out against other darker green foliage. The beautiful rusty brown seed heads stick up all winter long, adding a bit of interest to the winter landscape.
Many large native shrubs can tolerate at least partial shade. The red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) has brilliant red stems that stand out against the late winter landscape. Aronia (Aronia arbutifolia) has brilliant red foliage in the fall and can tolerate partial shade.
Both shrubs feature flowers that attract pollinators in the spring and berries that attract birds in the fall. Keep in mind that when you plant shrubs with berries in partial or full shade, they may not bloom or fruit as profusely as they would in full sun.
These plants are just a few of the many options available. Check out the Cooperative Extension or Botanical Garden resources online for more plant ideas, or visit your local nursery or greenhouse.
Finally, although shade gardens receive less sun, they still need occasional watering, weeding, and other tending, just like any other garden in full sun. Depending on your soil type, shade gardens can retain moisture for longer periods of time. Check the soil moisture at around 2-3 inches to see if it really needs watering.
Bonnie Kirn Donahue is a UVM Extension Master Gardener and Landscaper from Central Vermont.