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These Plants Are

Made for Shade


Think of gardening in shady conditions, and too often, the only plant that comes to mind is the hosta. Shady areas offer a gardener the opportunity to grow a number of underutilized flowering plants.  Shade gardening can take a wooded area and turn it into a peaceful, secluded getaway that is as close as the homeowner's back yard.


Not all shade is created equal. There is dappled shade, light shade and deep shade. Each of these categories can be subclassified as either moist shade or dry shade.  An example of dappled shade would be the area that is in shadow when the sun passes behind a large tree. Light shade exists if an area were in shadow for two to four hours every day, or if there were an unbroken line of trees that form a sparse canopy.  Deep shade is woodland shade, and defines an area in which very little sunlight breaks through.  Soil quality and canopy density are factors that dictate whether an area is moist or dry. Generally, if there is a slope that creates excellent drainage, sandy soil, rocky soil or an exceptionally thick canopy that prevents rainfall from penetrating, the area will be dry.  Flat areas, clay or loam soils and clusters of deciduous trees that allow rainfall to penetrate and also provide an abundance of leaf litter will create an area that stays moist.  The type of shade that exists in a yard will impact plant selection.  The shade conditions that exist can vary within a yard and can change over time.  As trees become mature, the density of the shade increases. Tangled tree roots that create a mat at the soil surface, such as those of certain maple varieties, create dry shade conditions.  Choosing plants may involve a bit of projection into the future; a gardener will have to anticipate conditions five or ten years into the future, and choose plants that will thrive in conditions yet to evolve.


Luckily, there are a number of plants that offer color and texture that work in shady conditions.  Dappled shade offers roses a respite from hot summer sun. "Blue" or lavender roses benefit tremendously from intermittent shade, as it helps the flower to retain its color and avoid sunburn. Other flowers that normally are recommended for sunny situations, such as the mystery lily (Lycoris squamigera), four-o'clock (Mirabilis jalapa) and dahlia, bloom well if they only receive four hours of morning or evening sun.  Ground covers such as liriope, sweet woodruff, sweet potato vines and heuchera varieties having light green or chartreuse leaves do very well in dappled shade.  Be sure to mulch any of these plants well if the soil tends to be dry.


Light shade limits the number of plants that flower during the summer, but there are still exciting possibilities. One of the most underutilized summer bulbs in this country is the tuberous begonia, a splashy, full-bodied flower that thrives in light shade.  These tender bulbs bloom in all the hot colors - pink, orange, yellow, red and white, and the flowers can be as large as six inches in diameter.  There are also fibrous-rooted begonias; these are ground-hugging waxy leaved beauties that bear small pink, red, orange or white flowers.  Impatiens and coleus round out the annual selection. For a spring display, plant a mass of Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides spp.). These flower in pink, white and blue in early May, just about the time that the redbuds or dogwood trees are in bloom, dotting the emerging green landscape with splashes of color.  Perennial ferns are another good choice, as these plants are amenable to a wide range of growing conditions. Many are hardy into growing zone 2, and some, like the cinnamon fern, tolerate dry shade and thin, rocky soils. A side benefit of growing ferns is that the fiddleheads (the first leaves to come out in the spring) of some varieties are delicious to eat. 


Deep shade - the kind that characterizes mature woods - supports a number of native wildflowers and ground cover plants. Spring beauties such as the dogstooth violet, Canadian bloodroot and lily of the valley are able to grow and bloom before the trees leaf out; these plants also tend to spread and create a natural mulch for the surrounding trees. Violas and violets, flowers that some consider weedy pests in more formal settings, thrive in woodland conditions. Wild ginger, jack-in-the-pulpit, lady's slipper orchids and trilliums also make the deep dark woods their home. Many of these plants are considered endangered species, so do not gather plant material from the wild. Luckily, there are nurseries that specialize in growing native plants. A quick search on the internet will locate one that serves your region.


Shady gardens don't have to be boring gardens.  Add some pizzazz to your shady nook with flowers and plants that are made for the shade.

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