Embracing garden shade

  • Article by: NANCY ROSE , Contributing Writer
  • Updated: August 3, 2010 - 3:52 PM

Instead of turning your back on a shady corner, turn it into a sweet retreat by using made-for-the-shade plants that pop.

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Hosta, impatiens and painted ferns are shade lovers.

Photo: JOEL KOYAMA, Star Tribune

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Gardeners tend to shun the shade, focusing instead on areas of bright light for sun-loving roses, tomatoes, lilacs and more. Shaded areas are often relegated to a thin lawn dominated by creeping Charlie and perhaps a threadbare yew or a floppy stand of ostrich ferns.

But a cool, shady corner can become a blissful retreat, especially during the heat of summer. So how can you turn a dim, neglected corner into an inviting destination? Here are a few tips for creating a shady Eden.

Give up on grass

No turf grasses grow well in deep shade, so forget about trying to maintain a traditional lawn in your shady spots. However, there are loads of shade-tolerant groundcovers, many with attractive foliage or flowers. These groundcovers won't tolerate much foot traffic, though, so the best option is to have designated walkways and patio areas surrounded by drifts of groundcovers. You can craft your paths out of wood-chip mulch or pea gravel, but paving materials make for more elegant -- and more permanent -- walkways and seating areas. Stone, brick and concrete pavers are all good options.

Made for the shade

Plants with dark leaves and blossoms can get lost in shaded areas, but plants with light colors pop out of the dark background and provide a cooling touch. Look for white-flowered selections of perennials, such as astilbe, and annuals, such as impatiens, browallia, torenia and begonias.

Foliage touched with silver looks as if it were made for the shade. Silver accents can be found on Japanese painted fern, heartleaf brunnera cultivars such as Jack Frost, and many lungwort cultivars.

Shrubs that can tolerate moderate shade include Annabelle hydrangea, which provides cooling scoops of white flowers, and Cool Splash bush honeysuckle, which has crisp, white-variegated leaves.

Go to pot

Container gardens are an easy way to brighten dark corners. Use light-colored pots, then fill them with white- or pastel-colored impatiens or tuberous begonias and plants with patterned foliage, such as caladium and polka-dot plant.

Your containers can be easily refreshed with a few new plants throughout the season. And if they're not too heavy, they can be moved around the garden to add a splash of color where it's needed.

Just add water

Water, especially moving water, adds a cooling effect in shade gardens. You don't have to build a scale model of Gooseberry Falls, either. There are lots of fairly simple yet attractive water options, including pondless fountains and overflowing urns. An added bonus: Moving water attracts a wide variety of songbirds.

Shade in short order

Unfortunately, you can't go out and buy a 150-year-old oak or maple to shade your garden. But if your yard isn't blessed with a natural canopy, you can create your own. Use fabric, such as a patio umbrella or shade sail, to provide shade for a day or for the entire season. (Be sure to look for sturdy construction and a solid anchoring system that will hold up on windy days.)

For a more permanent solution, consider building a shade structure. It could be as simple as four posts framed together and topped with lath panels, or as elaborate as a teak pergola with carved crossbeams. For even denser shade, train a vigorous vine to grow up and over the structure. Good vine choices include hops, hardy kiwi, Dutchman's pipe, trumpet honeysuckle, sweet autumn clematis or American wisteria (pick a hardy cultivar such as Blue Moon).

Nancy Rose is a horticulturist at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. She previously worked for the University of Minnesota Extension.

SHADE-TOLERANT GROUNDCOVERS AND PERENNIALS

Astilbe

Wild ginger

European ginger

Creeping phlox

Sweet woodruff

Lily of the valley

Foamflower (Tiarella)

Ferns

Hosta

Pachysandra

Ajuga

Barrenwort (Epimedium)

Lungwort (Pulmonaria)

Heartleaf brunnera

Columbine

Martagon lily

Violets

Jacob's ladder (Polemonium)

Cardinal flower

Crested iris

Bleeding heart

Snakeroot

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