To many gardeners, a shady gardener means a green garden. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Plenty of annuals, perennials, ground covers, bulbs, and shrubs combine colorful flowers or foliage with a love for shade.
But before we list some lesser-known choices, let’s get the obvious ones out of the way. Impatiens bloom from spring to frost, come in a rainbow of colors, and flower profusely in shade. Similarly, gaudy foliage and a hankering for shade place hostas, caladiums, and coleus among our top picks.
If you use just these four plants in your shade garden, you’ll have lots of long-lasting color. But if you’d like to try new things, you’ve got plenty of options. Tom Mannion, a garden designer in Arlington, Virginia, touts some less common candidates.
For dry shade, he likes Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), hardy begonia (Begonia grandis), and money plant (Lunaria annua). Money plant offers white or purple flowers in spring, hardy begonia sports pink blossoms in late summer and early fall, and Lenten rose blooms white and rose in winter. For moist shade, Tom extols purple-leaved golden ray (Ligularia dentana Othello and Desdemona), the feathery blooms of astilbe, and the golden, grassy leaves of Bowles Golden sedge (Carex elata Bowles Golden).
Keep in mind when choosing plants that not all shade is created equal. For example, although flowering plants grow in deep shade, few actually bloom in it. Light shade, punctuated by dappled sunlight, produces more flowers. And like Tom, you also need to consider whether you’re gardening in dry or moist shade. Woodland gardens are typically quite dry, because tall trees suck up all the rain. Plants that require constant moisture wither here. Having moist shade usually depends on two things–a spring, stream, or pond nearby, and trees or structures providing shade from some distance away.
Shallow-rooted shade trees, such as maples, beeches, and Southern magnolias, challenge even the most accomplished shade gardener. Few flowering plants will grow beneath them. So plant a shade-loving ground cover with colorful foliage instead. Good choices include variegated liriope, variegated English ivy, Beacon Silver dead nettle (Lamium maculatum Beacon Silver), and bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria).
Of course, you can avoid the whole dry shade versus moist shade dilemma by growing shade-loving plants in containers. You can give plants just the right amount of water and the number of plants you can grow will skyrocket.
It’s natural to think of flowers first when adding color to a shade garden. But don’t overlook plants with handsome foliage. One of Tom’s favorite shade combinations is Nellie R. Stevens holly paired with Bowles Golden sedge. “The dark, dark green [of the holly] makes the bright, golden yellow [of the sedge] look fantastic,” he says.