Shady Characters: Plants that Grow in Shade
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Defining light shade
Gordon describes “open” shade as the brightest type produced by open-branched trees like honey locust or larch.
“Tiny patches of sunlight flicker across the ground, but the plants aren’t exposed to direct sunlight for any extended period of time,” he says. “Lathwork over a patio can provide this type of shade.” Sometimes these areas receive morning sun, but the plants are protected from the intense afternoon sun. For such areas, Oslund’s favorites are Hosta, ‘Stained Glass’; Heuchera, ‘Encore’; Yucca, ‘Color Guard’; Iris pseudacorus, ‘Variegata’; and the ornamental grass Calamagrostis x acutiflora, ‘Overdam.’
With little or no direct sunlight, the next category for Oslund is called “light” shade, and here there is only bright light. He finds such spots on the northeast or northwest sides of buildings or under single tall trees with a heavy canopy of leaves. Here he would plant Hosta, ‘Sagae’; Heuchera, ‘Caramel’; a Japanese grass called Hakonechloa macra, ‘Aureola’; Pulsatilla vulgaris, ‘Purple’; and Aruncus dioicus (Giant goat’s beard).
Alice Longfellow, owner of Longfellow’s Garden Center in Centertown, Missouri, in Zone 6, lists foxglove, tricyrtis and serviceberry at the top of her list for light shade.
Planting in medium shade
Our bog garden probably qualifies as an area of “medium” shade since it’s beneath a canopy of tall trees with overhanging branches. Here Ligularia, ‘Britt Marie Crawford’ thrives along with Cimicifuga, ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ and Brunnera, ‘Jack Frost.’ Cimicifuga, ‘White Pearl’ also blooms late in the season in medium shade. Another of our shade gardens where the soil is drier has several varieties of pulmonaria such as Raspberry Splash and Bertram Anderson.
“Medium shade is the most exciting place for gardening,” says Longfellow. “You can grow most any shade plant here. You are forced to work with leaf colors and textures, yet you can still add color from impatiens and begonias.” Among Longfellow’s favorites for medium shade are crested iris, astilbe, brunnera, hakonechloa, oakleaf hydrangea, torenia and hostas. Some of the hardy geraniums are great for dappled shade, and Heuchera, ‘Chocolate Ruffles’ holds its intense color there. Astilbe, ‘Sprite’ goes into medium to rather heavy shade. In addition to lovely pink flowers, the plant makes an ideal ground cover because of its shiny foliage.
Although hostas are one of the most popular and dependable of shade plants, Keith Wiley warns in his book, Shade: Ideas and Inspiration for Shady Gardens, against using too many single hostas of different varieties in one bed. Instead he suggests planting them in groups of three, and when using variegated hostas, choosing a color range that will link to neighboring plants. We’ve tried to achieve this effect with Wide Brim and Gold Standard hostas along with the Rocket ligularia, gold moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia) and chartreuse feverfew. Another bed combines blue-tinged hosta regal with a white bleeding heart (Dicentra alba), White Nancy lamium and White Gloria astilbes. A dwarf astilbe serves as excellent ground cover, growing only 12 inches tall and spreading. Astilbe chinensis pumila produces soft pink flowers in late summer.
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