Throwing Shade 

Shade, it has become a bad word. Throwing shade is a disparaging term in the common vernacular, but in the heat of summer I can’t think of anything better than finding an excuse to retreat into the shade. 

I am a shade person; I seek it out. When my friends are looking for a sunny spot on the patio, I am making a bee-line to the nearest umbrella. It’s not just my pathological fear of sunburn but instead I find a serenity in enjoying the good weather just not actually in the sun. Plants are no different, there are those that prefer sun but many plants have adapted to life in the shade. 

So many gardeners are intimidated by shade gardening, they see it as a challenge to overcome. I get it, most of the top veggies and flowering garden plants are sun lovers (lavender, echinacea, tomatoes, squash, just to name a few). But if you dig a little deeper (pun intended) you will find there is an amazing array of shade tolerant plants and you just might find you don’t even miss the popular sun-lovers. Gardening in the shade is in a way more restful, subtle. Plants that have adapted to living in lower light levels don’t always have the showy flowers. We need to think out of the “sun box” 

Instead of relying on over-the-top colour you need to think about pattern and texture. Leaves are your friends in the shade garden, not that flowers aren’t available they just tend to be shorter lived and not as showy as their sun loving cousins. But thinking more about using the texture and pattern of leaves is just smart gardening because plants have leaves most of the year, they last all season long unlike many flowering plants that have their temporary show. And you’re in luck because they come in all shapes, colours and pattern. And what exactly do I mean by pattern and texture? Different sizes and shapes to the plants themselves and the leaves. Some plants are lacy (think ferns), others have bold wide leaves (like hostas), and more have spiky leaves that act like an exclamation point for the garden (think grasses), some are evergreen and have structure (like shrubs) others disappear in the winter but explode into new growth each year, and then there are the vibrant colours of shade loving annuals. By having a nice mix of plants with different shapes and colours you create a pleasing visual scene just as you would for an interior design of your home. So, when planning your garden think about plant shapes, sizes and colours.  

Before we launch into some of my top plants for the shade, we need to have a quick talk about what kind of shade garden you have. Not all shade gardens are the same. No matter what kind of garden you have, before you start to plant you need to get real with what you have. How many hours of direct sunlight, if any? What is the aspect… north, west or east? Are there any large trees or structures (like your house) that will block the sun for a large portion of the day? Answering these questions and taking a real look at your garden site will determine if you have part shade or deep shade or something in between. Armed with that information you can start to plan what to plant to create your own serene shady retreat. 

Shady Perennials 

Hostas 

My top choice for the shade are hostas, their bold leaves never fail to catch the eye. They come in shades of blue, dark green, bright green, chartreuse, yelllow and variegated with white, cream and yellow. They are a perennial herbaceous plant, which means that they die down to nothing in the winter but then re-sprout each spring. It is one of my favourite signs of spring every year to see the pointy hosta shoots erupt out of the ground and then watch them unfurl their leaves. They are clump forming and can be quite variable in size (so make sure to read your labels). Their big, often quilted looking leaves have the bonus that water droplets will pool on the leaves like liquid mercury.  A garden photographer I knew use to keep a water bottle handy when photographing gardens just so he could sprinkle water on the hostas before shooting them. The white and/or purple bell-shaped flowers are held high above the leaves on a stalk, but really, they are just a nice bonus it is the leaves that are the star of the show. Hardy to Zone 3 hostas are so easy to grow and perfect for the beginning gardener. The only thing that can bother them are slugs, which love to munch the soft leaves. If you have a slug problem then head down to the closest GardenWorks where you will find a plethora of ways to deal with them. 

Brunnera 

Bugloss, false forget-me-not or Brunnera macrophylla is a small, slow-growing, clump forming herbaceous perennial with dainty blue flowers and heart shaped leaves. The sprays of small blue flowers alone are enough for me to love this plant but when you factor in the silver leaf colouration of many cultivars it’s a no-brainer to add this into the shade garden. Silver leaves and blue flowers! The cultivar ‘Jack Frost’ was one of the first to hit the scene and created quite a stir in horticultural circles back in the day. Nowadays there are many other silver coloured cultivars to choose from including ‘Silver Spot’ and Looking Glass’. If silver’s not your thing (I’m not sure why it wouldn’t be…) then look for ‘Hadspen Cream’ with its large variegated cream and green leaves to bring a bit of brightness to any shady spot. Hardy to Zone 3, this is an easy plant to grow and as long as you have half decent soil it should thrive. Make sure to water it well in the first year of planting, give it some good mulch to keep the soil cool and it should become established and more tolerant of drier conditions. Also, slugs tend to ignore brunnera so if you just can’t deal with them chewing on your hostas, pull a switchero on them and replace the hostas with a brunnera or two. 

Heuchera 

So many colours to choose from, what’s a gardener to do? Also called coral bells and alumroot they grow in a dainty rosette of lobed palmate leaves that seem to come in every colour of the rainbow… almost. Shades of burgundy, purple, chartreuse, golden orange, silver just to name a few. And with cultivar names like ‘Palace Purple,’ ‘Marmalade,’ ‘Key Lime Pie,’ ‘Green Spice,’ ‘Purple Petticoats,’ and ‘Stary Night’ mean there is a colour for everyone. They are called coral bells because of the sprays of (often coral coloured) flowers which are held high above the leaves. While technically an evergreen perennial but I find that not all heuchera are equal on that front. Some of the newer more colourful cultivars are not quite as hardy as the old standards, such as ‘Palace Purple’ which has been around for a while. Also, heuchera are susceptible to root weevil problems. These are little black/brown nocturnal beetles with pointy snouts and their larval stage likes to eat the roots of a number of different plants including heuchera. Often the plant will keep on growing and when you bend down to take a look realize that you can pick it right up because the roots are pretty much gone. But please, don’t let this discourage you for planting a heuchera, consider them more of a long lasting annual. They are otherwise very easy to grow, being hardy and somewhat drought tolerant. 

Creating Structure with Shrubs 

Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens

Okay, this isn’t the most exciting plant at first glance, but stick with me… it’s worth it. While there are no flowers to speak of on boxwood it is a luxurious evergreen shrub that is invaluable in the garden. It creates structure, and is able to grow in almost any condition (including dry full shade, in my front yard). Considered a small rounded shrub it is so amenable to pruning (as long as you don’t do it in the early spring) that it is a favourite for shaping and topiary. Relatively slow growing it is perfect in the shade garden as an accent plant or even pruned into a hedge. 

Rhododenrons and azalea 

Another great option for providing some year-round structure in the shade garden due to their evergreen leaves. Most people just consider them for their spring show (which is stunning) but they also should be planted because many have very attractive leaves and sometimes with a fuzzy underside (called an indumentum). When planning a garden don’t forget that you need variety in size, growth and structure. Evergreens like rhododendron and azalea come in all sizes and colours so make sure to check them out. 

BoldBright Colour with Annuals 

Coleus

Sometimes you have a spot where you just need a punch of colour. These annuals come in so many colours and leaf textures that I could write a whole blog on them alone. Plant them in a bare spot, near the front of a planting bed, in a container, pretty much anywhere. They grow like crazy and if you want them to look full and bushy pinch them back to encourage side branches to grow. Also, if they start to bloom, pinch the flower buds out… you don’t need them. 

Begonias

Credit: Proven Winners

I find these annuals are so underrated and they shouldn’t be. There are so many different kinds, from standard wax begonia with their colourful flowers to the giant showy blooms of the tuberous begonias and my favourite the angel-wings and fancy leaf begonias. I grew one this year called ‘Sparks will Fly’ it was an angel-wing type with dark brown/burgundy leaves and an orange flower that glowed so bright that I was tempted to look for a battery. Another favourite for the leaf alone is ‘Pegasus’ with it‘s burgundy and silver foliage, you don‘t even need flowers. Find a begonia to love and enjoy. 

Frothy” Ferns 

Ferns – if you want to talk about texture, let’s talk ferns. Frothy and delicate, it’s like adding a bit of lace trim to the garden. They love the shade and most of them will put up with a lot of neglect. I love them all but if I was forced to name a few I would go with: 

Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) a native fern that needs a fair amount of moisture and good calcium rich soil to thrive. But if you can provide the right site for it you will be rewarded. Thin jet-black stems (looking almost like a maiden hair) hold up lacy delicate sprays. 

Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’) a bold, sturdy, evergreen fern that is easy to grow and has the most striking bronze-orange new fronds that emerge in the spring and then fade to a dark shiny green. A winner of the prestigious RSH Award of Garden Merit award. Water it well in the first year and it should be somewhat drought tolerant in subsequent years. 

Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum) a deciduous fern with fronds that don’t look real, they look painted. Shades of silvery blue with purple-tinged stems, plant it near the front of the bed or on a path so it can be enjoyed in all its glory. 

Grasses for an Exclamation Point 

Japanese forest grass (Hakonechola macra ‘Aureola’) 

Is a golden coloured grass that should be classified as a necessity in a shade garden, it brings light and movement into the shade. This grass has the mostlovely rounded growing habit with gently arching leaves in a vibrant yellow/golden colour, that ripples in even the slightest breeze. Not to wax too much poetic but it looks like golden flowing water in the garden. Okay, perhaps that was too much poetic, but you definitely need to add this plant to your shade garden list. Yet another plant to win the RHS Award of Garden Merit it grows only 45cm tall but can get 60cm wide and will tolerate even deep shade. So easy to grow and is disease and pest free.  

Black Mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’)

Which is not actually a grass, but it looks like a grass so we will just glaze over that detail. It’s a short (20cm) evergreen perennial with the coolest looking purple/black tufts of grass-like leaves. A bonus is that it produces pinkish coloured bell shaped flowers in the summer and are soon followed by dark purple berries. But really, we want it for those uniquely coloured leaves. It can lose its black colour in full shade, but I grow it in deep dry shade and while the new leaves emerge green they soon take on that dark colour as they mature. Yet another RHS award of Garden Merit plant, it is very easy to grow, disease and pest resistant and both salt and drought tolerant. 

When I think of shade gardening, I prefer to think we have it “made in the shade” rather than crossing over to the dark side. Shade plants are a bit less “needy,” they don’t scream “look at me, look at me.” They provide us a chance to slow down and really appreciate the subtle beauty inherit in plants (something we all seem to be doing a bit more of lately). If this is throwing shade then please throw it my way. 

Written By: Ingrid Hoff

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