You may think that because we’re into August that it’s too late to really tackle any planting projects. It’s not too late! Annual plant season may be over but there are still plenty of choices in the perennial sections of garden centres, with many now at reduced prices.
Shade gardens can be particularly tricky to get right and be happy with. My family home had a nice backyard but received little sun due to neighbouring trees. I used to beg my mom on spring excursions to the garden centres to buy a rose, a peony or maybe a poppy plant, flowers which I really enjoyed in my grandmother’s garden around the corner. My mom would patiently remind me that she had tried growing those things many times in our backyard, but that they never made it past the winter because there’s just too much shade.
It’s true that some plants just won’t thrive under low light conditions, but that doesn’t mean that your shade garden has to be boring, or only filled with hosta plants. There are a surprising number of flowering plants that will do perfectly well in the shade that you probably haven’t considered before. Let me walk you through some great choices that can spruce up that shady corner of your yard!
Astilbe – This part-shade-loving plant is the complete package. Blooms are feathery spires which range in colours from white to dark pink in early summer. The fern-like foliage also looks good for the rest of the season after blooms are spent. Pollinators like it too! It does bloom better when it gets any degree of sunlight, whether it’s a couple of hours at some point in the day or if it’s placed in dappled shade. I especially love the fact that if you grow a large enough patch, you can cut some of the flowers for your vases.
Columbine (Aquilegia) – another early summer bloomer that comes in a whole variety of colours and flower forms. The flowers can be two-toned, or mono-toned, double or single, so there’s something for every gardener’s preference. There is also a native variety (Aquilegia canadensis) that is a lovey two-toned red and yellow colour. Columbine can naturalize in an area and spread slowly, making it great to plant in an understory if you have a grove of trees.
Hydrangea – That’s right, I said hydrangea. There are many varieties of hydrangea on the market, all ranging in colour and shape, but also in light preference. I have a big-leaf variety planted on the side of my house that gets maybe two hours of direct sun a day and is currently covered in big pink blooms.
I’ve seen some stunning lace-head hydrangeas that prefer part or dappled shade. An example that is easy to find is Climbing Hydrangea, which is actually a vine that can grow up trees or on the shady side of buildings. Another variety that prefers more shade than most is Oakleaf Hydrangea, which naturally grows in the understory of trees. This variety also has four-season interest with oak leaf-shaped leaves that turn a dark red in the fall. The flowers are showy and more pointed than round in shape, ranging from white to pink. The bark which is left bare in the winter also has a cinnamon colour to it and peels much like birch tree bark does.
Solomon’s Seal – one of my favourite shade-loving plants! This plant grows strong, arched, leafy stems with dangling bell-shaped flowers in the spring. I love cutting a handful of these and putting them in a vase as a dramatic table centerpiece. The flowers, although short lived, have a nice scent, similar to lilies. Solomon’s seal is great for naturalizing and filling in bare areas of your garden. It will slowly form a dense colony over some years as it spreads by underground shoots called rhizomes. A little bit of this goes a long way!
Bleeding Hearts/Dicentra – Another great shade variety known for its pretty arching flowers and delicate looking foliage. Bleeding hearts are timeless and come in a few different colours ranging from white to dark pink. These spring bloomers hold their flowers for a few weeks before the hot weather sets in and are easily found year to year.
Hostas – These reliable plants are the staples of every shade garden that I know. When incorporated with the other plants mentioned above they can really add some great texture and visual interest! Hostas come in a variety of leaf shapes, colours and sizes. Ranging from small and compact such as Blue Mouse Ears (a name just as cute as the hosta itself) or large and showy such as Princess Wu, leaves can also be two-toned, adding great visual contrast, and all varieties will bloom mid-summer, attracting pollinators.
Ferns – These also come in a variety of colours, sizes, and leaf shapes! In Canada (and southern Ontario in particular) there are many native varieties that look very different from one another, allowing you to have some variety in your plantings. Some ferns also remain evergreen through the winter, giving your garden four-season interest. Ferns, in contrast to hostas, tend to prefer wetter soils, but many will do just fine if you don’t have those conditions. Some of my favourite native varieties include Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum), Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina) and Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides).
Rhododendron – known for their showy spring flowers and glossy evergreen leaves, these shrubs have a big range in size and also colour, so they can work in almost any space you have. They also prefer soil that is more acidic, so if have a garden under some tall spruces, these plants should be really happy! If you do choose to grow them under trees, keep in mind that tree roots tend to monopolize the water in any understory garden, so keep them well watered until they’ve had a chance to establish themselves.
Camellias – This is another evergreen shrub with showy flowers, but is more commonly seen south of the border. I’ve added camellias to this list because there are actually a few cold hardy varieties on the market bred to withstand conditions up to Zone 5! Although I haven’t yet found a garden centre or (even local garden) that has them, this shrub is on my must-try list.
As you can see, there is a lot of choice and variety when it comes to shade gardens, and this list is just a few of the many examples of plants you can choose from! Most of the options I listed above can tolerate complete or dappled shade, but are also well suited to the part-sun garden if you have one. Gardening tends to be a big experiment, and losses are inevitable, but the fun in seeing something grow that you haven’t tried before, is all the worthwhile.
Aleksia Shoalts is a Director for the Pelham Garden Club and also writes a blog about gardening and DIY projects. Have gardening questions you want answered? Contact her at: [email protected]