How to Design a Garden for Partial Shade
Shade gardening used to be considered a challenge. Thankfully, there's been an explosion of shade perennials on the market and your shade garden can be as colorful and varied as any full sun border. Beautiful foliage, like bronzy or caramel coral bells and puckered, variegated Solomon's Seal and blue Hosta make the need for flowers incidental. But you'll have a hard time not indulging in astilbe, foam flowers, and giant Cimicifuga.
If you've never created a garden before, here's a pictorial primer of how other's have gone about the process. And if you're brand new to gardening, you might want to review some gardening basics, so you'll know what you're in for.
The shade garden design illustrated here is a kidney-shaped 25' x 6-7' and offers interest in color and texture. Most of the plants are suitable for a range of hardiness zones, but alternatives are listed.
Season Long Interest
Although astilbe can be grown in full sun, it has earned a reputation as a shade perennial because it does equally well in partial shade, where it adds a full season of interest with virtually no maintenance. Astilbe bloom only once per season and don't require deadheading. The flower plumes will often remain attractive long after the color has faded.
For some reason, gardeners tend to be cautious about dividing Astilbe. You needn't be. Even a one-year-old plant can be successfully divided, as long as each piece has some roots attached. The resulting plants will fill out quickly and help you create an even lusher looking shade garden.
Astilbe chinensis, Superba (USDA Zones 4 through 9, 24" x 18", Pink Blooms: August)
- Astilbe x arendsii, Rheinland (USDA Zones 3 through 8, 24" x 18", pink blooms: July through August)
There are always new, excellent pink astilbe being bred, but 'Rheinland' is particularly reliable and tends to bloom a bit earlier.
Attracting Hummingbirds and Butterflies
Columbines, with their ferny foliage and nodding flowers in saturated pastels, add color, texture and a bit of height to the garden. They also tend to attract nectar seekers like hummingbirds and butterflies. Columbine plants tend to be easy maintenance, although insects besides butterflies find them quite tempting. The worst problem is leaf miners, but the resulting trail markings on the leaves, while not attractive, isn't fatal. In a healthy garden, columbines will outperform their problems.
Above is a white flowering variety, Aquilegia flabellata 'Nana Alba' (USDA Zones 4 through 9, 9" x 12", White Blooms: May through June). However, you'll find columbines in pink, yellow, purples and reds. Columbine can be divided, but you'll find they will self-seed on their own, although not uncontrollably. You may get repeat blooms if you deadhead spent flowers.
Although Columbine can be hardy from USDA Zones 3 through 9, they will require the protection of moist shade in hotter regions. They grow easily from seed, but many of the commonly available columbines are hybrids and you will often wind up with a mix of colors when growing from seed. The eastern North American native columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, tends to be less popular with leaf miners.
- Aquilegia, swan white, (USDA zones 3 through 8, 20" x 18", white blooms: May through June)
- Semiaquilegia ecalcarata, spineless columbine (USDA Zones 6 through 8, 24" x 30", burgundy blooms: May through June)
Repeat Bloomer for Season Long Color
Traditional Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis) has the charm of hanging heart-shaped pink flowers, but it blooms once and is done for the season. Often the whole plant disappears until next year. The fringed-leaf variety has less defined flowers, but it will repeat throughout the summer and fall. The leaves themselves coordinate with the Astilbe and the ferns.
Dicentra eximia, Fringed Leaf Bleeding Heart (USDA Zones 3 through 9, 12" x 9", Repeat Blooms: Pink)
- Dicentra formosa, western bleeding heart (USDA zones 4 through 10, 24" x 24", pink blooms: May through June)
- Dicentra cucullaria, Dutchman's breeches (USDA zones 3 through 7, 12" x 18", white blooms: April through May)
Bet You Can't Pick Just One
It's hard to remember a time when Hosta wasn't standard in every garden. Sadly, deer love Hosta as much as gardeners, but that doesn't stop the introduction of fetching new varieties. The puckered leaved varieties, like Hosta sieboldiana 'Elegans' recommended here, are less bothered by slugs. The bluish leaves provide a distinction in the sea of green since the variations of the color green don't often play well in shade.
The game of creating new Hosta probably began with the first variegated Hosta, but breeders weren't satisfied with simply adding a splash of white. They had to control where the white was placed, the actual shade of white and the proportion of white to green. Their obsession is our gain and there are a number of exquisite variegated Hosta to brighten a shady area.
Then there are the shades of yellow from lime to day-glow gold. These tend to lose some of the brilliance in shade, where the white and blue varieties perform best.
Puckered or variegated, Hostas have bold leaves that contrast well with the lacy texture of so many shade perennials.
- Hosta, francee (USDA zones 3 through 8, 28" x 36", white blooms, white variegated leaf edges)
- Hosta, patriot (USDA zones 3 through 9, 28" x 36", white Blooms, white variegated leaf edges)
Puckered Blue Leaves
- Hosta sieboldiana, elegans (USDA zone 3 through 8 28" x 48", white blooms, puckered Blue Leaves)
- Hosta, big daddy (USDA zones 3 through 8, 28" x 48" white blooms, puckered blue leaves)
- Brunnera macrophylla, Siberian bugloss (USDA zones 3 through 9, 24" x 12", blue flowers: April through May)
- Brunnera macrophylla, Dawson's white (USDA zones 3 through 9, 24" x 12", blue flowers: April through May, foliage is edged in a creamy white)
- Brunnera macrophylla, Jack frost (USDA zones 3 through 9, 24" x 12", blue flowers: April through May, foliage frosted in silver)
Unmatched Color and Elegance
One of the lady ferns, Japanese Painted Ferns (Athyrium niponicum) have some of the most beautiful colorings of any shade plant, let alone among the ferns. The silvery, gray frosted fronds and burgundy stems of Athyrium niponicum var Pictum have kept it a gardener's favorite for years. More recent hybrids and cultivars play up the coloring even further, although sometimes at a hefty price.
Athyrium niponicum var. pictum, Japanese Painted Fern (USDA zones 4 through 9, 18" x 18", silver & burgundy fronds)
- Athyrium niponicum var. pictum, wildwood twist (USDA zones 4 through 9, 18" x 24", slightly twisted silver and burgundy fronds).
- Athyrium felix femina, lady in red (USDA zones 2 through 8, 18" x 24", green fronds held upright on bright red stems)
- Polystichum makinoi, Makinoi's holly fern (USDA zones 5 through 9, 2' x 2', glossy green fronds with dark vein)
Color Every Which Way
It's hard to recognize coral bells these days. They seem to come in every color except coral. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. H. micrantha, Purple Palace started the ball rolling, with its regal, ruffled purple leaves that made the flowers an afterthought. Now Heuchera comes in bronze, caramel, rose and with frosted leaves, like the Pewter Veil shown here.
Another great feature of Heuchera is that it remains evergreen throughout winter. Of course, sometimes it's buried under snow and you don't notice it, but it's there.
Heuchera is relatively pest free and grows well in both full sun and partial shade, but they'll be moister when grown in sun. They have a habit of heaving with frost and thaws, so keep an eye on your plants in winter, if you don't get snow covering. A layer of mulch after the ground freezes will help.
Heuchera, pewter veil (USDA zones 4 through 9, 24" x 18", pale green blooms: May through June, silver/burgundy foliage)
- Heuchera, frosted violet (USDA zones 4 through 9, 36" x 24", pink flowers: June, silver/burgundy foliage)
Height and Drama
Few plants, shade or sun, offer the drama a mature Cimicifuga can provide. The tall, spiky flower plumes, echoed below by the Astilbe, direct the eye upward with their reach and create an illusion of sun-dappled mist in the shade.
Although a bit slow growing, cimicifugas are totally self-reliant. They don't even need staking! Among its many common names is bugbane, because bugs don't like the smell of it. You'll also see it listed as Snakeroot and Cohash.
The plant shown here is Cimicifuga spp. (USDA zones 4 through 8, 3' x 6', white blooms: July through August). It has been reclassified as Actaea racemosa, but gardeners are a stubborn lot and still refer to it as Cimicifuga.
- C. ramosa, branched bugbane, hillside black beauty (USDA zones 3 through 9, 3' to 4' x 6' to 8', white blooms: August through Sept., near black foliage)
- Aruncus dioicus, goat's beard (USDA zones 3 through 7, 6' x 6', white blooms: May through June)
Height and Drama in Miniature
Tiarella has strikingly similar foliage to Heuchera. You've probably seen the resulting cross between the two plants: Heucherella. But unlike Heuchera, Tiarella is usually grown for their flowers which will bloom earlier than Heuchera. Tiarella plants once again provide the spiky bottlebrush foliage of both the Astilbe and Cimicifuga, which give the height and depth to this garden.
T. cordifolia (Allegheny foamflower) is probably the hardiest variety, but it can spread somewhat quickly. It's not invasive, but it will require a bit more maintenance.
Above is tiarella candy striper, (USDA zones 4 through 8, 10" x 12", pink blooms: May through June, red-veined leaves)
- Wherry's foamflower, T. cordifolia var. collina (USDA zones 4 through 8, 12" x 12", repeat blooms white, April through May, foliage can be green, bronze or burgundy). It does not spread by underground stems. Instead, it forms a well-behaved clump. It also contributes sensual, velvety leaves.
- Heucherella, heart of darkness (USDA zones 4 through 9, 18" x 12", white blooms: May through June, red-veined, silver shadowed leaves)
Upright Form and Light Tipped Foliage
There may not be a cultivated plant that is happier to grow in a shade garden than Solomon's Seal. Quickly established, Solomon's Seal will slowly spread out and form a dense carpet of arching stems. The white tips of Variegated Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum odoratum Variegatum) mirror the small, tubular white flowers that dangle along the underside of the stem. The flowers give way to round, black seed pods and the leaves turn a radiant yellow in fall.
Along with ferns, Solomon's seal creates a natural woodland like feel in a garden. Its close cousin, False Solomon's Seal (Smilacina racemosa) is often seen along woodland walks. The unusual arching habit of Solomon's Seal makes it useful in shade garden design, where so many plants tend to form more of a rosette of leaves. Polygonatum odoratum Variegatum, Variegated Solomon's Seal (USDA zones 4 through 8, 18" x 9", white blooms: May)
- Polemonium stairway to heaven, variegated Jacob's ladder (USDA zones 4 through 8, 12" x 15", blue flowers: May through June)
The Look of a Natural Woodland
The maidenhair fern is one tough customer. It may look gentle and ladylike, but it's hardy and reliable. Northern maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum), shown here, used to be a common sight in the wild before gardeners started digging it to bring home to their own gardens. It's easy to be tempted by the shiny, black stems and feathery quality of its leaves, but make sure you purchase only nursery-grown stock and spare the true wilderness.
Simple green ferns have taken a back seat to flashier ferns, but for the sedate feel of a woodland garden in the shade, you need at least one specimen. Maidenhair ferns may be unostentatious, but they certainly possess a subtle beauty. The white center shading of the fronds gives it a glowing quality in the shade.
Adiantum pedatum, northern maidenhair (USDA zones 3 through 8, 18" x 24")
- Adiantum capillus-veneris, southern maidenhair fern (USDA zones 7 through 10, 18" x 24", green with black stripes on the stems)
- Athyrium, ghost (USDA zones 4 through 8, 24" x 36", silver/gray fronds with dark veins)