Many of us who garden on a city plot have to contend with a fair amount of shade. Some gardeners think this means saying buh-bye to colour, but that’s not true. There’s so much you can plant to add oomph to even the darkest, dankest corners. (My front garden is a special challenge, for there I deal with the dreaded dry shade, thanks to a moisture-wicking, nutrient-sucking Schwedler Norway maple, which thrives on a tiny patch of ground.) So out I went with my camera, to give you a few examples of what I mean. The main photo at left shows the emerging lower foliage of a ‘Golden Shadows’ pagoda dogwood, as seen against the dark green of periwinkle, now in bloom.
When it comes to shade, texture is the name of the game. Texture can mean a play on green, as well as an interplay of other colours. The photo just below, far left, is a corner that has several oakleaf hydrangeas (which really need a bit more sun, but oh well. Pee-gee types do better and give me loads of blooms in late summer.). In spring, Leucojeum ‘Gravetye Giant’ adds its tall, snowdrop-like blooms to those of variegated and plain solomon’s seal. This is underplanted with green-and-white-striped sedge (Carex ‘Ice Dance’) and Lamium ‘White Nancy.’ Nearby is a healthy clump of the brunnera called ‘Jack Frost,’ whose silvery leaves look fabulous throughout the season. Above all is that trusty standby, an old, shapely redtwig dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’) with its green-and-white variegated leaves. So greens, whites and silvers lighten and brighten up this area.
Two other plants I find most useful in both gardens are various types of heuchera and perennial geranium (near left), especially Geranium macrorrhizum cultivars, which handle the shade with aplomb and reward me with pretty blooms in spring and nice foliage throughout the season.
And I can’t praise barrenwort (Epimedium spp., far left) enough. Also known as bishop’s hat, this plant is very happy in my garden. I have the rosy, purply and yellow types. The flowers are dainty but it’s the foliage I really like. Small, delicate and airy, it combines well with other shapes and doesn’t overpower (you really want to avoid the “moundy roundy” look you can get with a surfeit of heucheras and perennial geraniums).
Like many shade gardeners, I’m mad about ferns. Here is ‘Lady in Red’ (near left) in my front garden, where the soil is a constant battle for it really wants to be nothing more than dust, so I have to amend it like mad. The purple leaves growing through it are Lysimachia ‘Firecracker,’ which proved to be horribly invasive in the back but is just fine here, and easy to hoick out if it gets too rambunctious. In fact, I shifted other invasives to the front, including gooseneck loosestrife and lily-of-the-valley. Both are surprisingly well-behaved and haven’t overwhelmed the more polite plants, which just shows how bad the conditions out there really are.
The Japanese painted fern (far left) is one of my favourites. I have a fine clump of them in the back, near a Japanese maple and a dark-burgundy-leafed ‘Diabolo’ ninebark, and the veins of the ferns echo the deep burgundy. It took a few years for these ferns to get established with any sort of vigour, so don’t lose heart if yours look poopy. They’ll come along. However, they haven’t done well in the front garden, where the fierce roots of the Norway maple make life a real struggle for all but the most determined (and shallow rooted) of plants. Others that don’t do well out in the front include hostas, which need more room for their roots, so they stay small and sulky.
Another fabulous fern is the maidenhair (near left), with its graceful, black, wiry stems. This clump resides in the back near some hellebores and an arching and very thorny Acanthopanax sieboldianus. The leaf-and-frond shapes complement each other nicely. And I’m working on a green-and-gold corner that’s just starting to knit together. It’s basically a combo of golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’), ‘Bowles Golden’ sedge, various green-and-gold hostas, and so forth.
Note the Japanese forest grass is a slow grower, and takes awhile to become established. But it’s worth the wait. For without help, this area could be dark and miserable. Though still a bit sparse, the golden tones do much to brighten things up. In spring, the creamy yellow, fragrant ‘Elizabeth’ magnolia nearby is underplanted with yellow-flowered barrenwort and daffodils. It does my heart good to see them.