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Beauty and Hardiness Grow in the Shade

July 5, 2011

Heuchera, hellebores and dicentra are some of the beauties that grow easily in the shade.

Credit: Doreen G. Howard
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Many gardeners complain they can’t grow any plants in the shade other than hostas. And those are devoured by slugs. Embrace the shade!

Plenty of gorgeous, unique plants seek shady nooks. Most are cold-hardy and need little maintenance once they are planted correctly.

My shade garden, shown here in early spring, is colorful and work-free.

I started with heuchera, which is commonly known as Coral Bells. Foliage color is their strength, ranging from washed amber of ‘Ginger Ale’ to the glossy black-red of ‘Black Beauty’. Add a couple unusual ones like ‘Midnight Rose’ with hot pink-splashed black leaves or the vivid orange of ‘Peach Flambe’, and you don’t need flowers. Color abounds and stays year-round. Bonus stalks of multiple tiny flowers appear in late spring, brown by mid-summer and should be removed along with old leaves. Cut a few flower stalks and three or four leaves for a quick, hi-impact bouquet when blooms are at their peak.

Who needs flowers when brilliantly-colored heuchera leaves supply plenty in the shade year-round with little care.  Photo courtesty of Terra Nova Nurseries.

The reason I initially began my shade garden with these plants is that Dan Heims, president of Terra Nova Nurseries sends me his new creations every year to trial. Terra Nova is a wholesale grower and breeder; their plants are found in every garden center. However, I soon learned that heuchera were slug-proof and deer hated them. And, they were easy to plant and grow. I only had to add plenty of humus to the soil and mulch thickly with wood chips. Even -27F in the winter doesn’t faze them.

I also found a host of other plants that were just as tough and lit up the north and northeast borders of against my house. They also are unattractive to deer and slugs. Here are the ones in my garden and why I love them.

Black Bugbane (also called Black Cohosh and Black Baneberry): it grows tall, has furry white flowers, and sensational ink-black cut-leaf foliage. Blooms in late summer.

Hellebores: the first buds open, covered with snow, in late winter. Flowers are still on plants in July. But, they brown and tatter. Plan on cleaning up old flowers and leaves from them and heuchera after the Fourth of July.

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra): who doesn’t love the arched sprays of tiny pink hearts that cover plants in early spring. If weather stays cool, the flowers remain for weeks. Lacy foliage goes dormant in early summer, making room for later flowering plants like Bugbane and Thalictrum.

Hakonechloa & Carex grasses: they pop with color, are tidy in growth and add a different texture to the shade garden filled with big. broad leaves.

Thalictrum (Meadow Rue): it starts growing and sending up tall stalks (5-6 feet) about the time Dicentra is going into dormancy. Place them nearby so that Thalicutrum’s emerging growth covers Dicentra’s dying leaves. Fluffy pink blooms last for weeks.

Black-stemmed Thalictrum 'Black Stockings' provides floral interest in my shade garden after Bleeding Heart and various primrose have ended their bloom cycles.

Ferns: my favorites are Dre’s Dagger and ‘Silver Falls’, a Japanese painted fern. Ostrich ferns, are great, too, but be mindful that they grow tall and spread. They’re perfect for creating a fern dell, as I have in part of my shade garden.

My fern dell is a work in progress.  A peony division I planted last summer flowered this spring in the north-northeast exposure.

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Doreen Howard has written for The Old Farmer's Almanac All-Seasons Garden Guide for 15 years and is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day as well as a photographer. She has grown more than 300 varieties of heirloom edibles and flowers in the last two decades.

In stores now!

Look for Doreen's newest book, Heirloom Flavor: Yesterday's Best-Tasting Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs for Today's Cook. Find in stores everywhere including Walmart and on the Web including Amazon.com.

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Great post, Doreen! I live in

By Margie in OH

Great post, Doreen! I live in N.E. Ohio. Recently bought a very old house, and the previous owners left us a virtual garden center here. Not having any experience with gardening at all, I had to deal with years of overgrowth, and not knowing what most things even were. I did recognize some weeds, but neighbors alerted me as to others.

Anyhow, boy could I use your help!! I have Peonies that bloomed sparsely, now have taken on what looks like mildew. I understand that I should cut them down to the ground when it gets truly cold outside, and will do that. As to a shade garden~ I am wondering, can I plant one underneath an old spruce tree that we lopped off plenty of underbranches from? There is a least 5 ft. of height space under it, and I'd like to do something with it, if possible. I just have so many questions. Are you available for consult? :^).

Yes, you can plant a peony

By Doreen G. Howard

Yes, you can plant a peony under the pruned spruce. Set it on either the east or west side of the tree trunk. A wonderful (and free) source of information about your various plants is the local county extension service. The extension agent and Master Gardeners are encyclopedias of information about your climate and will gladly visit your garden for a consult!

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