At this time of year when our sunlit beds and borders are ablaze with colour it is easy to ignore the shady corners of the garden. But there is no reason why these should not quietly shine too. All it takes is good design and careful plant selection.
There are different types of shade, so first of all define which one you are dealing with. Light, partial, moderate or deep? As defined by the RHS I will be addressing deep or moderate (dappled) shade that receives no direct light at any time of day.
Spring is the best time for shade loving plants as they have evolved to flower before the leaf buds break on the branches above them. I advise people to be content with a pretty display in Spring and then let your shady areas take backstage to the sunlit borders. This doesn’t mean they should look patchy or awful – they can still be interesting and look great. These are a few ideas:
Vinca Minor ‘Ralph Shugert’
Ground cover plants are programmed to spread. I advise against Hedera helix (ivy), Hypericum (Rose of Sharon apart from @Hidcote’ which is well behaved) and Vinca major (periwinkle) as they are difficult to control. I like Vinca minor ‘Ralph Shugert’ as it is not as invasive and has a silver variegated leaf which works well in shade. Lily of the valley is good but needs moisture especially when setting flower and takes a couple of years to establish. I usually turn to the Ajuga reptans and Lamiums. My favourites are Lamium maculatum ‘Pink Pewter’ for its silver leaves and long flowering period. I also love Ajuga reptans ‘Chocolate Chip’ – for the name and for its intense blue miniature spires.
Ajuga reptans ‘Chocolte Chip’
For me this is shade under an evergreen conifer. The ground is dry, dark and covered in acidic needles. I would not try and grow anything but rather hide the damage. For these areas I would propose planting pots (but avoiding hostas). I like Tiarella “Inkblot” with any of the purple leaved heucheras, with a small silver leaved trailing ivy or dwarf Japanese painted fern, Athyrium ‘Silver Slippers’. Add impatiens for a splash of colour or begonias but they will need watering. In my mind, ferns are fantastic. They work in pots, are structural and can work by themselves or be combined. I particularly like Gymnocarpium dryopteris and evergreen Blechnum spicant.
The Large Dark Corner
This is the area of shade that isn’t under a canopy but still in shade, like a north-facing fence or corner between two walls. Hydrangeas (provided the ground is not too dry) are made for this type of area, as are Camellias, Sarcococcas and Viburnums. Although some websites recommend fuchsias and skimmias, I find that these work better in partial shade with more moisture. Another favourite that gives winter interest is Garrya eliptica- or the silk tassle bush. Like some of the viburnums however, this can become enormous so give it room.
Viburnum acerifolium gives spring blossom, lovely lush green leaves in summer and spectacular Autumn Colour.
Year Round Interest
It is possible to have year round interest in a shady bed, but make sure that the bed is annually well prepared with moisture retaining, rich compost. Most plants that have adapted for shade are woodland plants that grow on soil full of organic matter. By replicating what nature provides in the wild in your garden, you will have a better chance of success.
Spring: It’s all about bulbs. Take your pick from shade loving primroses, wood anemones, cyclamens, English bluebells, snow drops, dogtooth violets, and winter aconites. These can peep up through evergreen ground cover of the Ajuga and Lamium quite happily.
Summer: Think foliage not flowers. I like silver variated foliage to lighted up a dark corner (but golds work just as well) or lush, green shiny foliage to reflect the light. I choose heucheras, tiarellas, epimediums, any brunnera macrophylla – good, hardy, low maintenance perennials that deliver and all of which work well together in different combinations. The perfect tried and tested combination is Alchemilla mollis with any of the long flowering purply-blue Geraniums, like ‘Johnson’s Blue.’
Autumn: Japanese anemones flower late summer into Autumn and come in a range of pinks and whites. Foxgloves that have been cut down after summer flowering sometimes have a second autumnal show. The Autumn crocus is reliable, and I like Colchicum luteum, though it may flop.
Height can be provided by Polygonatum (Solomons Seal) in late Spring, followed by Digitalis (Foxgloves) and then with Japanese Anemones in late Summer/Autumn.
Planting combinations for dry shade
White and purple Hellebores can be followed by a combination of Geranium phaeum ‘album’ and/or ‘raven’, mixed with Tiarella ‘Neon Lights’ and Heuchera ‘Cajun Fire.’
Another combination is Lamium ‘album’ which goes well with Geranium maculatum.
Dicentra ‘Bacchanal’ goes with Epimedium ‘Lilafee’ and can be mixed with Lamium album – this works in a pot or bed.
The soft lilac of Lunaria redivia works well with the blue spires of Ajuga.
Finally, in summer a mix of Astrantia major ‘Sunningdale variegated’ and foliage from Tiarella cordifolia creates a summer tapestry of foliage and flowers.
Next blog: How to Choose your Path