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Grow A Shade Garden | Summer 2007 Out Here Magazine

Choose plants with foliage that is varied in form, texture, height, and color when you’re creating a shade garden.

Interesting textures and colors can create a woodland retreat

By Jodi Torpey
Photography by Allan Mandell

Some plants are like the gardeners who tend them. They prefer a cool shaded spot during summer's heat. These shady characters like to lurk in the shadows beneath leafy trees or creep around a yard's dimly lit corners.

If you've never had the pleasure of planting a shade garden, it's not as challenging as you might think. It's a refreshing experience to create your own woodland retreat under the trees. The key is to select plants that will thrive in the available light.

The amount of shade a plant can tolerate varies from light shade to dense shade. Before planting, study the site and note the amount of sun the area receives throughout the day.

A lightly shaded area is one that's shaded for four to six hours each day, but still receives bright, indirect light. Partially shaded areas are blocked from the sun, except for short periods in the morning or late afternoon. Full shade means little sunlight reaches the area during the day.

Once you know the quality of shade in your yard, you can select from a variety of shade-tolerant plants. Match the plant's light needs and hardiness to your site. Seek plants that are varied in form, texture, height, and color. Each has a purpose in the shade garden.

Tall and upright plants can be used as accents while rounded or spreading forms provide an airy effect. For contrast, combine broad-leafed plants with plants featuring fine fronds.

Hostas and astilbes are traditional companions in the shade garden for this very reason. Hostas, a member of the lily family, provide large leaves in light greens and variegated colors. Astilbes have finer leaves and long-lasting colorful flower plumes.

Other hosta companions include foamflower, ferns, Siberian iris, coralbells, and Soloman's seal. Many woodland flowers, such as lily of the valley and bleeding heart, are perfect for the shade garden because of their spiky stalks and drooping blooms.

Select ornamentals with flowers in lighter colors such as creamy whites, pinks, blues, and purples, which appear more vibrant in muted lighting than darker colors such as red or orange.

Stagger bloom times by starting with spring-blooming bulbs and flowers. Consider planting forget-me-nots or a similar plant such as Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla). Another popular spring bloomer is lungwort (Pulmonaria saccharata).

Perennials such as daylilies, creeping phlox (Phlox subulata), and primrose (Primula) all do well in the shade. Bugbane (Cimicifuga racemosa) has long, wispy flowers that bloom later in the season.

Groundcovers are ideal for underplanting, too. Happy shade dwellers such as ajuga (Ajuga reptans), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), spotted deadnettle (Lamium), and myrtle (Vinca minor) provide interesting leaves and delicate flowers for the front border of the garden.

For a quick kick of color, add a selection of annuals. Popular shade lovers include impatiens, violets, pansies, and coleus. In colder climes, wax begonias can be grown as an annual.

With so many shade-tolerant plants on the market today, it's easy to plant in the shade and add another layer of color and texture to your landscape.

Jodi Torpey, a master gardener, writes about horticulture from her Colorado home.