Garden: Throwing Shade
The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by someone who knows best; one of the fertile master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Brian Cruey, who is as delighted as every gardener that spring appears to have arrived.
If you are anything like me, your charming rural home is most likely nestled somewhere between a forest and a swamp, giving you access to dappled light, lots of wildlife and mosquitoes. While this ambiance can make for some great (#nofilter) selfies, it can be a bit of a problem if you’re trying to establish a garden. It’s true that shade can provide a challenge, and you’re probably never going to get sun-loving perennials like coneflowers, bee balm and daylilies to thrive there. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a successful flowerbed. If you’re looking to develop a shady spot in your yard, here is a list of reliable plants to consider in your design.
Let’s start with one of my favorite plants and the superstar of the shade garden: hostas. Hostas are a reliable standard in any garden, offering a wide variety of sizes, shapes and colors. The foliage of this plant is what makes it so lovely, offering broad coverage that will shade out weeds all season long and produce an attractive (usually purple) flower on long stalks that grow from the plant’s center. Hostas are the gift that keeps on giving, as they are easy to divide once established. Another bonus: they are practically foolproof, the definition of hardy.
Next on my list is pulmonaria, or lungswort. This is an aggressive grower that will spread and, again, is a great plant to divide once it’s established. This plant truly packs a double punch; it’s one of the first plants to flower in spring with pink and light purple (almost blue) compact flowers, but also has a very whimsical spotted leaf that is pleasing all year round. Occasionally, you can get a second pulmonaria bloom in the fall.
Moving into early summer, you would be amiss to have a shade garden without including the feathery plumes of astilbe. To say that it’s showy is an understatement and astilbe provides some of the brightest color to the shade garden when it blooms in pinks, red or white.Astilbe loves moisture and does well in areas that may not have the best drainage. Foliage starts out compact and bronze before leafing out to a larger, dark green canopy.
Take any woodland walk in the Berkshires and you’re sure to notice an abundance of ferns, most likely the common hay-scented fern or Dennstaedtia punctilobula. While this makes for a great ground cover in areas where you want to cover an area quickly, you don’t want to put this anywhere near your flowerbeds, as it will take over. Ferns, however, are a great addition to the shade garden and there are other varieties that are less aggressive and, frankly, more showy. My favorite is the Japanese painted fern with its spectrum of colors that run from gray to green to a deep red — a perfect shade plant that loves moisture.
Of course, this is a short list but, for me, these plants represent the backbone of the shade garden. Primrose (Primula), Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum), bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos) and Japanese reed grass are other shade-tolerant varieties you might want to consider.
Be aware that shade gardens do come with their own unique set of problems. Slugs, for example, can wreak havoc on your hostas, but can easily be controlled with a variety of measures that you can read about here.
With the right plants and amount of care, those shady areas where you once thought nothing could grow can become one of the most desirable parts of your garden. If you have questions, just ask the folks at your local garden center to make suggestions or call the Master Gardener’s hotline at the Berkshire Botanical Garden at (413) 298-5355.