By Sean Conway
Epimedium grandiflorum is a shade plant that forms nice clumps and blooms in a multitude of colors
Strolling through my woodland garden recently, in all its mid-spring glory, a guest asked how I managed to get so many different kinds of plants to grow in the shade. When I explained that these plants all preferred the shade -- and that in fact they needed shade to thrive -- she looked at me in amazement. "I thought I couldn't grow anything in the shade!" she exclaimed.
Unfortunately, many people make the same mistake. They believe it is futile to garden anywhere but in full sun. Some of the nicest gardens I have ever seen were shade gardens. You'll find lots of interesting options among shade-loving plants if you take the time to find them.
There are some tricks to cultivating a beautiful shade garden, and the first is to maximize the light you have. My woodland garden is near my house. It is surrounded by mature trees that I had no interest in removing since they provided privacy for the house, as well as respite from the summer sun and a sound barrier from road noise. To maximize the light for plantings underneath without sacrificing the trees, I simply limbed the trees up a bit. Removing lower limbs allows a tremendous amount of light to reach the ground. "High shade" is the term used for this scenario, and experienced shade gardeners will tell you it is the best kind of light for growing a variety of plants.
Next you need to look at what type of trees you have creating the shade. Trees such as Norway maples have a large network of surface roots that compete with smaller plants for water and nutrients. Maples can cause dense shade, and the combination of dry soil and the lack of light keeps most plants from thriving under them.
After limbing up maples to solve the light problem, try adding areas of mounded soil above the tree's roots and planting in the fresh soil. This gives shade plants time to establish themselves without competing with the tree.
Most shade-loving plants enjoy good humus-rich soil and adequate moisture. Mulching shade gardens helps retain moisture and will help plants get through the hot, dry summer.
Some shade plants, however, such as epimediums (which can be found in an amazing number of varieties) are very tolerant of dry shade, even under maples.
When choosing plants for the shade garden, I often look for plants that will colonize, or form large clumps. I prefer this more " natural" look in a shade garden, and plants that spread into colonies reduce areas of open space for weeds to take hold. (I find weeds are much less of a problem in shade gardens, but there are still a few that seem to grow just about anywhere.)
While most gardeners know that hosta will grow in the shade, there are a lot of other plants to try that will have visitors asking, "What is that?" Here are a few of my favorites.
These incredibly tough plants come in a myriad of sizes, leaf shapes and flower colors. Some are evergreen, and most will spread slowly to form nice clumps. They are well worth seeking out. Many can tolerate dry shade.
As with epimediums, ferns can be found in a startling array of shapes and colors. Some, such as the Japanese painted fern, have beautiful silver and red fronds, while others, such as the maidenhair, are tall and delicate. Some ferns are even evergreen, providing interest when everything else is dormant.
Sometimes called foamflower, this woodland perennial spreads out low across the ground to form mats of attractive heart-shaped leaves of chartreuse green. In mid-spring, the clump sends up multitudes of frothy white flowers with a hint of pink. After it finishes blooming, the seedpods remain on upright stems and are attractive in their own right.
These tough perennials have palmate leaves that extend to 2 feet wide. Bold and dramatic, they are often the first plants noticed in the shade garden. If you can, track down the bronze-leaved variety. It has copper colored leaves, and is a real showstopper in any shade garden.
If shade is a problem in your yard, don't throw in the towel. With a little prep work you may soon be walking guests through your garden pointing out some spectacular shade plants.
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